Women washing their hair appears to be a constant subject matter in the history of art, chosen by artists worldwide over the centuries.
So why did (and do) artists return to this subject matter again and again? I may not have the answer here and now, but I have noticed that some artists prefer to show the face, others to hide it. This is a relevant aspect as it ultimately gives us a clue to the cultural context that the work is coming from.
Male artist/female model is the predominant scenario we are faced with. When the artist decides to hide the woman’s face, he is acting as passive onlooker . In this case, we as viewers, are invited to share a voyeuristic, peep from-the-keyhole moment with the artist. This leaves me (as a woman) uneasy with the work of art, however beautifully produced. The word ‘objectification’ comes to mind…
In many works however we do find a different perspective. Male artist/female model, but the model’s face is visible, occasionally even turned to look at the viewer. In this case we – male or female onlooker – are invited to watch the private ritual taking place. The turn of the head can make the difference between consuming the image and willingly sharing the moment. A moment which can be of sheer beauty (the fluid curves of the body and the pure sensuality of the tactile experience, the fingers running through the strands of wet hair) mixed with the intimacy of the act, all make for a beautiful aesthetic experience.
Alessandro Allori, frescoed ceiling,1589, Logetta of Pitti Place, Florence IT
The above image is probably the first truly celebratory representation in western art of women washing their hair. Before the Italian Renaissance, female hair had been literally hidden from sight. It was taboo to show it, let alone represent the washing of it. Allori seems to have been very taken with women in this private and informal state, he is inspired by it for a religious painting of the following year where the Madonna is shown with her hair down and a linen towel still draped across her shoulders as though caught in the act.
A. Allori, the Madonna crowned by Baby Jesus, 1590, Palazzo Pitti gallery, Florence IT
Documentary evidence tells us that during the 1500s high-ranking Italian ladies used to reserve a day of the week for hair washing. A strictly female, informal, moment where women socialized and relaxed, as well as washed their hair. The hair would be dried in front of the fire while chatting the time away. The image below represents just such a moment
Guercino, two women drying their hair in front of a fire, 1636c, Courtauld Institute, London UK
The fact that Guercino is there, observing, brings us back to the question of why artists wanted to represent this subject matter. The need to know the secret, to know what really happens during this all female ritual? Or does it become an excuse to draw the female body in such an interesting position?
Japanese artists have often returned to this theme in art:
Suzuki Harunobu, two women washing their hair, 1767-8, Mus of Fine Arts Boston, USA
And early 20th century Japanese artist Hashiguchi Goyo:
washing the hair…
combing the wet hair through…
Russian émigré artist Aleksander Yakovlev:
Aleksander Yakovlev, model washing her hair, 1929, Brooklyn museum, New York USA
And London artist Walter R. Sickert who paints a french model in Paris, but decides not to show us the head at all…