Because the Art Institute is so well known for its vast holdings of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, we thought it would be fitting to wish a very happy birthday to an artist who is such an integral part of that collection. So . . . happy 176th birthday to Edgar Degas! And what better way to honor this illustrious date than by highlighting one of his works in our collection?
Degas was fascinated with the movement of life and the people who surrounded him. He captured the urban spectacle in all its glory, everything and everyone from dancers to horses at the racetrack. He explored the quotidian, using drab backgrounds and sartorial cues to signal the lower class status of many of his subjects, while always maintaining an emphasis on the movement of the human body.
The Art Institute's The Millinery Shop is just one example of Degas’ obsession with the working class and the everyday. While initially this painting depicted a well-heeled customer trying on fancy hats, Degas scraped away the original figure with a knife and repainted the figure as an ordinary shop girl, exemplifying his preference for the ordinary over the extravagant and perhaps paralleling his own experience as a solitary craftsman with the absorption of the woman in her work. The dark background and neutrality of the shop girl’s dress are contrasted by the bright colors and frivolity of the luxurious hats. Although the girl is sitting, there is an elegance and dignity to her stature, and he painted her so that the viewer can easily imagine her adjusting the hat and going about her daily activities. Degas had a knack for making the everyday tasks of the working class elegant and extraordinary. You can find this painting (located in Gallery 226) along with others from Degas at the Art Institute now, but you’ll have to leave the birthday cake and ice cream outside the gallery.
--Sarah T., Kemper Intern
Rich, Daniel Catton. Degas. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985.
Kendall, Richard. Degas Beyond Impressionism. London: National Gallery Publications, 1996.
Druick, Douglas and Groom, Gloria. The Age of Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Image: Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop (1879/86). Oil on canvas. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.