Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Femme tenant un chapeau à la main

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Femme tenant un chapeau à la main
stamped with the signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower right)
pastel on paper
19¼ x 25.1/8 in. (48.8 x 63.6 cm.)
Executed circa 1885
The artist's studio; second sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 11-13 December 1918, lot 181.
Nunès et Fiquet, Paris.
Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd., London (no. 4534D), by whom acquired from the above on 18 September 1956.
Acquired from the above on 8 November 1956 the family of the present owner and thence by descent.
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. III, 1883-1908, Paris, 1946, no. 833, p. 482 (illustrated p. 483).
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd., Recent Acquisitions XI, November - December 1956.

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Adrienne Everwijn-Dumas
Adrienne Everwijn-Dumas

Lot Essay

Edgar Degas' Femme tenant un chapeau à la main is one of a small group of studies related to one of his well-known paintings, Chez la modiste, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. This picture is captivating in its own right: Degas has used swathes of coloured pastel to evoke this scene of a woman inspecting a hat. Perhaps, considering she herself is already wearing a hat, she is a client viewing a hat while visiting a shop; this would also explain the fact that she is wearing gloves. Meanwhile, some of the shop's wares are left on conspicuous display, especially the hat to the left, with its tied fastening ribbon, which is also shown in Chez la modiste. Here, it is a bold, forked swathe of rich green, contrasting all the more with the blues and reds that dominate so much of the rest of the composition.

Looking at the differences between Femme tenant un chapeau à la main and Chez la modiste, it becomes clear that Degas changed his mind about the oil painting's final composition: he showed the woman holding a hat, but not wearing one. In Femme tenant un chapeau à la main, the fact that the hat on its stand partially obscures her own hat adds to the sense of spontaneity and informality that was so crucial to the impression of naturalism that infuses Degas' pictures; at the same time, this key difference between the two works reveals the amount of study, contemplation and preparation that each composition involved. Degas himself was open about the artifice that underpinned his pictures: 'I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine,' he stated. 'What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament - temperament is the word - I know nothing' (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself, Drawings Prints Paintings Writings, London, 1987, p. 311).

Degas created a number of pictures which were either entitled Chez la modiste, or which displayed similar subjects, especially during the first half of the 1880s; several of these works are now in celebrated museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In these works, including Femme tenant un chapeau à la main, he peeled away the veneer of society, instead looking 'behind the scenes', showing people supposedly within their own environments. Thus, just as he showed his ballerinas in rehearsal or behind the scenes, so too he has shown the lady of fashion sitting in a shop, inspecting hats, instead of in the more formal circumstances that would indicate a portrait. It is for this preference for such informal views of life that Degas' works such as Femme tenant un chapeau à la main have been seen as metaphors for his own artistic process. After all, he is allowing us a glimpse into the private world of beautification and embellishment; he is revealing the preparation that goes into everyday appearances, laying bare his own methods as an artist.

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