The expression “to swear like a fishwife” evokes the image of a loud and foul-mouthed woman. Although the analogy has the ring of truth, it does not do justice to the fishwives of old. These women, who were often wives or daughters of fishermen, epitomised strength, industry and fortitude. Consider the tasks that they usually had to perform:

  • help haul the catch when the boats and fishermen returned from the deep sea
  • carry the fish in baskets to the market and sell them
  • mend the fishing nets
  • help bait the fishing hooks
  • gather mussels and catch shrimps and crabs
  • take care of their young children or siblings during or after work

It was no easy life. As Scottish author James G. Bertram (1824-1892) pointed out in his 1865 book ‘The Harvest of the Sea’:

The industry of fishwives is proverbial, their chief maxim being, that “the woman that canna work for a man is no worth ane;” and accordingly they undertake the task of disposing of the merchandise and acting as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Their husbands have only to catch the fish, their labour being finished as soon as the boats touch the quay.

The following artworks amplify what Bertram wrote, but they reveal much more.

Fisher Girls on the Beach, Cullercoats, 1881
Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910)
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

The Beach, Valencia (Fishwives), 1899–1909
Oil on cardboard
Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (Spanish, 1863–1923)
Courtesy of The Hispanic Museum & Library / The Hispanic Society of America

Fisher Girl with Net, 1882
Graphite, gouache, and gray wash on gray laid paper
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)
Courtesy of The Clark Art Institute

Fisherwomen at the seaside – Oystering III, c. 1920s
Oil on canvas
W?adys?aw Wankie (Polish, 1860–1925)
Courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw

Fisherwoman, 1881
Paul Mathey (1844–1929)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Fisherwomen in Normandy
Oil on panel
Viktor Zarubin (Russian, 1866–1928)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fisherwomen along the shore, 1891
Oil on canvas
Ferdinand Bonheur (French, 1817–1887)
Courtesy of Bonhams auction house (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fishwives on the Beach, date unknown
Oil on canvas
Bernardus Johannes Blommers (Dutch, 1845–1914)
Courtesy of Art UK
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence (CC BY-NC-ND)

The rich catch, before 1950
Oil tempera on hard fiber
Brynolf Wennerberg (German-Swedish, 1866–1950)
Courtesy of Gailer Fine Art Chiemsee (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fisherwomen, 1882
Charcoal, white chalk, and graphite on off-white wove paper
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

~ Barista Uno

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