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At the Milliner's

At the Milliner039s

A lady, and a hat.  The lady is Mary Cassatt.  She posed for Degas, she is supposed to have said, “only once in a while when he finds the movement difficult and the model cannot seem to get his idea.”

Is the difficult movement here that of the woman herself, coming to an understanding with the hat?

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Or is it the movement across the barrier, the mirror, between her and the shop assistant, who hands her another hat.

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These shop assistants were not allowed to sit down – they still don’t, sit down, women working in shops.  Here it means that one of the figures is at leisure to imagine herself becoming another woman, one who wears such a hat

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while the other, somewhat obscured, politely, and by constraint, awaits her transformation.

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[All images are iphone pictures from Degas, At the Milliner's, Metropolitan Museum, 1882, pastel.]


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Ornament and Negative Space

Ornament and Negative Space

Degas, Edmondo and Therese Morbilli, about 1865, MFA, iphone detail


The trio of Degas portraits currently at the MFA (written about here two weeks ago) has drawn my attention back to Degas.  In half an hour with the Degas at the Metropolitan Museum, and on a quick return visit to those at the MFA, I found myself concentrating on the negative spaces, what happens beyond the edges of the figures, and on the things between things. I looked closely at Edmondo and Therese Mobilli, the portrait Degas made of his sister and her husband about 1865, and at Duchessa di Montejasi, with her daughters Elena and Camilla, from about 1876.  

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And then at home, I went back to some passages of Degas’ notebooks, and was struck by one I had marked before:

"Draw a lot.  Oh, beautiful drawing! – Ornament is the intelligence connecting one thing and another or [one] overcomes this gap by a connection between the two things and
that’s the source of ornament…." {from Sources & Documents: Impression and Post-Impression, 1874-1904, compiled Linda Nochlin, notebook of 1869, quoted on p62.}


It’s this sentence: “Ornament is the intelligence connecting one thing and another,” or the effort of overcoming the gap between two things is the “source of ornament.”  Here is an evidently ornamented passage in the portrait Degas made of his sister and her husband:

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The idea of connectivity seems naturally connected to hands – with what else do we stretch across to “another thing.”

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A further sense of how these connections might be discovered to the viewer comes from a later notebook passage with more instructions the painter made to himself:

"Do every kind of worn object placed, accompanied in such a way that they have the life of the man or the woman; corsets which have just been taken off, for example – and which keep the form of the body, etc. etc."   {see source above, p63.}


Of course one thinks immediately of Degas’ bathers, his dancers.  But even when his people are still wearing their clothes, the clothes follow their forms in such a way that one can almost see a kind of trailing off of the form as one comes to the spaces between the figures.


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I think part of the beauty of this so-beautiful space between the Duchessa and her daughter is that it still somehow has the residue of their two forms.  The painter has found a way to overcome an obviously formidable distance between them.



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Tiepolo's Time

Tiepolo039s Time

Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, 1760s



Reading Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink persuaded me to look carefully, for the first time, at the Tiepolo oil sketches that fill almost a room at the Metropolitan Museum. As ever, I had less time than I would have liked. Was astonished by their upwardness. Sense of being drawn up into the sky – the whole company, nymphs and swans and chariots upward, upward, into the vast swirl of the heavens.


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Calasso’s book in a revelatory sense about time.  Father Time a recurring figure in Tiepolo’s oeuvre – and shown here.  I believe the older man in blue between cherub and swans.  (The hours are with Aurora in her chariot.)


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The sensation of time in looking at these oil sketches was very peculiar.  In the heavens, the time is divine time, the time of myths and disporting, and this time is circular, though not without sequence. Particular moments have been shown, dramatic moments, but the whole story, known to the gods, if not to us, is implicit there.    

This is part of the feeling of mystery, the story is known, but it is not clear that it will be known to us, as we might like to believe, “in the fullness of time.”  Can’t escape the feeling that these powerful inscrutable faces, intent on the project of carrying forward day and light, are in an intractable relationship with the narrative flow of their story in a way that does not even resemble the way we recount the incidents of our days to one another.


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