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Knitting in Art

Apr 9, 2010

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!

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janetma wrote
on May 13, 2010 4:53 PM

In looking through knitting in art so many of them are knitting in the round. They look like socks or stockings. This surprised me but I guess it should not have.

FrankieV wrote
on Apr 14, 2010 3:19 PM

I too miss the Knitting in Art columns you used to have.  That was the first thing I looked for in Interweave Knits.  As Meeb mentioned on April 10, has Interweave ever considered publishing a knitting arts themed calendar/datebook?  I would be anxiously waiting to purchase it.

Fliss wrote
on Apr 12, 2010 1:39 AM

Thank you so much for reproducing the article and the Greuze painting - both beautiful and fascinating.  Could we have more similar please?

Meeb wrote
on Apr 10, 2010 11:23 AM

Has Interweave ever considered publishing a knitting arts themed calendar/datebook like those produced for major art museums?  Reproductions and information like this on the left hand page, weekly or monthly space on the right, maybe some useful how-tos (kitchener stitch?) and room for notes?  And a pen loop?  I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

ChristineB wrote
on Apr 10, 2010 10:07 AM

This was a wonderful post. I can't tell you how much I used to enjoy the column Knitting in Art. I miss it very much, as it always added another dimension to my knitting and reading pleasure.

I know publications always pride themselves on being on "the cutting edge" and always printing "the newest and latest" articles etc, but I think we are really missing something as  crafters when a column like this disappears.

It really was a beautiful, short read that educated us  historically and artistically about our favorite craft. Please consider bringing it back.

RebeccaC@30 wrote
on Apr 9, 2010 7:21 PM

I enjoyed the painting and the article about it, until it became a commentary on the social ills of the eighteenth century. Can we not enjoy a lovely work of art without being told how terrible people were 200 years ago, living the best they knew how to live?

Perhaps children of our enlightened time would be less prone to low self-esteem if they were taught skills and allowed (or expected) to contribute meaningfully to their families. Some kids today don't even know how to set the table to help their families have a meal together, much less cook or knit.

LindaD wrote
on Apr 9, 2010 10:35 AM

I enjoyed your observations of the painting.Thank you for posting it.  What I also noted was the gauge of the needles. They look small. My friend from Romania knits everything with a US  size 3, adjusting her tension  for each project to affect gauge. I wonder if that was/is a common occurance in Europe? It certainly makes organization of tools more simple.

on Apr 9, 2010 8:49 AM

Knitting in Art was one of the features I most looked forward to in each Interweave Knits.  It's a shame that it no longer appears.  I do appreciate, however, any coverage you give to the "arts" side of knitting.

LuanneR@2 wrote
on Apr 9, 2010 8:43 AM

I'm so tired of hearing that 21st century spin on this painting - that "children should not be exploited for the sake of their manual dexterity . . . "  It is strictly a modern opinion that the painting is a protest against child labor.  At that time, and in that place, it was just real life.  Everyone worked, whether on a farm, in a mill, or knitting in their homes like this little girl.  Yes, there were definitely abuses, but we don't know that this girl was a victim of abuse.  She may have been proud and happy to make something beautiful and expensive to help provide for her family.  It is only in the last few years - less than 100 years, really - that we have decided children should do nothing to contribute.  That is our idea of childhood, but it wasn't the concept back then.  I think the painter takes a matter-of-fact view of the girl knitting and falling asleep (and it is also not a given that she has been knitting too long - who has not fallen asleep working at some point or other?).  He painted a real-life situation in a sympathetic manner, but I don't think he's taking sides, and certainly not a smug, we-do-so-much-better 21st century side.

Merry@5 wrote
on Apr 9, 2010 8:43 AM

Yes, that was wonderful.  Being Knit obsessed, like you I am looking for knitting everywhere.  What a pleasant little sideroad you have taken us on!