The Millinery Shop

Edgar Degas
Keywords: MillineryShop

Work Overview

The Millinery Shop
Chez la modiste
Artist Edgar Degas
Year between 1879 and 1886
Type Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions 100 by 110.7 centimetres (39.4 in × 43.6 in)
Location Art Institute of Chicago

The Millinery Shop (1879/86) is a painting by French artist Edgar Degas. It depicts a woman sitting at a display table in a millinery shop, appearing to closely examine or work on a lady's hat, which she holds in her hands. The view of the scene is at an angle from above. Although Degas created several paintings concerning milliners, this painting is his "largest and only 'museum scale work' on this subject".

With its unusual cropping and tilted perspective, this painting seems to depict an unedited glimpse of the interior of a small, 19th-century millinery shop, a quick view one might while window shopping. The young shop girl leans back to examine her creation, her mouth pursed around a pin and her hands gloved to protect the delicate fabric of the hat. Totally absorbed, she seems absolutely unaware of the viewer. Edgar Degas scraped and repainted both the milliner’s hands and her hat-in-progress so that both appear to be moving—an intended contrast with the finished hats on display to her left.
When Degas made this painting, private milliner’s shops were rapidly becoming obsolete. Factories were increasingly producing consumer goods for new department stores. The artist’s sensitive rendering of the milliner suggests his respect for the artistry of her handmade work. To a greater extent than his colleagues, Degas used calculation, revision, and technical experimentation to depict private activity in interior spaces. Examinations of the canvas and preliminary drawings show that Degas originally planned to depict a customer trying on a finished hat. While executing this idea, however, he became interested in the act of making and chose to depict the milliner instead. Thus, what began as a painting about vanity and fashion became a metaphor of artistic creation and a tribute to a fading occupation.

This canvas is Edgar Degas's most ambitious statement on the theme of the millinery shop. Although the young woman is presumably a hatmaker examining her handiwork—with her lips pursed, perhaps around a pin—it has also been suggested that she could be a client about to try on a hat, since she wears an expensive fur-trimmed dress and kid gloves. X-ray examination revealed that this figure originally represented a customer, but in his rethinking of the subject, Degas withheld the information necessary to determine her identity.