Art and Water I: Before tap water

A stroll through history via objects and artworks that reveal what life was like before running water reached our homes

Museu de les Aigües

Museu de les Aigües

Museu de les Aigües showcase (2021) by Museu de les AigüesMuseu de les Aigües

The objects exhibited at the Museu de les Aigües (Water Museum) come to life in works by great artists and speak to us of a time when water still had to be fetched from outside the home.

Pulley (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Pulley

Before water was piped into homes, it had to be fetched from public fountains or wells, which only some houses had. The pulley reduced the effort of retrieving the water thanks to the change in the direction of the applied force.

The blue patio (1892) by Santiago RusiñolOriginal Source: Museu de Montserrat

The painter Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931), basing himself on the practices and customs of his contemporaries, bore artistic witness to the importance of water, both for practical daily uses, and to lend  the typical 19th-century courtyards their verdant atmosphere.

In his well-known painting El pati blau (The Blue Courtyard), he reproduces in detail the most elementary pulley, used to take water up from the well. 

Hand pump (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Hand Pump

The need to reduce the effort required to obtain water led to technical innovations that facilitated this task, based on pressure differences. The earliest pump dates back to the 3rd century BC.

The Broken Pitcher (1891) by William-Adolphe BouguereauLegion of Honor

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), a renowned French painter, naturalist and Romanticist, shows us a young woman sitting next to a hand pump, with an expression of poetic shyness typical of bucolic paintings.

As the title of the work suggests, the girl is upset because her pitcher has broken, depriving her of the coveted water.

Clay pitcher (1989)Museu de les Aigües

The Pitcher

This is probably one of the oldest known water vessels. Its original form has been evolving across eras and continents, without losing its high degree of effectiveness in keeping water fresh.

Harvesting Malvasia (1895) by Joaquim de Miró i ArgenterMaricel Museum

In La recol·lecció de la malvasia (The Malvasia Grape Harvest), Joaquim de Miró i Argenter (1849-1914) clearly emphasizes the use of the pitcher, in the foreground. It was an essential element, used in agricultural work well into the 20th century.

Wooden pitcher (18th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Wooden Bucket

The wooden bucket, an object typical of pasturing cultures (sheep & goats) and cattle farming, is used as a container to hold and transport water, milk and other liquids.

Woman with ferrada on her head and granary in the background (1940) by Josep Morell i MaciasOriginal Source: Centro de Documentación Turística de España

The method of transport can be seen in this advertising poster by Josep Morell i Macias (1899-1949), Dona amb ferrada al cap i graner de fons (Woman with Bucket on her Head and Granary in the Background), where various Galician ethnographic elements are rendered with the aim of promoting tourism.

The bucket sits sturdily on the woman’s head.

Washboard (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Washboard

Washing the household linen required going to public places where the washboard was a basic utensil that facilitated the task by providing support.

[Laundry Day, North Carolina] (about 1929) by Doris UlmannThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In this painterly photograph, elements that are not in the least bit random, such as the woman's facial expression and bent torso, produce a strong visual impact and perfectly synthesize the harshness and intensity of washing clothes by hand.

Wash basin and jug (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

Washbasin and Jug

The concepts of cleanliness and hygiene using water underwent a fundamental transformation at the end of the 19th century. Such a household element as the handbasin, present in many bedrooms, would be lost with the arrival of tap water.

The Bedroom (October 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

A bedroom as austere as it is colorful gave Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) the opportunity to nearly inventory the essentials for a late 19th century single room.

The painter added the washbasin and jug as part of the essential minimum in his well-known painting, Bedroom in Arles.

Sit-in bathtub (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

Hip Bathtub

Well into the 20th century, baths were mainly used for therapeutic purposes. The appearance of new vessels promised new uses for water, such as healing and pain relief or, simply, a pleasant rest.

A man smoking and reading the paper fully clothed in a hip-bath; self-help hydrotherapy in hot weatherOriginal Source: Wellcome Collection

This newspaper illustration depicts a bourgeois character comfortably ensconced, smoking and reading the press in a hip tub, as a caricature of the British bourgeoisie.

Tub (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Washtub

The washtub was present in most homes. Due to the robustness of its structure, its function, apparently simple, became essential in washing, wringing, transporting and hanging clothes out to dry.

Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub (1885) by Edgar DegasThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the mid-1880s, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) painted a series of seven pastels with the same motif, that of a woman soaking up water with a sponge when washing herself in a wide, shallow tub.

Cornellà plant (2017) by Agbar Water MuseumMuseu de les Aigües

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created with objects from the Museu de les Aigües (Water Museum) and with works from the Museu de Montserrat (El pati blau),  Legion of Honor (The Broken Pitcher), Museu de Maricel (La recol·lecció de la Malvasia), Centro de Documentación Turística de España (Mujer con ferrata en la cabeza y granero de fondo), The J. Paul Getty Museum ([Laundry Day, North Carolina]), Van Gogh Museum (The Bedroom), Wellcome Collection (A man smoking and reading the paper fully clothed in a hip-bath; self-help hydrotherapy in hot weather. Wood engraving) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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