By Daniel Strawhun, A&E Editor
While it is true that dancers and bathers figure most prominently in the paintings of French Impressionist Edgar Degas, the artist was also enamored of subjects of a third variety: milliners. By the end of the 19th century, millinery, or hatmaking, had reached its cultural apex in Europe; in Paris alone there were over 8,000 milliners, mostly women, producing hats of extraordinarily diverse and inventive design. The hats themselves are works art, but Degas’ primary interest as an artist was in the process of their creation. This relationship between the hats and the women who made them is the inspiration for the newest exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade.”
The exhibition, which opens to the public February 12 and continues through May 7, features 60 millinery-themed paintings by Degas and many of his Parisian contemporaries, including Édouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Also featured in the exhibition are several stunning examples of the period hats themselves.
“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” was organized by the St. Louis Art Museum in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and is the first exhibition of its kind. As Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the St. Louis Art Museum, explained, “There have been several exhibitions of Degas and the dancers, of Degas and the nude, of Degas and the racetrack, but this is the first exhibition that has looked at the theme of millinery in his work.”
Many of the paintings featured in the exhibition are on loan from outside museums, but one of the foremost examples of Degas’ millinery theme belongs to the St. Louis Art Museum itself. “This is a show that has been in the making for probably close to a decade. The museum had acquired a major painting, ‘The Milliners,’ in 2007, so we wanted to celebrate that painting and contextualize it,” Kelly explained.
The painting is located in the last gallery of the exhibition next to the similarly sized “At the Milliner,” which shows a woman who is turned away, trying on a hat in a full-sized mirror. Her reflection in the mirror is distorted with ripples, and her face is left as an ominously blank white oval. “At the Milliner” is one of Degas’ most modern and prescient paintings, and it is a wonderful way to end the tour.
Another highlight of the exhibition is “The Millinery Shop,” the most famous example of Degas’ millinery theme, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting depicts a milliner at work fashioning a yellow hat while other completed hats lie next to her on display. “The Millinery Shop” is a prime example of Degas’ textural contrast and range: Some surfaces in the painting, like the straw hat in the middle, appear flat and languid, while other surfaces, like the pink hat on the left and the milliner’s face, carry a contrasting depth and vivacity.
Ribbons, plumage, and artificial flowers were the materials that milliners used most frequently to adorn their hats, and the 40 hats on display in the exhibition are testament to this fact. Each one, with the exception of the four men’s hats on display, features at least one of these materials—and often all three in combination. Exotic bird feathers were particularly sought after for use in hat decoration. One hat in the exhibition even features a whole African starling mounted on its side, and many more are decorated with the feathers from a multifarious assortment of wild birds, such as ostriches, egrets, and birds-of-paradise. While beautiful, this practice proved detrimental to wild bird populations: It is estimated that over 300 million birds were killed for millinery purposes in the year 1911 alone. However, the fashion was short-lived, and by 1914 the demand for extravagant plumage had all but died out.
Other pieces of interest include “The Shop Girl” by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, lace hats by Madame Georgette, and “Divan Japonais” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Tickets to see “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” are $15 for adults and $13 for students. The exhibition is also free of charge on Fridays.