Sunday, 5 August 2012

Paris: les Bateaux Lavoir

The "lavoir municipale" or public washing place is still omni present in every French town or village. Often dating from Roman times they are situated along a source,
or a stream and they are the centre of village daily life, often  roofed  and sheltering the users in their daily activity.  
With urbanization the cities along the principal rivers of France however in the 18 century saw a new form of industry developing. Rows of large floating, storied factory boats designed to accommodate the working women (laveuses or lavandieres), steam kettles and the boot owners family: the “Bateaux Lavoir”.
Steel engraving by J.H. LeKeux (?) showing rows of Bateau Lavoir in 1842. The family lower right standing on Pont de l'Archevêche looking over Quai de Montebello, it's name commemorating the honorary titel given to Jean Lannes (1769-1809) general to Napoleon who was succesfull in the battle of Montebello in 1800. Before it was named Quai de Bûcherie, after "bûches" (logs) or "Place were the logs (coming in from upstream) were laid down". 

In the heart of Paris, even next to Notre Dame, they occupied every quay, sometimes even in rows of two or three. With time they became larger and storied with large drying and bleaching facilities on top.
This bateau lavoir is anchered at the Quay de Grenelles (now Quai Paul Citroën) near the Pont de Grenelles. It is also showing the copy of the statue of Liberty placed on the head of the 'Île des Cygnes' (Swan Island). Maybe a reader can enlighten me about the two towers seen on the right, they must be roughly located opposite the Eiffel tower are also seen in the Skyline of Paris in many paintings, but seem to be no longer there.

The availabillity of plenty of fresh water, transport of materials and coal for the steam boilers made the river quais a logical place for these so important to the cities health, working places. One can only imagine the working conditions in such places.
Air pollution, working conditions, transport of diseases and the electrification of Paris homes and construction of cheap washing machines made these once characteristic floating communities obsolete and disappear from the Seine and other rivers in France. 
This is copy of a painting (I couldn't find the original) by, as the picture says, "André Santa-Maria" showing the washing women (Laveuses or Lavandières) and boat owner at work. I think probably Bolivian painter Andrès Santa-Maria (1860-1945) was meant. He stayed for some considerable time in Europe after 1911.   
After a period of decline (and devastations from the 1910 floads) the last one vanished around 1940.
Most impressionist painters, as did the early photographers, saw Paris only with the quais of Paris packed and littered with these boats. Some of them were also in use as public bath houses.
Today the Bateau Lavoir is referring to a cluster of tumbledown studios in the Rue Ravignan in Montmartre that once housed later famous painters beginning of the XXth century. It had the shape and size of a Bateau Lavoir (litt Washerwomens boat): a couple of stories of cheap boarding rooms with a curved roof and was nicknamed thereafter. Picasso rented a room, and "Modernisme" was born here. Among the tenants was Amadeé Modigliani. The complex burned to the ground in in 1970 a year after it had received a monumental status.

Next posting will show a selection of painters who were inspired by the Bateaux Lavoir in Paris. 

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