Monday, June 7, 2010
Women in Retail
Here is a painting by the American impressionist painter, Childe Hassam, titled La Bouquetiere and la Latiere. The scene is likely Paris; the year is 1888.
Click on the picture to see it in a larger size.
Here are two women at work. They do not seem at all posed; with their activity or lack thereof and particularly with the nonchalance of the woman in the door of the dairy, this painting could easily be a photograph, taken for instance, by Henri Cartier Bresson. The ladies are completely un-self-conscious of the painter.
This painting reminds us that retail is an arena that has always employed women. I have never come across a book that discusses women's role in the retail trade. Does the woman in the door own the dairy, or does she just work there? Does she have a family to go home to, or does she live above the shop? Is she waiting for someone? Or is it the end of the day, as the dairy jugs in the front of the store might indicate, and is she just standing by the door to stave off boredeom and waiting to go home? Any minute now, we expect her to raise her head slightly, turn around, and go back inside. Meanwhile, the younger woman is arranging flowers and either getting ready for the day or returning from it. She seems unmindful of the dairy seller watching from above.
There is nothing romantic about the women in this painting. Rather, Hassam has painted them with the highest respect.
But the women are also the right and lower side of a triangle with the five dairy jugs, that actually sit in the center of the painting--every day object that one takes for granted but made beautiful with the light reflected off the sloping tops of the jugs. In its spirit, the painting reminds me of Vermeer's The Milkmaid, painting 220 years earlier.
Eight of Hassam's works were shown at the 1913 Armory Show, the first major show of "modern art" in the United States, but Hassam opposed the shift to surrealism and cubism in no uncertain terms and his paintings receded to the background until the interest in the French Impressionists renewed interest in their American counterparts.