Degas and the Paris Millinery Trade and my Aunt Rosie

By Michael Raffety

7-3-2017

I recently took in the latest impressionist art show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, called “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade.”

As soon as I saw the press invitation for the show that opened June 24 and runs through Sept. 24, the first thing I thought of was a woman myself and my cousins all referred to as Aunt Rosie. I always figured she was called an aunt because she was my grandmother’s best friend. However, there actually was a family connection via my mother’s younger sister Beverly.

Rosa Krann had a millinery shop in Baker, Ore. The eastern Oregon town, set in a valley surrounded by the Blue Mountains, is now Called Baker City, perhaps to distinguish it from Baker, Calif., and Baker, Nev.

At one time there were six millinery shops in Baker, Ore. Aunt Rosie, who had learned millinery work while attending high school in Austria, interned for one of those shops shortly after she arrived in Baker in 1882 with her mother, grandmother and sister and brother.

Once she knew enough people and learned English she opened up her own millinery shop. She operated that shop for 52 years. There is a studio portrait of my grandmother Viva Nordean as a stylish young woman in 1904 sporting one of Rosie’s hats.

Rosie’s sister, a year older than her, married her father Lawrence’s business partner August Meier. August was 42 and Marie was 18. They had five children. The fifth child birth eventually killed her. Just before she died in the hospital in Baker Marie asked Rosa to take care of her children, ages 12, 9, 7, 5 and 18 months. Marie was 31 when she died. Rosa had bought some medicine for her from the druggist to ease her pain. When she went to pay the druggist, Henry Levinger, he asked her to make him one of her fanciest hats. After picking up the hat about 6 p.m. he came back about two and a half hours later and said he had raffled off the hat for $300.67 “to help fund Miss Rosa’s new family.”

The oldest child was Betty, who married the father of the man my mother’s younger sister, Beverly, married. My mother’s youngest sister, Beth, actually worked in Rosa’s hat shop one summer in Baker. Though we all knew Aunt Rosie made women’s hats, we knew her as a friend of my grandmother’s who made us Rice Krispie cookies and would have us over for dinner. She liked children. Never married, she walked each morning to St. Francis de Sales Cathedral to attend Mass.

In 1952 Mamie Eisenhower happened to be traveling through Baker and saw a hat she really liked. She wrote Rosa asking her to make one like it for her, which she did.

A newspaper story noted that among the more lucrative hats she sold were $65 hats to ladies who were part of an element of what Rosa referred to when she said to the society page interviewer, “Well, Baker was a wide open town then.”

Speaking of wide-open town, Paris between 1875 and the First World War had 1,000 milliners working in the fashion capital of the world. Supporting these milliners were an estimated 24,000 artificial flower makers. There were a few milliners who were also clandestine “women of the night.” You’ll quickly note which Degas milliner’s portrait looks a little too fancy and décolletage to be just a hard working hat maker.

The show at the Legion of Honor features more than 40 impressionist paintings and pastels. Besides Degas, who had done 27 paintings of milliners, there are paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The works came from the Musee d’Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the St. Louis Museum of Art. The latter art museum, with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, were co-organizers of the exhibition.

A key highlight of the show is the collection of 19th century women’s hats from collections in Paris, Chicago and gifts to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The hat that got my attention the most was one by an unknown artist in 1890 made of nutcracker heads and golden pheasant feathers. As close as I can determine, the nutcracker is European, possibly Polish. The golden pheasant is a Chinese bird that has gone wild in the U,S. and Canada and is now considered a game bird, though not as prevalent as its other Chinese cousin, the ring-necked pheasant. My grandfather on my mother’s side and my dad would go pheasant hunting in Baker Valley. Grandfather Will Nordean, being a justice of the peace, knew a lot of ranchers who would let him hunt in their fields. The two of them would come back with a string of pheasants. There was no lack of pheasant feathers for Rosa’s Millinery. Rosa, though would go to Chicago for more exotic feathers, such as ostrich.

The art show at the Legion has some little seen and intriguing works by Degas. My favorites, though, were the Renoirs and a painting by Venetian artist Frederico Zandomeneghi.

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