In 1846, Honoré Daumier moved to 9, quai d'Anjou on Paris's Ile Saint-Louis. In the period that followed, the artist, better known for his caricatures of barristers and theatrical scenes of saltimbiques, turned toward the city's working class citizens. From the crowded riders of a third-class railway carriage to the local butcher, Daumier began to create what Gen Doy has called "icon[s] of modern drudgery" (P. Wood, ed., "Material Differences: The Early Avant-Garde in France," The Challenge of the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1999, p. 65).
In January 1852, the French poet Charles Baudelaire made a visit to Daumier's then six-year old studio, accompanied by his publisher Auguste Poulet-Malassis. It is courtesy of the latter that we have the following impression, probably the earliest made regarding a version of the present painting: "a washerwoman pulling a small girl along in a high wind. A sketch of so sad a mood that one might think the enormous heap of laundry under her arm [is] on the way to the pawnbroker's" (quoted in S. Symmons, Daumier, London, 2004, p. 92).
It was Daumier's habit to revisit a composition of interest multiple times, and Sarah Symmons notes that the subject of the present work was likely "close to Daumier's own heart, [as] this woman and child spilled over into five paintings, a sculptured figure and some five known drawings" (ibid.). Oliver Larkin focuses on the artist's attempt to capture in oil what he had first established in "the complex movement of the terra cotta figurine" (fig. 1) (in Daumier: Man of His Time, 1966, p. 135). The tremendous sense of weight with which Daumier renders the painting's bundle, and the dramatic torsion this causes in the figure of the laundress, can likely be attributed to the artist's earlier experience with the subject in three-dimensional materiality.
More generally, the subject of the washerwoman is treated in "some thirteen" other paintings by the artist, including the closely related composition Une laveuse du quai d'Anjou, the three versions of which belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Louvre, Paris (fig. 2) and the Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo (Symmons, op. cit., p. 89). But while these related works are most often named for the laundress herself, the title of the present composition points directly to the load she bears; Le Fardeau can be translated as "the burden."
Indeed, a sense of burden pervades all aspects of the picture, from its somber palette and darkened sky, to the palpable force of the wind bearing down. But it is the weightiness of the figures themselves that has encouraged scholars to align Daumier's canvases with other 19th century illustrations of labor. According to Henri Loyrette, "Daumier's exhausted laundresses, anonymous figures of poverty, display the same slow gestures, the same bowed forms, the same weight and compactness as Millet's gleaners." And it is this sensitivity to the quotidian reality of the underclass which lends both painters' work "a universal dimension, raising what could have remained mere genre painting, picturesque and sentimental, to the level of history painting" (in "Situating Daumier," Daumier: 1808-1879, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, 1999, p. 17).
(fig. 1) Honoré Daumier, Le Fardeau, circa 1850s. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. BARCODE: 26016313
(fig. 2) Honoré Daumier, Une laveuse du quai d'Anjou, 1863-64. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE: 26016337