Degas's The Millinery Shop
An introduction to Degas's painting of a milliner in a hat shop and suggestions for classroom discussions and activities.

Teaching packet: Edgar Degas
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Edgar Degas: A Teaching Packet, 1996, p. 13-15.

The Millinery Shop, 1879-1884
Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 43 3/8 in. (100 x 110.7 cm)
Mr. And Mrs. Lewis Lamed Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.428

In documenting what poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) called "the heroism of modern life," Degas preferred the working classes. Almost thirds of his vast oeuvre consists of jockeys, singers, ballet dancers, laundresses -- and milliners as we see here. In this painting, Degas indeed rendered the Impressionist’s quickly changing modern world. we were a modish stroller out window shopping, the work -- with its unusual cropping and tilted perspective -- seems to capture an unedited glimpse of the interior of a small nineteenth-century hat shop.

With her mouth pursed around a pin and her hands gloved to protect the delicate fabric, a young shop girl leans back to examine her creation. She is totally absorbed in her work and, like most of the women in Degas’s art, seems unaware of being watched. Degas has scraped and repainted the milliner’s hands and her hat-in-progress so that both appear to be in movement, drawing an analogy between her creative efforts and those of the artist.

This analogy extends to the bonnets, which are displayed on the table like a still life: where they are unfinished, so too is the painting. X-rays and preparatory drawings show that Degas originally intended what is now a plain shop girl to be an elaborately hatted customer. Thus, what began as a painting about vanity and fashion become instead a metaphor on artistic creation and consumption. The hat, for Degas, was the supreme emblem of the modern bourgeois woman.

The reworking of this painting, with its bold pattern of colors, coincided with the slow but relentless transformation in Degas’s work during the 1880s and 1890s toward simpler compositions and more expressive use of color. Of at least fifteen pastels, drawings, and paintings Degas created on this subject during the 1880s, The Millinery Shop is the largest and most ambitious. Like his racetrack motif, works on these topical Impressionist themes dwindled by the 1890s.

Classroom Suggestions
1. X-rays and preparatory drawings reveal that the shop girl was originally an elaborately hatted customer. For a creative writing exercise, divide students into two groups. Have one group write the inner thoughts of the shop girl as she makes hats for others to buy. Have the other group write in the voice of the bourgeois woman, recording her thoughts as she selects a hat to purchase and enjoy.
2. At the time of this painting, hundreds of small Parisian shops were closing due to the popularity of the burgeoning department stores. A similar phenomenon is occurring today in towns and cities across America, with chain stores and malls forcing privately owned small businesses to close. Have students research this economic and social shift in both Paris (1860s - 1890s) and in their community today. What local shops are no longer in existence? What is in their place? How have the larger stores changed the nature of the community?
3. The Millinery Shop can be divided in half vertically, with the right half revealing a portrait of a working woman and the left half revealing a still life of fashionable hats. With color and brushstroke, Degas captured the hats’ fabrics, ribbons, and flowers. Design a still life of like objects for students to draw, selecting items with a range of colors and textures and arranging them at various angles and levels. Have students pay special attention to the still life’s composition and the relationship of the objects to one another in space.