In this drawing, Degas captured an intimate moment in a millinery shop. A female customer wearing a brown hat decorated with a spray of feathers touches the ties around her chin. Behind her, a shop attendant holds out two alternatives, one trimmed in yellow and the other with a vibrant vermilion border. The dry pastel medium allowed Degas to evoke the textural range of the shop’s fabrics and fineries, including feathers, ribbons, velvet, and lace. The composition captures the feel of this fleeting encounter: while Degas rendered the customer in soft, fine details, the rest of the interior is merely suggested. It is also dramatically cropped, with much of the clerk’s body and the yellow chair cut off by the paper’s edge.
Like his fellow Impressionists (a term he disliked, favoring the word “realist”), Degas sought to portray the full sweep of modern city life, treating everyday experiences as worthy of artistic representation. His millinery pictures—many of them pastel scenes like this one, made in the early 1880s and late ’90s—fit into that aim. In those years, there were around a thousand millinery shops in Paris, and a hat was an indispensable accessory to women of all classes. (The customer depicted here is Mary Cassatt, Degas’s friend and fellow artist.) Degas’s millinery pictures amount to quiet dramas, as in this glimpse at an exchange between women of different social groups.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)