Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 4, 2018
Simon Kelly and Esther Bell Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2017. 296 pp.; 197 color ills.; 45 b/w ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9783791356211)
Saint Louis Art Museum, February 12–May 7, 2017; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor, June 24–September 24, 2017
Installation view, Degas, Impressionism and the Paris Millinery Trade, Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, June 24–September 24, 2017 (photograph © 2017, provided by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Given that in recent decades many scholars have called for attention to the diverse traditions and overlooked contributions of a global art history, it is fair to ask, do we need another major exhibition devoted to Impressionism? There have been French Impressionist studies penned by a coterie of distinguished scholars across the globe that should satisfy most any methodological perspective or preference for a certain theme or stylistic practice. Recent shows have explored subthemes ranging from the movement’s key dealers and the ongoing recuperation of various “unheralded” Impressionists to the obvious subjects of blossoms and snowfields. And the work of the “greats” has long been parsed into thematic, media-specific, or chronological slices of the most well-studied careers. In the case of the prodigiously talented and ever prolific Edgar Degas, we have been offered not only exhaustive retrospectives (New York and Paris, 1988; Melbourne and Houston, 2016), but also overviews of his technical experiments in media such as monotype (New York, 2016), and his signature themes ranging from dancers (Detroit and Philadelphia, 2002) to racetracks and horses (Washington, DC, 1998) and the nude (Boston and Paris, 2011). Shows organized around micro-subjects of Degas studies abound, such as the range of his art collection (New York, 1997), his few months in New Orleans (New Orleans, 2000), his early trips to Italy (Paris, 1988), in-depth studies of his artistic relationships to other artists, such as Mary Cassatt (Washington, DC, 2014), and even his surprising impact on Pablo Picasso (Williamstown, MA, 2010). So, in a nutshell, what is left to do that we really need to see, or want to read?

A rich and original answer to this art-historical challenge came in the spring and summer of 2017 from Simon Kelly (St. Louis) and Esther Bell (San Francisco), who curated a major international loan exhibition that was at once visually stunning and historically provocative, as it gathered not only compelling and important examples of art by Degas and his contemporaries, but posed questions new to Degas scholarship about the social, economic, and gendered worlds of the late-nineteenth-century millinery industry in Paris. In some senses, this is a topic that has been waiting to be explored by museums, and it is not just an overlooked minor subtheme. Some of the most arresting painted works in Degas’s oeuvre (such as the Getty’s The Milliners, or the Saint Louis Art Museum’s own The Milliners) engage the social meaning of fashion that skilled women workers created for a discerning clientele, for whom hats served not just as head cover or as protection of feminine modesty, but as tools for social identity and self-expression on the streets of a modern Paris. Ever since Impressionist scholar Ruth Iskin brought the topic of Degas and millinery under close scrutiny in her landmark study of the era’s consumer culture (Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting, 2007, chapter 3), this topic has been begging for an ambitious exhibition of first-rate works, including the luminescent but ever-more-difficult to borrow pastels by this master of the medium. The Saint Louis Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco have addressed this lacuna in admirable depth, and with curatorial inventiveness.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the show is that it comprised three spheres: there was a remarkable group of works by Degas in painting, pastel, and charcoal; there were also ample works by contemporaries ranging from Manet, Cassatt, Renoir, and Morisot to Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec, and journal illustrators; and then there were the actual period hats themselves—forty-one of them, and even one hat box, and a doll with a hat. A few films documented the world of hats, and a snippet of rare footage offered Degas’s public appearance in a bowler hat in 1915. The curatorial choice to give the hats such space and attention in a show that is not primarily about fashion trends bolstered one of the exhibition’s main claims: that Degas respected the modern milliner’s work as a parallel creative activity, even if not one that ranked in his view as the equal to the fine art he engaged in; and that he regarded milliners as a genre of fellow artists, notwithstanding that as female working-class artisans, he would have regarded them in actual encounters as his social opposites (and here, one is inevitably reminded of his respect for and abiding interest in the ballet dancer as the creator of beauty and illusion, but only at the cost of much hard labor, echoing his view of himself as a dedicated and laboring painter). But the combination of materials ranging from straw to velvet, the diverse array of ribbons and pins, the flowers made of silk, and the peculiar oddities of bird feathers and actual bird parts such as wings, stuffed heads, and glassy eyes, draw us dramatically into the material world of millinery in late nineteenth-century Paris. One imagines the living faces beneath the brims of the hats, the fashion parades in the street, a woman’s self-consciousness and pride as she doffs the hat that affirms her class, gender, and personal style for her varied audiences. This focus on the cultural weight of the hat may come to some viewers as a jolt, for the contemporary American viewer is surely not as attuned to the artistry of the hat as was the fin-de-siècle Parisienne, or to those rich spectacles of hat culture on view today at such European displays as the famed annual royal event at Ascot in England, in which the royal family and its extended entourage watch the horse race from a Royal Enclosure, wearing elaborate fashionable hats and top hats that garner national attention.

Degas’s very particular empathy for the workers of this industry and for the constructed beauty of the hat does leave us with some intriguing questions. We wonder, for example, about the place of men as either producers or consumers of high fashion in Degas’s largely feminized world. Although a rich selection of his portraits and self-portraits in the show revealed Degas’s astute appreciation for the social import of a man’s top hat, boater (a canotier), or bowler, Degas does not take us into the world of those women who actually fabricated these hats, although there were some 655 of them in Paris. It is the creation of hats (some quite flamboyant) by women for women, and their presentation of their craft to a female clientele that attracted his eye. This is again like his love of the ballet: it was not the male ballet dancer, generally, that caught his attention: it was the worlds of creativity that he often associated with feminine sensibilities.

The substantial catalogue edited and coauthored by Kelly and Bell is destined to be the key scholarly resource on this topic for years to come. Handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated with mostly full-page colorplates, its text is charmingly set in font that echoes the style of nineteenth-century journal advertisements. Kelly and Bell approach their subject in a rigorously researched social art history that grounds the art in the business of fashion in Paris. Kelly offers a fascinating account of the various ranks of labor in this complex industry, and examines how Degas images this world both with sharp specificity (one that extends to his careful choice of titles) and with empathy for the thoughtfulness and aesthetic sensibility of these makers. He also places the Parisian obsession with ostrich and other rare plumage as part of an international trade in commodities (the key reliance of this trade on France’s colonial empires is a topic Kelly addressed more provocatively in his symposium paper in St. Louis). Bell’s essay considers Degas’s millinery pictures as the result of his self-conscious balance between the material world of the modern day and the grand traditions of art history, which were an ongoing subject of fascination for Degas. The book is further enriched by contributions by fashion historian Françoise Tétart-Vittu on the Parisian métier of millinery during the belle epoque, and by Susan Hiner on the place of the modiste in French thought and society. Of special note is the useful and exhaustive annotated chronology by Abigail Yoder, which compares advances in history, fashion, and painting on a year-to-year basis from 1870 to Degas’s death in 1917. The catalogue is completed by 105 highly informative object entries by the team of Bell, Kelly, Yoder, Melissa Buron, Laura Camerlengo, and Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. These entries offer new information about many beloved masterworks, such as Chicago’s The Millinery Shop, in which the sole female figure can now be understood to have begun as the image of an elegant client inspecting the merchandise, and ended up as a première milliner inspecting her work, a transition that shows Degas’s fluid interest in observing women of all classes in this milieu. Equally ambitious entries on the hats themselves allow us to identify the specific makers, the materials, and even the exotic birds imported from African colonies for this trade. The industry’s consumption of birds is shown to be a controversial practice: Chrisman-Campbell juxtaposes a designer’s curious use of an entire stuffed tawny owl to a growing wave of global concern over the use of 300 million birds a year by the Paris fashion industry in the late nineteenth century. In sum, this ambitious catalogue is full of surprises. It is a worthy complement to a landmark exhibition that has found in Degas, an artist we thought we knew so well, a surprisingly fresh and satisfying topic in the history of Impressionism. Hats off to the organizers.

Elizabeth Childs
Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor and Chair, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Washington University in St Louis