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Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s model for “The Laundress” was Nini Lopez, whom the artist employed regularly between 1874 and 1880 in his scenes of modern life. She may also have posed for his “Woman at the Piano,” also in the Art Institute collection. When he painted this canvas, Renoir had recently finished the illustrations for Émile Zola’s “L’assommoir” (The Drunkard), a gritty novel about the downfall of a laundress in the brutal and degrading world of working-class Paris. Unlike those illustrations, however, this painting plays up the young woman’s pertness and sexual attractiveness. She tends to the laundry in her affluent employer’s home, but there is no sense of backbreaking labor or social oppression in this scene.

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