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La Rétameuse

Impression: Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Number: 26
Date: 1858
Medium: etching
Size: 112 x 89 mm
Signed: 'Whistler.' at lower right (2)
Inscribed: 'Imp. Delatre. Rue St. Jacques. 171.' at lower left (2)
Set/Publication: 'French Set', 1858
No. of States: 2
Known impressions: 42
Catalogues: K.14; M.11; T.3; W.5
Impressions taken from this plate  (42)


age, bonnet, clothing, dress, hat, portrait, tinsmith, woman seated, worker.


'La Rétameuse' means 'The Tinker' and has always been accepted as the title, for example:

'La Rétameuse' (1858, Whistler). 1
'La Rétameuse -' (1870/1874, Whistler). 2
'La Rétameuse' (1874, Ralph Thomas, Jr (1840-1876)). 3

All later cataloguers used Whistler's original title, 'La Rétameuse'.

1: Published in Douze eaux-fortes d'après Nature (Twelve Etchings from Nature).

2: Inscription on .

3: Thomas 1874[more] (cat. no. 3).


A half-length portrait of an elderly woman sitting facing the viewer, with her hands clasped in her lap. She wears a tall, bulbous high-crowned bonnet with long ribbons hanging down at the sides, over straggly hair that seems to be gathered into short plaits. She wears an ample tunic with a round neck over a white blouse with a turned-down collar open at the neck. She has long thick sleeves, turned up at the cuffs, and a broad white apron. A shuttle is thrust into her waistband. The light is from the left, casting a shadow behind her to right.


'La Rétameuse' means 'The Tinker'; she has not been identified. Like the flower seller, La Mère Gérard 024, she was a poor working woman, respectably dressed in traditional, old-fashioned clothes, carrying the simplest of tools, a shuttle, for weaving.
Alsace was a centre of the weaving industry in Europe, and it may be that the woman was a worker either in a home industry or small-scale workshop.
An American description of hand-loom weaving, written in 1858, shows that it was already considered a historical, pre-industrial craft:
'She sat, with one foot upon a treadle, by bearing down upon which, an opening was made between the threads of the warp, throwing one half of them up, and the other half down, so that the shuttle could pass between them. She then pushed the shuttle through, and caught it in on the other side. By moving the treadle again, the order of the threads in the warp was reversed, so that those threads which were up before were down now, and the shuttle was then thrown back.... The threads which make the length of the cloth are called the warp. They are stretched evenly across the loom, and wound round a beam, which revolves as the loom works, and lets off just as much, each turn, as is wanted. The threads that run across are called the filling, which is contained in the shuttle, and unwound as the shuttle passes back and forth through the warp... "Yes, dear grandpa," said I, "but our factories are much better. They can make a hundred, or, perhaps, a thousand, while grandmother would make one."' 4
Thus the woman was marked by the shuttle as a character representing a passing way of life. To Whistler, an American expatriate from the industrial mill-towns of Connecticut, she may well have seemed both picturesque and outdated, and also a subject that might appeal to art dealers and collectors.
The woman's bonnet, with its high crown, is distinctive. A slightly lower, but otherwise similar bonnet is seen in a sketch by Whistler, possibly drawn in Baden on the same Rhine trip in 1858. 5 The dress and the tall bonnet were fairly standard for working country women in western Europe, and in Alsace at this time, although there was a very wide range of regional variations. 6

Apart from weaving, the other main use for a shuttle was in making nets. Alfred Stieglitz's photogravure, Mending Nets, shows a woman mending a net near Katwiyk, in the Netherlands; her bonnet, like that of the La Rétameuse, is set back on her head, with a high gathered crown encasing her hair, and ribbons dangling loose at each side. This was in 1894, many years after Whistler's etching, but in an area where traditional dress was still common. 7

However, despite this similarity in headgear, it is more likely that the sitter was engaged in hand-loom weaving than net-making, just because Whistler spent very little time on the coast in 1858 (though he would probably have passed through Dieppe).

5: Group conversing m0241.

6: Elsass und Lothringen (printed in border, 'Alsacia and Loraine'), lithographed by Max Tilke, from Heyck, Eduard, and Rosenberg, Adolf, Geschichte des kostüms (Berlin: Wasmuth, 1905-1923), in NYPL, Call No. PC COSTU-Reg-Fr.

7: Camera Notes, Vol. II, no. 3, January, 1899, p. 108.


Traditionally, tinkers were considered similar to gypsies in that they travelled the roads, camping in tents, making and selling small goods such as brooms and clothes-pegs from door-to-door, and telling fortunes. The shuttle at the belt of La Rétameuse may be a reference to the fortune-telling aspect of the tinker's role. Spinning and weaving are associated with women's life and work and the foretelling of the future.
Whistler frequently pursued the subject of women preparing cloth and clothes: see for instance, Gretchen at Heidelberg 021, where a woman has been spinning thread, and La Vieille aux Loques 027, where an old woman unravels cloth.
The neatness of the tinker's dress indicates a certain respectability, although her hair is less cared for and perhaps suggests her lower status, as an old woman who still works for her living. Lochnan responded emotionally to the portrait: 'The face of the unadorned tinsmith, La Rétameuse, is excessively plain, and reveals years of hard labour, her carefully folded hands indicating pride and resignation.' 8

8: Lochnan 1984[more], p. 28.