The Sempstress
Richard Redgrave


1846
Oil on canvas
Forbes Magazine Collection, New York


 
Objective Description
      In a darkened room, a young female sits working on some handiwork. She grasps some folded fabric in her left hand, while her right hand is in a clenched position. The middle right finger appears to be wearing a thimble. The woman, with her head placed on an upward diagonal, gazes towards the ceiling. She wears an unadorned red dress with a plain white shawl tucked in her upper bodice.
      Partially illuminated on the table to her left appears to be a spool of thread. The canopied bed behind her also frames an illuminated clock that indicates the time as being 2:30. In the upper left-hand portion of the composition, a curtained window frames a cloudy early morning sky as well as the silhouette of a steepled structure. Below the window, in partial light, stands a pitcher supported by a broken bowl. A diagonal line is created from the pitcher to the clock, emphasizing the young woman's right hand and head.

Subjective Analysis
      Six months before the exhibition of Redgrave's Semptress, Thomas Hood's poem, The Song of the Shirt, appeared in Punch magazine:

With fingers weary and worn
With eyelids heavy and red
A woman sat in unwomanly rags
Plying her needle and thread.
Stitch - Stitch - Stitch
In poverty, hunger and dirt
And still in a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the 'Song of the Shirt.'

     This poem caught the fancy of the Punch reading public, tripling the circulation of the magazine. The public, through the imagery of a simple poem, was made aware of the working conditions and unhealthy lives of the piece workers as well as the factory workers.
      The emphasis of this image is the solitary female pieceworker working long hours into the night. Her fingers are sore and worn; her upward glance looks for divine inspiration as she pauses for a moment in exhaustion. This singular reflection creates an emphasis for the viewing public as they too can connect with the solitary activity and servitude of the young woman.

During the course of my investigation into the condition of those who are dependent upon the needle for their support, I had been so repeatedly assured that the young girls were mostly compelled to resort to prostitution to eke out their subsistence, that I was anxious to test the truth of the statement. I had seen much want, but I had no idea of the intensity of the privations suffered by the needlewomen of London until I came to inquire into this part of the subject.

Henry Mayhew, 1849: The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle, 1971