Knitting in Art

I was in Los Angeles a couple of years ago for a big book fair. I had a rental car and a GPS, too, so I took a couple of adventures to see some sights. One of my excursions was to the fabulous and amazing Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. I spent an entire day at the Huntington, enjoying the beautiful and varied gardens, the excellent library, and the stunning home with in situ rooms and artwork.

One of the paintings that struck my fancy, of course, was Young Knitter Asleep by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Since I started knitting I've collected fine art prints that depict the art of knitting, and this one is so beautiful. To remember it and my trip to the Huntington, I purchased a nightlight featuring the painting (I had to restrain myself at the gift shop so I had some money to spend at the fun yarn shops in the San Marino-Pasadena area!).

Young Knitter Asleep has been keeping me company at night ever since that visit and she delighted me again recently in the pages of Interweave Knits. We just released all four 2003 issues of Interweave Knits on a collection CD, and as I was looking through it, I saw the very first "Knitting & Fine Art" feature by Fronia E. Wiseman, and I was thrilled to see my little nightlight girl as the first artwork profiled.

I've loved "Knitting & Fine Art" over the years, and it's the type of thing you can appreciate all over again when you own the Interweave Knits 2003 Collection CD.

Here's that article for you—enjoy this trip back in time to 1700s France.

Young Knitter Asleep is on permanent display at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

Knitting & Fine Art
In this first entry in an ongoing series, art historian Fronia E. Wissman introduces us to artworks with knitting themes.

A pretty little girl has fallen asleep over her knitting, done in, it seems, by the interminable task before her. She is the sole figure in Young Knitter Asleep, a painting by the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), who specialized in portraits and depictions of everyday life.

The girl sits in a simple wooden chair, placed in an indeterminate space. Her knees are cut off by the bottom of the picture, so we see her very close up, almost too close: the sense of intimacy verges on intrusion. It is, moreover, a cramped space. Her basket is hooked over her arm, as if there were no room for it on the floor. And she is asleep.

One of Greuze's great strengths was his depiction of children. They appear in his many scenes of family life at all ages, from infants to adolescents. This little girl of the lower class—her clothes announce her as such—has been given the job of knitting a stocking, not one for herself, but for an adult.

The white color of the yarn and the fineness of the needles (perhaps as fine as one millimeter in diameter, roughly equivalent to the 0000 needles used these days for knitting with beads) suggest that she is knitting an elegant stocking of cotton or silk for the urban market, that is, for sale.

In the eighteenth-century it was not unusual to put girls to work. They were taught to knit and spin as young as four or five so that they could contribute to the family's economy. How long has she been knitting, one wonders, for her to fall asleep, needles still held in her hands?

Far from chastising the child for not working, Greuze is on her side. He paints her in such lovely colors—her cap, neckerchief, and striped apron are a symphony of closely hued creams and whites, and her youthful face still blooms with pink cheeks and lips. Of course she has fallen asleep, he seems to say. Her fingers may be nimble and sure enough to knit with regular tension, but children should not be exploited for the sake of their manual dexterity. Greuze's Young Knitter Asleep is not only a ravishing artwork; it is also an eloquent, if subtle, protest against an eighteenth-century form of child labor.


Isn't this wonderful? I so enjoyed learning more about Young Knitter, as well as revisiting some remarkable knitting designs from Interweave Knits. So grab your collection CD today and reel back the years with me!

One Comment

  1. Colleen H at 2:19 pm August 29, 2018

    Standard 18th C workday wool stockings were made of yarn about the same thickness as modern sock yarn (but spun less stretchy, less fluffy, less soft), knitted to a gauge of 12-15 stitches/inch. Was able to compare swatches I worked with 4-0 needles to an extant period sock, in person, with my own thoroughly washed hands (modern protocols often avoid gloves, scrubbed hands are more sensitive and less damaging). They were as close a match as imaginable.

    Silk stockings were knitted of finer yarn, much finer. Cotton and linen stockings varied.

    So…this girl does, actually, appear to be making every day stockings. Wool was the most common

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