The exhibition focuses on the intersection between the historical context of the Parisian millinery trade and the contemporaneous, avant-garde art of Degas and the Impressionists. Degas explored the theme of millinery in 27 works, focusing particularly on hats, their creators, and consumers. These are often radical in their experimentation with color and abstracted forms, and are 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 the 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 (ribbons, flowers, feathers) and colors (cream, aqua, oranges, greens) used in stylish hats. One bonnet (late 19th century) from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on display in the same room—a capote toute en fleurs (“all in bloom”), lavishly embellished with ribbon, bows, and silk flowers—might 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 in 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 elite consumers and the various shop workers. James Tissot brings the viewer into one such establishment in The Shop Girl (1883-85), part of his ambitious series of large canvases featuring la femme à Paris. The viewer assumes the perspective of a 19th-century customer, presumably having purchased ribbon to adorn a hat, and about to exit through the door—held open by the shop girl to the active street beyond full of men and women in hats.
The emerging, modern fashion industry was supported by the grand department stores and the network of competing, independent millinery shops located in the fashion district around the rue de la Paix. Many artists, including Degas, had studios nearby. His visits to these shops and familiarity with their products led him to create works like the pastel At the Milliner’s (1882) from the Musée d’Orsay. Another artist enraptured by the art of millinery and who was a regular visitor to the famed shop of Madame Virot was Manet. One of his late masterpieces, At the Milliner’s (1881), from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection, is an anchor 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 robust that there were an estimated 24,000 flower-makers working in Paris to create botanically accurate flowers: sumptuous silk roses, leaves, and ferns for hats created by Maison Virot, and lifelike imitation geraniums for those by Camille Marchais. Plumed or feathered hats are 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 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 hat, absorbed in contemplation in the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.
Men’s hats, though more subdued in their materials than some women’s hats, were an essential part of the urbane flâneur’s outfit and are included in the exhibition as well. These hats held strong undercurrents of masculine privilege. Over the course of his career, Degas showed an acute awareness of the role a hat played in fashioning identity, including in his own self-portraits. Bowlers like the one worn by Zacherie Zacharian in Degas’s Portrait of Zacharian (ca. 1885) carried working-class associations but also conveyed bohemian status for artists and intellectuals. Top hats, on the other hand—like one created by E. Motsch also on view in the gallery—were once ubiquitous but by the 1870s generally were worn only by the middle and upper classes, and by the 1890s were considered formalwear. Fur felts and silk “hatter’s plush” were used in top hats, but humbler materials like straw were used for canotiers, or boaters, like the one worn by Berthe Morisot’s husband (and Manet’s brother) in her painting Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875).
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 evidenced 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 glance, the painting, Degas’s most somber portrayal of the millinery industry, seems similar to The Millinery Shop (1879-86), at the start of the exhibition. A technical study of the Getty’s painting revealed that Degas transformed his original composition: three hat stands hold amorphous forms in the foreground; these were once meticulously painted still-life objects, but Degas decided to paint over them, transforming them into dark, 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 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 blank, white oval. The Milliners (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 warm tones, Degas painted two milliners absorbed in study; this sensitive depiction suggests the artist’s appreciation and regard for the milliners as creative artists in their own right.