This fascinating painting from late 19th century Scandinavia depicts a group of washerwomen plying their trade in the waters of a lake. The description of the painting identifies it as “the laundries in Sørup on the southeastern shores of Lake Esrum, Denmark,” but in order to understand what’s really going on here you need to know where Sørup is and why people liked to wash their clothes here. Though part of Denmark in the 19th century, Sørup (it’s also spelled “Sörup” is technically now in Germany, part of the “chicken-neck” shaped piece of land that connects Germany to Denmark. (Wacken, incidentally, is also at the very bottom of this “chicken neck,” and is only 50 miles away from Sørup). Lake Esrum is known for the crystal clarity of its waters. As a result, rich people, especially from Copenhagen, liked to have their clothes and sheets washed here. A number of local residents made their living servicing this trade, and at one point there were 20 different laundry companies operating in Sørup with over 100 employees. The day the washing machine was invented was a sad one for Sørup. Mechanical washing wiped out little industries like this, but Danish painter Hans Ole Brasen captured this scene at its heyday in 1876. Evidently you can still see some of the old wash houses that have been preserved.
This painting is primarily realistic, but the way the light looks and the landscape in the distance seems to hold a bare hint of 19th century romanticism. Landscapes and scenes like this depicting folk life were thought to be both romantic and nationalistic, especially in Scandinavia; you may recall Bridal Party from 1848 is an exemplar of this. The Laundries in Sørup is not as strongly romantic-nationalist as that one, and 1876 was getting late for that anyway, but I don’t think it’s unfair to identify hints of the style here. In addition to the sunlight making the sheets almost glow I love the costumes of the washerwomen, the intense conversation that seems to be going on in the center, and especially the ducks fleeing. This is an image snapped from life like a photograph, but it also exhibits an artist’s careful touch for posing and staging.
I could find out little about Hans Ole Brasen except that he was a Danish painter and he trained in Paris. He studied under French painter Léon Bonnat. He seems to have painted scenes of Danish peasant and agricultural life. He died in 1930. If anyone knows anything more about him, put it in the comments below.
I do not know where the original of this painting is displayed.