This is perhaps the most tender and enigmatic of the group of pastels in the milliner series. Although this pastel may at first appear to show a milliner helping a client with her hat, we are, in fact, presented with two women of similar status—a mother and daughter, perhaps, or two sisters—who are seated together on a diamond-patterned sofa. One holds a straw bonnet on the head of her companion, who looks to the right, presumably to judge the effect of the hat in a mirror we cannot see. The women wear almost identical costume: drab brown dresses, belted at the waist. The woman on the left, hatless, has an opulent lace fichu, through which the ruff of her blouse can be seen, and wears close-fitting long suede gloves. The second woman, whose auburn braids peek out from underneath her hat, has a blue velvet collar and is trying on a bonnet trimmed with swags of blue ribbon and a yellow flower. To the left of the two women, a net curtain covers a window in which shapes of blue and yellow appear, perhaps reflecting their accessories. In the background, across the parquet floor, a small sofa with slip covers gleams in front of a full-length mirror. Next to it is a round vase with a tall potted plant, its leaves repeated in the mirror behind the sofa. The vase is wedged in between another sofa, whose arm we glimpse at the edge of the composition.
At the Milliner’s shares several characteristics of Degas’s work of the early 1880s. The figures dominate the picture plane and are caught in unusual positions: the women’s bony elbows punctuate the diagonal of the sofa, upsetting the order of the scene, threatening almost to fall out of the frame. The spectator hovers somewhere behind the two women, looking down with a “japonisant bird's-eye view” into the far corner of the sofa. And to the blandness of their costume Degas brings an unexpected chromatic intensity in the yellows of the glove, bonnet, and flower, and in the blues of the ribbon and collar, colours reflected in the white fichu and the window beyond.
Yet this startling and self-contained image was developed through a series of additions and extensions, as examination of the wove paper shows. Originally conceived on a vertical format 25 5/8 by 19 5/8 inches (identical in size to another At the Milliner’s, where the cropping is equally audacious), this pastel may well have begun as a milliner arranging a hat on a hatstand. It is difficult to imagine Degas contemplating a second figure within the confines of such a vertical composition, where the gesture of holding the hat exists almost independently of the accompanying figure and is self sufficient. The notion of a second figure must have presented itself very early on, suggesting the possibilities of a more expansive composition. Hence the addition of a large strip of paper (6/6 inches) to the right and the squaring of the pastel with strips added along the left and upper edges. The pastel now assumed a format comparable to At the Milliner’s, 1882, for which Mary Cassatt posed.
If Degas ideas ran ahead of his instruments (“I felt so poorly made, so poorly equipped, so limp, yet it seemed that my artistic calculations were so right”), it is worth stressing that the additive process in works such as this was inseparable from the realization of the image. Octave Mirbeau perceptively explained this creative mode in 1884: “You might say that it is not Degas who creates his compositions, it is the first line or the first figure he draws or paints that is responsible. Everything unfolds inexorably, mathematically, musically, if you will, from this first line and first figure, just as Bach's fugues depend on the initial phrase or initial tone for their development”.
Once this radical transformation of both subject and scale was conceived, it seems that Degas was able to discard his preliminary ideas effortlessly. With the exception of some hesitation in the area around the ear and hair of the hatless woman, the new composition emerged complete: the sureness of Degas’s technique and the lucidity of his juxtapositions are a tour de force. There are no known preparatory drawings or studies for this work, and while the composition shares several formal qualities common to the milliner series of 1882-86—the sharp diagonal recession, the central fulcrum of the bent arm—the figures of the two women recur in no other work. At the Milliner’s is the most finished of all the milliner compositions. The pastel is densely applied, with some smudging to suggest shadows on the side of the face of the woman on the right, yet the surface that Degas achieves is fine and seamless, more uniform and unified than in At the Milliner’s, 1882, where the pastel, while rich and thick, is applied more liberally and with less attention to evenness of touch.
The highly worked Annenberg At the Milliner’s may indeed have been one of Degas’ “articles"—his word for paintings conceived and executed for the market. Yet if it is drawn in his “commercial style” , Degas’ treatment of the subject here is more ambiguous than in any of the other milliner compositions of the first half of the 1880s. While the pastel has clear affinities with other works in the milliner series—in the compositional devices previously mentioned; in the many similarities in dress and hairstyle with the figures in At the Milliner’s in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection; in the muted tones of the women's dresses, which generally serve to heighten the colour and sumptuousness of the hats and their trimmings—it also transgresses the conventions of this series at every turn. No milliner is represented, nor are there hat stands, mirrors, or display of other headwear of any kind. The woman on the left, although hatless, must be a companion to the other, for only then does the fact that she is seated become explicable. Shop assistants were not permitted to use the seats provided for clients; in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames they are dismissed for nothing less, and it is inconceivable that a saleswoman, however senior, would have allowed herself such intimate access to a client.
It is the tenderness of the gesture of the gloved woman, who holds the hat with infinite patience while looking down solicitously, that suggests sources for this work far removed from the Grands Magasins and the realist milieu. Huysmans described Degas’s art as “savante et simple.” Degas carried his erudition effortlessly: echoes of Renaissance painting reverberate in At the Milliner’s. The double profile and overlapping postures recall Leonardo’ unfinished Virgin and Child with Saint Anne , which Degas had first copied in the Louvre in 1853. The two women’ elegant and spare features, their angular forms and quiet concentration also suggest kinship with the serene and noble figures in Ghirlandaio’s Visitation, another work that Degas had known since early manhood and copied during his apprenticeship in the Louvre.
That he “bound the past to the most immediate present,” in the words of the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942), was a creative process remarked upon by many sensitive observers of his art. For Mirbeau, his contemporaneity was filtered through the simplifying and synthetic manner of the early Siennese masters. But even earlier, in a review of the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition of 1880, Charles Ephrussi, a lesser critic, had perceptively praised Degas as “an estimable draftsman and pupil of the great Florentines, of Lorenzo di Credi and Ghirlandaio." Ephrussi made these connections advisedly: in 1882 he acted as the intermediary in the Louvre's acquisition of the great Botticelli frescoes Giovanna degli Albizzi Receiving a Gift of Flowers from Venus and Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented by Grammar to Prudentia and the Other Liberal Arts. His comments are all the more interesting, however, since it is he who first owned the Annenberg At the Milliner’s; discovering at what point the pastel entered his collection would help solve the vexed issue of when it should be dated.
Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905)—“ the Benedictine-dandy of the Rue de Monceau'—was born to a wealthy Jewish banking and cornexporting family in Odessa. Along with his brother Jules, he penetrated the highest regions of Parisian society (he had arrived in Paris in 1871), and his successes with the aristocracy of the Faubourg Sain-Germain were remarked upon. “These Russian Jews, this Ephrussi family, are terrible,” fulminated Edmond de Goncourt, resentfully, in June 1881, “with their craven hunt for women with grand dowries and for positions with large salaries... Charles attends six or seven soirées every evening in his bid for the Ministry of Fine Arts." If Ephrussi never realized these ministerial ambitions, he became director and owner of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1885, by which time he had already established himself as a serious art historian and collector. Between 1879 and 1882 he assembled an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings, which boasted Monet's La Grenouillizre (National Gallery, London) and Manet’s Departure for Folkestone (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Ephrussi was one of Renoir’s most devoted supporters: he organized, in the artist's absence, his consignment to the Salon of 1881; he introduced him to the Cahen d’Anvers family; and he appeared, in top hat and redingote, in the background of Renoir’s celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). With Degas, Ephrussis relations were equally cordial for a while. He may well have commissioned Degas to paint his portrait; in a letter to Henri Rouart, dated October 26, 1880, Degas wrote that he was eager to finish “Ephrussi’s painting... for there is some good money to be made at the end of it and it is badly needed.” Ephrussi was one of the few intimates to be invited to Degas’s housewarming in his new apartment on 21 rue Pigalle, in June 1882, as part of a select company that included the Rouarts, Daniel Halévy, and Durand-Ruel. Finally, when Degas applied for a box at the Opéra in 1882, it was Ephrussi who may have smoothed his way with the director and secretary of that institution. Writing to Berthe Morisot in April 1882, Eugene Manet remarked that “Degas has a seat at the Opéra, gets high prices, and does not think of settling his debts to Faure and Ephrussi.” This might refer to the unfinished portrait of Ephrussi, which would remain in Degas’s studio and be sold as unidentified in his posthumous sale, but cannot be connected to any other known commission for which Ephrussi would have paid in advance. We are quite well informed of Ephrussi’s collection at this time through the correspondence of his former secretary, the symbolist poet Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), whose nostalgic letters from Berlin vividly evoke Ephrussis bedroom lined with Impressionist paintings. Laforgue had left Paris at the end of November 1881, and in a precious letter written in Berlin to Ephrussi at the beginning of December, he recalled “Degass nervous dancers and his portrait of Duranty.” The former unidentifiable, the latter presumably the Portrait of Duranty, in pastel (private collection, Washington, DC.) Laforgue did not claim to make an inventory of the collection, and his memory was not infallible; he did not mention Degas’s exquisite General Mellinet and Chief Rabbi Astruc, 1871 (City of Gérardmer), which Ephrussi may well have owned by this time. But the absence of At the Milliner’s in Laforgue’ enthusiastic letter is worth noting. Furthermore, given that Ephrussi’s interest in the Impressionists waned as dramatically as it had emerged (in 1887 he would publish the first monograph on the eminently respectable Paul Baudry) and that Laforgue’ letters of 1882 allude to offers made for Ephrussi’s Impressionist paintings rather than to works newly acquired, it would seem that Ephrussi’s collecting came to a halt some time in 1882 or 1883.
The speculation that At the Milliner’s entered Ephrussi’s collection after November 1881 (the date of Laforgue’s departure from Paris), but no later than 1882-83, is confirmed with indisputable precision from an investigation of Durand-Ruel’s stock books. Tracing the various references there to the pastel numbered 1923, initially entitled “A Corner of the Salon,” and matching this with the same inventory number discovered on the back of At the Milliner’s, one can now establish the following chronology. On October 12, 1881, Degas delivered the pastel entitled “A Corner of the Salon” to Durand-Ruel for 1,500 francs, his single largest deposit of that year. The pastel was assigned the stock number 1923 and estimated for sale at 2,000 to 3,000 francs. Six months later, on April 21, 1882, Ephrussi purchased six Impressionist paintings from Durand-Ruel, including Degas pastel, “A Corner of the Salon,” for which he paid 2,000 francs. Almost thirteen years later to the day, on April 24, 1895, Ephrussi returned to place the pastel—now called “The Conversation"—on deposit with Durand-Ruel, for an estimated selling price of 15,000 francs." The pastel was not sold, however, and on April 7, 1896, Durand-Ruel purchased it for the company for 8,000 francs, listing it variously as “The Conversation,” “At the Milliner’s” and “Woman Trying on a Hat,” and giving it a sale price of 40,000 francs. The pastel remained in the family collection until the 1940s.
Thus, At the Milliner’s, executed by October 1881, anticipates by nearly a year the first of a celebrated group that has been described as “an exceptionally cohesive unit of work.” Degas used the two alternate formats of the Annenberg pastel—the vertical and the square—in two of the subsequent milliner pastels of 1882, for which At the Milliner’s becomes a sort of prototype. Although it cannot claim precedence as Degas’ first treatment of the theme, for he had exhibited a milliner, now lost, at the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, At the Milliner’s offered the starting point for many of the compositional devices that were developed in this remarkable series. Yet in its immaculately finished surface, it also looked back to such pastels as Women in Street Clothes, c.1879 (Collection of Walter Feilchenfeldt, Zurich) and the Dance Examination (Denver Art Museum) of approximately the same date. And in its daring accretions and extensions, it relates to the Portrait of a Dancer at Her Lesson, 1879, where the same additive process was at work.
And what of the subject of this pastel? The range of titles it was assigned in 1895-96 suggests that the image defied precision even then, Its first title, “A Corner of the Salon,” was suitably noncommittal, although whether this was of Degas’ choosing is not known. If Degas’ imagination was stirred by the fire that ravaged the great Parisian department store Printemps, in March 1881, an incident widely reported in the press, and one that laid the seed for Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, only coincidence of chronology affirms the link.
Degas’ interest in representing Mary Cassatt and her sister in fashionable settings may also have had some bearing on the genesis of this work. Certainly the plain costumes worn by the figures in At the Milliner’s compare well with the subdued dresses worn by the Cassatt sisters in the series of them posed in the Louvre, and the fascination with the rear view is common to both. In his letter of October 26, 1880, to Henri Rouart, Degas mentioned that the Cassatts had just returned to Paris from Marly, and while Lydia was in ailing health until her death in November 1882, the possibility of her sitting for Degas here cannot be entirely ruled out, given the similarity of both the profile and the long suede gloves in Mary Cassatt’s portrait of Lydia in the Garden, painted in 1880.
It is almost easier to state what the pastel is not concerned with than to attach precise models or messages to it. More categorically than in any other milliner painting, Degas distanced himself from showing what George Moore described as “the dim, sweet, sad poetry of female work,” although how fascinating he ever found this aspect of the milliner’s life is open to debate. Not only did Degas obliterate the shop assistant in At the Milliner’s, relegating the ubiquitous mirror to a position off stage, he also hinted at the elegant furnishings of a maison de haute couture with the greatest discretion. For there is no doubt that the interior shown here belongs to the rue de la Paix and not the bustling, populous world of the burgeoning department store described in loving detail by Zola. The point is best made by comparison with photographs of such interiors, even a decade later, such as M. Félix’s establishment on the rue Saint Honoré. The sofa and banquettes of the young ladies’ room chez Félix are as inviting and secluded as the diamond-patterned sofa in the pastel. The pier glasses that repeat the majestic palms in the fashion hall of the same establishment are also to be found in the background of At the Milliner’s.
Noting that Degas was “brought up in a fashionable set,” Gauguin commented ironically that he ‘dared to go into ecstacies before the milliners’ shops in the Rue de la Paix” with their “pretty artificiality.” Yet such “pretty artificiality” is secondary in this pastel to something far more intriguing and more disturbing: women’s intimacy, out-of-doors, as it were. Degas used a realist’s vocabulary to explore moments of privacy that are perhaps impenetrable and did so with restraint and modesty. This is the great distance separating his art from that of Zola’s. In fact, it was the British Impressionist Walter Sickert who seems to have best grasped Degas’s enterprise in paintings such as At the Milliner’s. Writing of one of his early visits to Degas’ studio, in either 1883 or 1885, Sickert recalled Degas pronouncing that painters had made too much of formal portraiture of women, “whereas, their hundred and one gestures, their chatteries, &c., should inspire an infinite variety of design.” This is perhaps the most evocative assessment yet made of At the Milliner’s.