Fashion & Impressionism in Fin-De-Siècle Paris

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Edgar Degas, “The Millinery Shop,” circa 1879-1886, oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 43 9/16 in. © Art Institute of Chicago 2017

By Vanessa Rothe, West Coast Editor, Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine

Paris in the late 1800s: new industry, haute cuisine, flaneurs, decadence, and the fashion center of the world. It was a time of change and of prosperity, where leisure time could be found, and where artisans making handmade crafts could flourish.

With fashion as a leading extravagance at the time, it’s natural that the millinery, or hat-making, trade became popular. Hats were a way to show your personality, your style, your class. With ribbons, haberdashery, plumes of ostrich feathers, and silk velvet, the patrons of the arts could not only have a work created just for them, but their investment in the arts would also help convey their character (and their pocketbook size) to the world. Hats were considered essential at the time, and therefore fashion and millinery trade became part of the visual culture of Paris.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “M. Delaporte at the Jardin de Paris,” 1893, gouache on cardboard/wood, 30 x 27-9/16 in. © Ny Carsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen 2017
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “M. Delaporte at the Jardin de Paris,” 1893, gouache on cardboard/wood, 30 x 27-9/16 in. © Ny Carsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen 2017

The Impressionists at the time were painting “La vie quotidienne,” or everyday life, and as the millinery trade was so prevalent at the time, it naturally became a subject of their paintings. Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt all painted portraits of their clients — men, women and children — in their grand chapeaux. Degas was particularly fascinated with the subject and took it a step further, going into the shops to show us behind the scenes as the working class hat makers sewed and arranged displays of these fine art creations.

Mary Cassatt, “Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 in. © Peabody Art Collection 2017
Mary Cassatt, “Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 in. © Peabody Art Collection 2017

“Degas, Impressionism and the Paris Millinery Trade,” an exciting new exhibition that discusses this theme and the works of art created around it, opens February 12 at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Working together with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and their curators, the collection pulls together fine works by assorted artists around this central theme. In addition to masterworks in oils and pastels by Degas, Rodin, Manet, Cassatt, Morisot, and Lautrec, among others, the exhibition sprinkles in assorted photographs, poster prints, and actual plumed French hats from the time of 1875-1914.

“This groundbreaking exhibition will provide a stunning experience for visitors while advancing the scholarship of a little known but important part of Degas’ legacy,” says Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. It will be the first exhibition to explore the height of the millinery trade in Paris from around 1874-1914, as seen through the eyes and in the work of the Impressionists.

Édouard Manet, “At the Milliner’s,” 1881, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 29 in. © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2017
Édouard Manet, “At the Milliner’s,” 1881, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 29 in. © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2017

A new book/catalogue, edited by Simon Kelly (curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum) and Esther Bell (curator in charge of European paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), is available to accompany the show. With a chronicle of Parisian milliners from Caroline Reboux to Coco Chanel, the book also links the worlds of literature, art, and fashion. Contributors to the exhibition and book include Susan Hiner, Françoise Tétart-Vittu, Melissa Buron, Laura Camerlengo, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, and Abigail Yoder.

James Tissot, “The Shop Girl,” circa 1883-1885, oil on canvas, 57-1/2 x 40 in. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2017
James Tissot, “The Shop Girl,” circa 1883-1885, oil on canvas, 57-1/2 x 40 in. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2017

The unique exhibition explores the significance of the paintings and drawings of these scenes and portrays the important role they played in everyday life, as well as celebrating the milliners of the time and their works of art. The exhibition runs from February 12 thru May 7, 2017 at the Saint Louis Art Museum; admission is free.

For more information, please visit www.slam.org or call 314.721.0072.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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