EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes
signed 'Degas' (lower right)
oil on canvas
14 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. (36.8 x 31.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1887
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired from the artist, January 1890).
Ludovic Halévy, Paris (acquired from the above, November 1894).
Elie Halévy, Sucy-en-Brie (by descent from the above).
Florence Halévy, Sucy-en-Brie (by descent from the above, 1937).
Henriette Guy-Loë, Sucy-en-Brie (by descent from the above).
Galerie Brame et Lorenceau, Paris (on consignment from the above, 1968).
Acquired by Ann and Gordon Getty from the above, May 1981.
M. Hayot, "Au Georges V," L'Oeil, no. 287, June 1979, p. 55, no. 5 (illustrated; titled Portrait de femme).
P. Brame and T. Reff, Degas et son oeuvre: A Supplement, New York, 1984, p. 140, no. 128 (illustrated, p. 141).
Paris, Hôtel George V, La sixième exposition des antiquaires à Paris et de la haute joaillerie de France, June 1979.
Saint Louis Art Museum and San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade, February-September 2017, p. 169, no. 41 (illustrated in color; dated circa 1887-1890 and titled Head of a Woman).
Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, The Impressionists and Photography, October 2019-January 2020, p. 203, no. 122 (illustrated in color).

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Lot Essay

Degas was fascinated by contemporary fashion. Hats, in particular, offered a pretext for experimenting with color, shape and texture; the artist frequently incorporated these accessories into his paintings of women. Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes, an oil painting from the late 1880s, demonstrates Degas’s enduring interest in this rich material culture—but also his brilliant ability to convey the psychological complexity and emotional ambivalence of modern life in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes depicts a woman wearing a straw hat with a narrow brim, festooned with plumes of white and black feathers and trimmed with a thick black velvet ribbon tied beneath her chin. Beneath this fashionable hat, the woman’s chestnut-colored ringlets have been arranged in an elegant partial updo, with a few loose tendrils at the temple. In addition to the specific textures of her coiffure and chapeau, Degas sensitively conveyed the subtle sheen of her pale, nearly translucent skin—including hints of purple and blue beneath her eyes—and the slick crimson of her carefully drawn lips.
In composing Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes, Degas was likely inspired by contemporary fashion periodicals, such La modiste universelle. These weekly publications included large color prints, which demonstrated the latest evolutions in dress shape and material. They also illustrated stylish accessories: shoes, gloves, purses, parasols, jewelry, as well as feathered and ribboned hats. Much like the present painting, late 19th century fashion prints were often bust-length, three-quarter portraits of young parisiennes set against neutral backgrounds, highlighting their physical beauty.
The enigmatic subject of Degas’s Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes is far from a generic fashion model. While the sitter has not been identified, the near photographic specificity of her facial features and the inscrutability of her expression suggests that she was a personal acquaintance of the artist. Indeed, Degas painted several portraits of women in his inner circle sporting straw, silk and velvet hats—including the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.) and family friend Berthe Jeantaud (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).
Degas painted Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes circa 1887, after the conclusion of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in Paris in May to June 1886. To that legendary installation, Degas submitted at least two pastel works on paper depicting bourgeois women trying on hats for purchase, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Femme essayant un chapeau chez sa modiste (related to a larger painting, now in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago). Though the present work does not explicitly refer to the commercial space of a Parisian milliner’s shop or department store, it is undoubtedly an expression of the artist’s preoccupation with these accessories and the fashionable economy they represented. Accordingly, Buste de femme au chapeau à plumes was recently featured in an important exhibition on this subject: Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade, which traveled from the Saint Louis Art Museum to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in 2017.
The present work has been in the collection of Ann and Gordon Getty for over forty years. In the previous century, this canvas belonged to at least two generations of the Halévy family. Ludovic Halévy was a renowned French author and playwright who was a close friend of Degas and the subject of several painted, drawn, printed and photographic portraits by the artist. Halévy acquired this painting in 1894, a few years after its execution, from Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., one of Degas’s primary dealers.

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