Degas often made portraits of his family and friends but he was also an attentive observer of the working world in millinery workshops or laundries. Only Daumier before him had taken an interest in washerwoman, who became one of Degas's favourite subjects between 1869 and 1895. At first he painted single figures seen against the light, picked out sharply against the white linen. Then, about 1884-1886, he dwelled more heavily on the subject, this time depicting two women in a laundry.
There are four variations of an almost identical composition in this series, with one figure yawning and the other leaning heavily on her iron. The canvas in the Musée d'Orsay is the third variation in the set.
The choice of this subject echoes the naturalist and social concerns of some of the artist's contemporaries, in literature as well as in painting. Zola's novel L'Assommoir published in 1877 describes Gervaise's laundry and gives a bald description of the miserable lot of the poor in Paris. Depicted hard at work, weary to the bone, the two women in Degas's painting illustrate a lucid view of the working class but one not devoid of tenderness.
Degas has concentrated on the women's gestures trying to catch fleeting, everyday movements in a representation that is neither heroic nor caricatured. The oil paint is laid directly on an unprepared, coarse canvas which provides a grainy, uneven support. The brown linen, visible under the paint in places, gives a thick rough texture and helps make the pastel colours vibrate. The subject and its treatment later impressed young Pablo Picasso in his blue period who took up the theme in an often pathetic mode.