Hear Expert Commentary
Simon Kelly, PhD
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Saint Louis Art Museum
This impressive painting highlights the rich and warm palettes characteristic of Degas’ late work. The red of the dress of the working milliner on the left, the orange of her chair, the red-brown of her assistant’s ensemble, and the copper hair of both women all merge together to create a symphony of color.
By this time, Degas was also exploring the possibilities of abstraction. He represents the forms of the women as flat masses of color outlined against the back wall that provides little spatial recession. The Saint Louis Art Museum x-rayed the painting and we found that Degas originally gave a frilly detail to the white apron of the milliner holding the hat. He subsequently painted this over, creating a more generalized color mass, further indicating his interest in abstraction.
It is perhaps no coincidence, a picture such as this, held a deep appeal for the great modern painter Henri Matisse, an important collector of Degas’ work. Beyond its formal qualities, Degas’ painting is a testament to the artistry of the millinery profession in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, highlighting as it the does, the careful focus of the milliner as she works to attach ostrich plumes to the crown of a wide-brimmed straw hat.
Milliners was acquired by the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2007 for the very substantial sum of $10,000,000, the largest purchase in the Museum’s history. It is Degas’ last oil painting on the theme of millinery and its significance is further indicated by the fact that Degas produced several related studies, including drawings in charcoal and a full-scale pastel.
Milliners was painted during the heyday of the Parisian millinery industry. But with the passing of conservation laws and changes in fashion after World War I to much simpler hats, notably the cloche, the millinery industry went into decline. Millinery remains a marginal presence in Paris today with only 41 milliners listed in the Parisian yellow pages. This painting, however, harks back toa time when milliners and their creations were an integral part of everyday Parisian life.