Washing Day: Women washing Linen by the Ramparts of Christianshavn, Copenhagen

Oil on canvas
The artist's self portrait is depicted on the right riding in a wagon
67.5 x 87.5 cms (26 5/8 x 34 1/2 inches)

Set in the Northern part of Christianshavn, Copenhagen, this painting is an important historical document in that it affords a rare insight into life in the 17th Century. In 1618-20, as part of his endeavour to protect the capital against its Swedish enemies, King Christian IV had constructed Christianshavn, a fortified merchant's town, at a shallow-watered, marshy area North of Amager to complete a moated fortification ring around Copenhagen. Entirely man-made, Christianshavn and its surrounding ramparts occupied the 3km stretch of water separating the islands of Seeland (with Copenhagen and the Royal Castle in an otherwise dangerously exposed position near the water's edge) and Amager (an island of fertile farmland that supplied the capital with comestibles). A bridge was built across the ramparts to connect all three areas, much to the satisfaction of the Amager farmers who had previously been forced to row their produce across to Copenhagen.

When Christian IV died he was succeeded by his second son, Frederik III. In 1656 King Frederik completed construction of the fortifications, which proved crucial in enabling the city to withstand the Swedish Army in the Siege of Copenhagen three years later. This victory strengthened his political position to the extent that the King was finally able to free himself from the influence of the nobility. He marked this in 1660 with a lavish celebration paying homage to himself as hereditary and absolute monarch of Denmark-Norway. Wolfgang Heimbach, who served as his Court painter, spent six years recording the event in minute detail in a colossal painting, now in Rosenborg Castle. He included a portrait of himself in the left hand corner of the composition, waving his hat.

Wolfgang Heimbach: The Homage to King Frederik III, painted 1660-1666.

During the last stages of work on the ramparts King Frederik added triangular ravelins centrally placed in the moat between each bastion. The narrow road that led from Amager was supported and protected by one such ravelin before continuing over a wooden bridge to Christianshavn. The Amager Ravelin is the most likely location for this lively washing scene.

In the 17th Century washing oneself was thought to be a health hazard as it encouraged infection; people relied instead on the antiperspirant effects of white linen (shirts, bedding etc.), but the linen was only washed twice a year. Here, Heimbach gives a charming and accurate account of the process of washing at the time: On a fine day a considerable number of women, their heads protected against the sun, have gathered on pontoons in the moat by the ravelin and are cheerfully embarking on the arduous three-day task of boiling water, mixing the lye-based soap with ash, soaking the linen in the moat, then working it with their feet in large wooden vats before rinsing and laying it out to dry and bleach in the sun in the designated area (to the left of the cottage). Behind them a reluctant woman is being forced to surrender her undergarments to the wash. On the right hand edge of the composition a carriage passes along the Amager bridge road and here Heimbach has included himself as a passenger observing the scene. Further along the road a woman carries the clean laundry in a basket on her head towards Copenhagen, recognizable by the inclusion of Copenhagen Castle (destroyed in 1731) with its distinctive 'blue' tower, blåtårn , in the distance.


Private Collection, France