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THE GETTY ACQUIRES EDGAR DEGAS' THE MILLINERS, ONE OF THE ARTIST'S MOST ELOQUENT MODERN EXPRESSIONS

Other Recent Additions Include Photographs and Key 18th- and 19th-Century Works

March 16, 2005

LOS ANGELES—The Getty has acquired Edgar Degas’ The Milliners (about 1882–before 1905), one of the 19th-century French master’s most modern paintings. It is also the most emotionally resonant and technically complex of his millinery pictures. Degas worked and reworked the painting over a period of about 20 years, radically transforming its composition and meaning. With its focus on workers instead of their bourgeois clients, and its sparse forms and colors, The Milliners reveals Degas’ shifting ideas about labor and his move towards the modernist era.

Previously in a private collection, The Milliners has been exhibited only twice, at sales, in the past century, and it has not been the subject of a significant study. “This is a brilliant addition to the Museum’s collection of late 19th-century painting,” said William Griswold, acting director and chief curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “The acquisition offers a remarkable opportunity to open a new line of inquiry into Degas’ work, and brings to light an important, emblematic, and little-known masterpiece.

The Milliners is one of 22 surviving paintings, pastels, and drawings of the subject that Degas made over the course of approximately 30 years, beginning around 1880. Known for his detailed studies of women, including ballet dancers, ironers, and laundresses, Degas often depicted his subjects as if caught unaware, in moments of routine work or thoughtful self-reflection, to offer a voyeuristic peek into their lives and sometimes sober reality. In The Milliners, two women work on hats at a cramped table, partially obscured by three hat stands that punctuate the space. One appears lost in thought, gazing beyond the frame of the painting with an anxious expression; the other exists merely as a shadow. 

Degas’ millinery pictures that focus on workers tend to have been made later than those focusing on customers. The Milliners actually documents that shift of focus.  X-ray examination of the painting shows that one of the milliners originally wore a hat, had ruffles at her wrists, and a scarf around her neck—details indicating she had been conceived as a customer. By eliminating the decorative elements, Degas altered the identity of the woman from bourgeoisie customer to worker, moving the emphasis of his painting from the product to the process and thereby recognizing the value of the laborer. The Milliners is a radical rethinking of his working women portraits of the previous decade. This shift reflects the modern commitment to portraying the working class in art.

X-ray examination of the work also reveals many other changes that Degas made over the years. The table in the painting was originally horizontal but now sweeps across the workspace at a dynamic angle. The hats, originally carefully described, are now reduced to virtually abstract shapes, while the number of objects on the table has been condensed into a scattering of brilliantly colored ribbons that serve as a contrast to the muted presence of the milliners. The animated composition and the reduction of forms take the geometry of the painting to a new modernist level, a style that Degas utilized in his later works. These changes offer insight into the artist’s method, including his penchant for experimentation and his habit of reworking, rethinking, and refining his compositions.

The Milliners complements the Getty’s growing collection of late 19th-century art and adds to the works by Degas already in the Museum’s collection. These include Self-Portrait (about 1857–58), which stands as a striking example of the artist’s early work, with its stark clarity and uncomplicated directness contrasting with the late qualities of The Milliners, and After the Bath (about 1900), also in the Getty’s collection. The weariness of the central figure of The Milliners provides a haunting echo of another Getty work, The Convalescent (about 1872–87). Also in the collection is the dynamic pastel Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus (1879), a new acquisition that was lent to The National Gallery, London, for the exhibition Art in the Making: Degas, and an important collection of photographs taken by Degas in the 1890s.

OTHER NOTABLE RECENT ACQUISITIONS

In addition to Degas’ The Milliners, the Getty recently added to its collection the grand historical painting Belisarius (1797) by Baron Gérard, a pupil of the great Jacques-Louis David and an important history and portrait painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The picture depicts the blind Belisarius, a fallen Byzantine general, carrying an attendant who has been bitten by a snake. This is the second version of a celebrated canvas that Gérard exhibited to great acclaim in the 1795 salon. With its atmospheric effects and bold palette, the work is an important addition to the Getty’s holdings of neoclassical paintings, and is the only French work representing the period between the French Revolution and Napoleon’s exile.

Also new is Baronne de Domecy (about 1900), a stunning pastel by the French Symbolist painter and printmaker Odilon Redon. Modern in conception, the work takes its place alongside the Museum’s other avant-garde pictures of the late 19th century, including works by Paul Cézanne, James Ensor, and Edvard Munch. The work demonstrates Redon’s mastery of pastel and combines a sensitively rendered, nearly monochromatic portrait with an expressive, colorful background composed of stylized floral imagery. This is the first Redon to enter the Getty’s collection, and is a key addition to the Museum’s increasingly distinguished holdings of pastels. The work will be featured in a regularly scheduled gallery talk, “Looking toward Modern Art,” that is offered free to the public.

The Getty’s photographs collection has been enhanced by a number of recent acquisitions and donations that span the history of the medium, from 19th-century pioneers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Gustave Le Gray to 20th-centuty photojournalists Robert Capa and Robert Jackson and living artists such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Linda Connor, John Divola, and Jack Welpott.  A list of some recent additions to the photographs collection is outlined below.

PHOTOGRAPHS ACQUISITIONS FROM NOVEMBER 2004-PRESENT

Acquisitions by Purchase:
Robert Adams, Untitled  
Robert Capa, six photographs 
Linda Connor, 56 photographs 
William Henry Jackson, On the Tomoka near Ormond, Florida  
André Kertész, two photographs
Gustave Le Gray and O. Mestral, two photographs   
Edouard Léon Theodore Mesens, Masque servant à injurier les esthètes
Edmund Teske, two photographs     
Jack Welpott, 12 photographs      
Unknown maker (“Giraudon’s Artist”), 16 photographs   

Acquisitions by Gift:
Diane Arbus, three photographs, Gift of Jeffrey Fraenkel and Frish Brandt
Lewis Baltz, 40 prints from the Park City portfolio, Gift of Michael R. Kaplan, MD
Alexander Bullock, View of Ruins, Gift of Edgar Munhall given in honor of Gordon Baldwin
Charles Clifford, Spanish Cathedral, Gift of the John Eric Matthiesen Collection
John Divola, 35 photographs, Gift of The Wilson Centre for Photography
Lisette Model, three photographs, Gift of Galerie Baudoin Lebon / Galerie Maurice Keitelman
Ryuijie Morgan, Oak Trees, Gift of Gary and Barbara Baugh
Aaron Siskind, 15 photographs, Gift of Dan and Jeanne Fauci
Henry Holmes Smith, Art Sinsabaugh, Jerry Uelsman, and other artists, 74 photographs, Gift of the Smith Family Trust
William Henry Fox Talbot, Villagio, Gift of Alexander Novak
Laura Volkerding, Stonecarver’s Studio, Gift of John Walsh in honor of Barbara Whitney
Weegee (Arthur Fellig), After Midnight, Rescue of an Old Woman at Tenement House, 10th Ave. and 60th street, Gift of David Raymond
Robert Weingarten, 25 photographs, Gift of Alvin and Heidi Toffler
Boris Yaro, two photographs, Gift of Fahey/Klein Gallery
Unknown makers, two American tintypes, Gift of Gordon Baldwin and Margaret Stage Salter

MEDIA CONTACT:        John Giurini
                                     Getty Communications Dept.
                                     310-440-6573
                                     jgiurini@getty.edu

 

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