This cameo of nineteenth-century life maintains its intimacy through Degas's use of pastel, whose chalky texture quiets the scene in multiple veils of color. Pastel, an important drawing medium at the end of the nineteenth century due in part to a new preoccupation with color, appropriately expresses, through its inherent fragility, the ephemeral encounter between two women of different milieus that lies at the heart of Degas's composition.
Degas often accompanied his female friends to the dressmaker's and the milliner's. Here, one of them, the American artist Mary Cassatt, serves as the model and tries on hats while an attendant waits expectantly behind her. Cassatt's expression of contented self-assurance contrasts sharply with the apprehensive posture of the shopgirl, a figure obscured by cropping and the lack of delineation of her facial features.
In this daring nuanced composition about modern life—the subject is the fleeting encounter rather than the women themselves—Degas heeded the advice of the critic Edmond Duranty, who, in his 1876 pamphlet, The New Painting—about the art that came to be known as Impressionism—wrote: "Let us take leave of the stylized human body, which is treated like a vase. What we need is the characteristic modern person in his clothes, in the midst of his social surroundings, at home or out in the street."
Michel Manzi, Paris (Galerie Manzi-Joyant, Paris). Until March 1919
Auction, Collection Manzi, Galerie Manzi, Joyant, & Cie, Paris, March 14, 1919
Roger G. Gompel, Paris
César M. de Hauke, New York
Jacques Seligmann & Co., New York (Germain Seligman). [Purchased from de Hauke], by 1946
Dr. and Mrs. David M. Levy, New York. [By January 1953] – 1957
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy (Mrs. Adele R. Levy), 1957
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