Meet The Curator: Simon Kelly Of The Saint Louis Art Museum

Prepare to be transported to 19th-century Paris during the rise of the millinery trade at the Saint Louis Art Museum’s exhibition, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” on view now through May 7, 2017. The world was shifting during this time, questioning its ideals and moving away from the old to embrace the new. The modern concept of an art market emerged alongside the rise of capitalism, which meant artists were less dependent on the older system of patronage from the Church. The support of collectors, dealers and galleries developed a creative economy where artists were free to create culturally relevant work in the way they desired.

At the head of this movement was French Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. While many of his contemporaries painted photorealistic scenes from mythology, Degas embraced a dreamier aesthetic, rooted in scenes from everyday life in Paris. It served as the perfect philosophical backdrop for Degas’ enchantment with hat makers and their trade as artists and craftsmen. The exhibition features Degas’ paintings as well as many hats created by milliners during the time.

Simon Kelly, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, researched and traveled tirelessly to gather the objects and paintings on view for the show. We talked with Kelly to uncover his inspiration, process and the history behind this fascinating time.

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What is your personal fascination with the work that inspired how the show was curated?
I’ve always loved the work of Degas. Much of my own academic work has looked at art within a broader socioeconomic context, and I became intrigued by the extensive hat trade in the 19th century. The hats in the show are beautiful art objects, bought and sold as commodities. I was thinking, too, about the milliners and trying to understand them, as well as the importance of women’s labor at the time. The show is really about these women.

How did you gather the art and objects for the exhibition?
We have many major loans in the exhibition from a range of institutions. Preparations for this goes back several years, which began with talking to colleagues and traveling to actually see each work. I traveled to France and throughout America to see almost every object in the exhibition before I requested it.

We also secured loans from private collections, which is a big part of the show—a number of these works are being shown for the first time in America. In selecting the objects themselves, the most important criterion was that they were beautiful, strong objects. That was true for the paintings, and also for the hats. It came down to wanting high-quality objects, but also making sure each one fit contextually with the importance of the milliner, the consumer and the materiality of hats.

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What sparked Degas’ fascination with milliners and the millinery trade?
The starting point was really the Impressionist fascination with painting modern life. Instead of painting mythology, Degas wanted to paint contemporary life in Paris. Within that context, milliners fit in perfectly because at the time, the millinery trade was infinitely more important to industry than it is today. By the end of the 19th century, there were close to a thousand milliners in Paris—employing around 8,000 workers—with thousands of women preparing the plumes and flowers that adorned the hats. Degas was also completely fascinated by hats themselves: their textures, materials and also finding equivalents in paints and pastels to depict them. But really, it was the hats and the milliners themselves who were elite workers in the fashion trade and the most creative workers at the time. He empathized with them as artists.

How did the Saint Louis Art Museum decide on this concept for an exhibit?
The acquisition of Degas’ painting, “The Milliners (1898)” was a motivator for this exhibition as a whole. It was a major acquisition in 2007 and a very significant piece for the museum’s collection. The exhibition aims to put that piece in a fresh context. It depicts a milliner creating a hat along with an assistant, focusing on the artistry of the milliner and the way she’s represented with her intense focus. This was his last painting on the millinery theme, and in it he hides the face of the milliner, who was probably a première, or shop owner, so that her intense concentration is emphasized. Degas’ artistry in this painting represented an earlier world of elegant fashion.

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How did you become interested in a career in fine art?
I’m actually from a village about 25 miles northeast of London, called Ingatestone. My dad is an artist, so I used to paint outdoors myself, often with him. I didn’t think I was good enough to be an artist myself; I’m much better at writing about art. I did my undergraduate work at Cambridge, Ph.D at Oxford and then came to the United States for a one-year fellowship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

I started with the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2010. In a previous position I taught Degas’ work and the millinery trade, which got me thinking about this subject matter in the context of a museum well before I came here. In my initial interview at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the possibility of doing a show around Degas’ work was discussed. It connected to my interests conceptually, and I think it’s great we’re also celebrating the Art Museum’s collection. I’ve learned that every art museum has a different way of approaching collecting and exhibitions. There are similarities, as we are all art museums, but different institutions have varying spaces to work with and different collection strengths.

What originally sparked your interest in Degas?
Part of this interest is just the beauty of his work and the complexity of his art. You see a shift from earlier work, which is very linear, precise and detailed. Later in his career, his work moves in a very different direction—much more abstract. I was interested in the range and variety of his art, his personality and his identity. He was quite strong-willed and knew the kind of art he wanted to produce. He’s a great example of an independent artist in the 19th century, and his career reflects a broader shift in artistic identities coming out of the Romantic Movement in the wake of the French Revolution. The rise of the city and urbanism was also occurring—Paris and London were expanding massively during those times. Capitalism as a concept was developing, which was crucial to the expansion of the art market. It was all interconnected. Degas clearly thought of his paintings as commodities to be bought and sold, like the hats he was painting. On the one hand, he was very independent and bohemian. But, at the same time, he was also very business-savvy.

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All photography by Elizabeth Wiseman

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