Degas Hatters Take Over Museum

ST. LOUIS.- Edgar Degas’s depictions of ballet dancers, nude bathers and racetracks have been abundantly—perhaps even overabundantly—shown.

But at the St. Louis Art Museum, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” offers the first in-depth look at an important but less-familiar subset of the famed French Impressionist’s output: paintings and drawings of the hat business.

The number of such stores in Paris soared to nearly 1,000 by 1882—the year Degas first took up this subject, such as the pastel “At the Milliner’s”—reflecting the astounding popularity of these then-essential fashion accessories.

Beside the 22 works by Degas, the show includes pieces by noted fellow Impressionists like Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir as well as those of other artists of the period. James Tissot’s “The Shop Girl” (1883-85) is a captivating view of a small store through the eyes of a patron.

In addition, 38 period hats are included, decorated with artificial flowers, sumptuous plumes and other eye-catching adornments. Finally, there is a small assortment of related posters, advertisements and photographs.

Organized by Simon Kelly, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, and Esther Bell, curator-in-charge of European painting at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, this exhibition contains some oft-seen paintings like Degas’s “The Millinery Shop” (1879-86), a pivotal, scene-setting work that anchors the first large gallery, and Berthe Morisot’s “Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight” (1875), an airy, seaside portrait of her husband (wearing a straw boater hat) with luminous, white-on-white touches. But because of the unique subject of this show, many of the works here are not as well known, and a few have never been exhibited before in America.

While the exhibit, which travels later this year to San Francisco, doesn’t ignore men and their fashions, it uses hats as a way to focus on the era’s rise of a new kind of confident, independent woman—both the entrepreneurial artisans who ran the millinery stores and self-assured shoppers who frequented them. Other artists delved into the realm of apparel, but none did so with more fervor or insight than Degas.

Walking into the dramatic third gallery, it is easy to feel like one has violated the intimacy of the subjects, who are almost all shown alone from the back or side in the midst trying on hats. Particularly striking is Degas’s “Woman Adjusting Her Hair” (c. 1884), a work from a British private collection never before on view in the U.S. In this moody, mistakenly titled work, a woman unconventionally depicted from the rear is using both hands to adjust her hat, her face unseen in the shadowy, green-tinged darkness that engulfs the shop mirror in front of her.

Alongside is an identically titled preparatory study from the Courtauld Gallery in London in which the background is left largely blank, the bold red carpet in the painting is suggested with quick, open up-down-strokes of red pastel and the mirror is tantalizingly indicated with nothing more than a few dark lines that look like wispy smoke.

Unlike the historicist approach of at least one previous exhibition examining fashion and the Impressionists, this show is installed in typical contemporary fashion with just one concession to the past—all the hats are mounted on wooden hat stands much like those in Degas’s works. Such straightforwardness helps the paintings and drawings to transcend their time and the hats to come off not as historical artifacts but as sculptural artworks in their own right.

Highlighting Degas’s frequent and almost unfailingly affirming depictions of 19th-century women both buying and selling hats, this groundbreaking exhibition reveals a compelling and until now less widely known side of this essential Impressionist, and shows there is still much to learn about him.