Art and Water I: Before tap water

A look at history through objects and artworks that show what life was like before the arrival of running water in the home.

Museu de les Aigües

The Water Museum

Museu de les Aigües showcase, Museu de les Aigües, 2021, From the collection of: Museu de les Aigües
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The objects exhibited in the Water Museum come to life through the work of great artists and tell us of the time when fetching water outside the home was still necessary.

Pulley (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Pulley

Before water reached the household tap, it had to be fetched from public fountains or wells, which were only available in some houses. The pulley meant that extracting water was less effort, thanks to a change in direction of the applied force.

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

The painter Santiago Rusiñol, drawing from the customs of his contemporaries, was a visual testimony of the importance of water, both in practical daily uses, and for its ability to decorate the typical interior courtyards of the late nineteenth century with plants and greenery.

In his well-known painting El pati blau (The blue courtyard), he reproduces in detail a basic pulley that was used to draw water from the well.

Hand pump (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Hand Pump

The need to make retrieving water less effort led to technical innovations to facilitate this task. The arrival of the manual extraction pump marked a considerable step forward.

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

W.A. Bouguereau, an important French painter, naturalist and romantic, shows us a young woman, leaning next to a manual pump, wearing an expression of poetic shyness typical of bucolic painting.

As the title of the work The Broken Pitcher (1891) evokes, the young woman's displeasure is due to the fact that the pitcher has broken, depriving her of the longed-for water.

Clay pitcher (1989)Museu de les Aigües

The Jug

The jug is perhaps one of the oldest known water recipients. Its primitive form has evolved and crossed eras and continents, without losing its highly efficient properties in storing fresh water.

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

In The Malvasia Harvest, Joaquim de Miró i Argenter clearly emphasises the use of the jug as an essential element in agricultural work until well into the 20th century.

Wooden pitcher (18th Century)Museu de les Aigües

  The Bucket

The bucket, a typical object in grazing cultures (sheep, goats) and cattle exploitation, is used as a recipient to store 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 transportation can be seen in the advertising poster by Josep Morell y Macias  Mujer con traje típico gallego y ferrada en mano (Woman with a bucket on her head and barn in the background), where various Galician ethnographic elements are represented with the aim of promoting tourism.

 The bucket looks stable on the protagonist's head.

Washboard (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The Washboard

Cleaning domestic clothes meant going to public spaces where the washboard was a basic utensil. These spaces were strongholds reserved only for the back-breaking labour of women.

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

In this pictorial-style photograph, non-casual elements such as the woman's facial expression and her hunched torso produce a strong visual impact and perfectly portray the harshness and intensity of washing clothes by hand.

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

Jug and washbasin

The concepts of hygiene and cleaning using water undergo a fundamental transformation at the end of the 19th century. A household item as common as the washbasin, present in all rooms used as bedrooms, will soon disappear with the arrival of tap water.

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

A bedroom as austere as it is colourful will give Vincent van Gogh the opportunity to take an inventory of the essential elements for a single room at the turn of the century.

The painter incorporates the sink and the jug as minimum requirements in his well-known painting Bedroom in Arles.

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

The sit-in bathtub

Until well into the 20th century, the bath was used primarily for therapeutic purposes. The appearance of new recipients 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 character comfortably settled in, smoking and reading the newspaper in a sit-in bathtub, a caricature of the English bourgeoisie.

Tub (19th Century)Museu de les Aigües

The tub

The tub appears in all houses without exception. Due to the robustness of its structure, its apparently simple function became essential when washing, wringing, transporting and hanging up clothes.

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

In the mid-1880s, Degas painted a series of seven pastels with the same motif, of a woman collecting water with a sponge whilst having a bath in a large, shallow bathtub.

Credits: Story

This exhibition has been created with objects from the Water Museum and with the works of the Museu de Montserrat (El pati blau),  Legion of Honor (The Broken Pitcher), Museu de Maricel (La recol·lecció de la Malvasia), el 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) the 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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