FRAME|WORK: At the Milliner's by Édouard Manet

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week we feature an intimate picture by Édouard Manet currently on display in Gallery 19 at the Legion of Honor.

Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883). At the Milliner's (La modiste), 1881. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection. 1957.3

One hallmark of Impressionist painting is the artists' decision to represent the modern world, rather than scenes with allegorical themes or historical narratives. Édouard Manet’s depictions of contemporary life employed bold and painterly brushwork, which significantly influenced the style that would become known as Impressionism.

At the Milliner’s was painted only two or three years before Manet’s death and portrays one of the themes that Manet preferred later in his career: feminine elegance. The depiction of women in shops or boudoirs trying on hats was also favored by several of Manet’s contemporaries, including Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.

Although the title indicates that Manet's subject is in a milliner's shop, the woman's exposed shoulders and the room's luxurious detailing suggest an intimate setting, or perhaps the privacy of a home. The figure's exquisitely outlined and flattened profile is contrasted against the patterned wallpaper background, evoking Manet's interest in Japanese prints. The flurry of vigorous brushwork composing the wallpaper demonstrates the artist's painterly skill even in the face of a disabling disease. Despite Manet's illness, At the Milliner's shows no sign of the artist's diminishing artistic power.

It is unknown who this woman is, and efforts to identify her have proved unsuccessful. The painting may have been considered unfinished by Manet, as it remained in his studio until its posthumous sale in 1884. The almost indistinct signature at the lower left was also added after his death.

Complement your visit to the the Legion of Honor by visiting this exquisite portrait in the Impressionist gallery as well as seeing Pissarro’s People, on view through January 22, 2012.

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Further reading: Legion of Honor Selected Works and Masterworks of European Painting in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1999.

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