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In September, 2017 I attended this captivating exhibit displayed at the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum. 'Degas, Impressionism and the Paris Millinery Trade' featured approximately 40 impressive Impressionist paintings and pastels.

This included pivotal works by Degas - many never before exhibited in the United States. Also featured, those by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, plus 40 superb examples of period hats.




 



Edgar Degas (1834-1917) who is renowned for his exquisite depictions of Parisian dancers and laundresses, was enchanted with another aspect of life in the French capital – high fashion hats and the women who designed & created them. Paul Gauguin, one of Degas's lifelong friends, wrote of Degas's perineal fascination of hats, which inspired a visually significant and compelling modern body of work that documented the lives of what one fashion writer of the day called; the aristocracy of the work women of Paris, the most elegant and distinguished. And yet, despite the significance of millinery within Degas's oeuvre, there has been little discussion of its place in Impressionism iconography.

The exhibition was the first to examine the pinnacle of the millinery trade in Paris, from around 1875 to 1914, as reflected in the work of the Impressionists.



 

At this time there were around 1,000 milliners working in what was then considered the fashion capital of the world.

This retrospective exhibition focuses on the intersection between the historical context of the Parisian Millinery trade and the simultaneous avant-garde art of Degas and the Impressionists. Degas explored the theme of millinery in 27 works, focusing particularly on hats, their creators, and their consumers as well. These are often radical and profound in their experimentation with color and abstracted forms, and central to his portrayal of women, fashion, and Parisian modern life.





Degas's largest painting on the theme is ‘The Millinery Shop’ (1879-86) from the Art Institute of Chicago. In this amazing painting, a woman sits surrounded by six hats, reflecting on the latest fashions for spring and summer. The hats dominate the composition and offer an overview of the range of materials i.e.;(ribbons, flowers, feathers) and rich colors, (cream, aqua, oranges, greens) used in stylish hats. One bonnet in particular, (late 19th century) from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on display in the same room – a capote toute en fleurs (all in bloom), sumptuously embellished with ribbon, bows, and silk flowers – appeared to have been plucked directly from Degas’s painting. A hat from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection, distinguished by an African starling bird with outstretched wings, speaks to the flourishing international trade using luxury materials, especially feathers, which the Parisian millinery industry helped to support.






The millinery shop was a space of fashionable commodities, but it also played host to complex social relationships among exclusive consumers and the various shop workers. James Tissot brings the viewer into one such establishment in his compelling painting, ‘The Shop Girl’, (1833-35), part of his ambitious series of large canvasses featuring la femme á Paris. The viewer assumes the perspective of a 19th century Millinery Shop customer, presumably having purchased ribbon to adorn a hat, and about to exit through the door – held open by the attractive shop girl to the bustling street beyond full of men and women in hats.




One of the works that impacted me the most was, Edgar Degas’s haunting painting entitled, ‘The Milliners’ (1880-1905). Two milliners sit at a dramatically angled worktable, they are partly obscured by the shadowed hat stands that crowd out their work space. The woman at the right is seen no more than a silhouette, while she carefully works on a hat. Her attentiveness to details is clearly not shared by her older counterpart who, through grasping a swath of pink fabric, appears to be lost in thought, staring beyond the frame with a saddened and disquieting expression. The brightly colored ribbons - pink, yellow, orange and green, draw attention to the otherwise drabness of the room and its workers.

Over the period of about thirty years, Edgar Degas produced more than twenty paintings, pastels and drawings of millinery shops. Among modern painters, Degas singularly depicted this subject matter with great frequency. His Hitchcock style voyeuristic, yet empathetic portrait of the milliner’s private world focuses on the physical hardship of their work. The woman pictured at the left reveals a haunting portrait, embodying the painters concern. Even at rest her wiry body and pallid skin reflects a life of severe drudgery & work with meager rewards.

‘At the Milliner’s’ (1891) from the Fine Arts Museum Collection, is the lynch-pin of the exhibition and presents what may be a millinery shop within a domestic space treated with masterful brushwork.

These complex depictions of modern life are accompanied by a generous selection of flowered and ribboned hats.

The artificial flower trade of the time was so booming that there were an estimated 24,000 flower maker’s working in Paris to create botanically accurate flowers, sumptuous silk roses, colorful leaves and ferns for hats created by Maison Virot, and lifelike imitation geraniums for those by Camille Marchais.





Plumed or feathered hats were also on display, including an ostrich-feather-adorned design by Jeanne Lanvin, whose couture house began as a millinery workshop.

Another hat by Madame Pouyanne is a complex myriad of textures and colors, created by an artful arrangement of various feathers in the same gallery, are painted depictions of similar hats, including Cassatt’s Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black) 1883, which showcases an elegant feathered and veiled creation, and Degas’s ‘Woman Viewed From Behind’ (Visit to a Museum) ca. 1879-85, which depicts a fashionable woman crowned in the plumage of her magnificent hat, absorbed in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, in Paris.






The final section of the exhibition focuses on hats from the early 20th century and Degas's late millinery works. The latter brought together here for the first time. By the 1890s, these works had become increasingly abstract and colorful, as illustrated by Degas's 'The Milliners' (ca 1882-before 1905) from the J. Paul Getty Museum and presented exclusively in San Francisco's installation. At first glimpse, the painting, Degas's most solemn portrayal of the millinery industry, seems similar to 'The Millinery Shop' (1879-86), at the beginning of the exhibition.





A technical study of the Getty's painting affirmed that Degas transformed his original composition; three hat stands hold nebulous forms in the foreground; those were once meticulously painted still-life objects, but Degas decided to paint over them, transforming them into dark, obscure, geometrical masses. More radical is 'At the Milliner's' (ca. 1882-98) from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which shows Degas's interest in a hat fitting session and the sitter's experience of observing herself in a mirror. His experiment with color and abstraction led him to reduce the reflected face of his sitter to a complete blank, white oval. The Milliner's (ca. 1898) from the Saint Louis Art Museum, was Degas's final painting on the theme of hat-making, and it was in his studio at the time of his death. In his characteristic late palette of the warmer tones, Degas painted two milliners absorbed in study; this sensitive depiction suggests the artist's appreciation and high regard for milliners as artists in their own right.







One of my favorite films that resonates this age is, John Huston’s ‘Moulin Rouge’, 1952, with Zsa Zsa Gabor portraying the stylish 1890s Chanteuse, Jane Avril. The Moulin Rouge, a lavish nightclub frequented by painter Toulouse-Lautrec. In the film costume designer Elsa Schiaparelli has captured the luxurious hats & costumes of the era.


Later in 2001, Australian film director Baz Luhrmann created his own version of Lautrec’s nightlife in 1890s Paris, also entitled ‘Moulin Rouge’, staring Nicole Kidman as the resplendent Satine. The costumes, hats & elaborate headpiece designs were created by renowned costume designer, Catherine Martin.

Special thanks to the Legion of Honor’s website, article regarding further information about the exhibit; ‘Degas, Impressionism and the Paris Millinery Trade, c. 2017.