By Rebecca Smith ’99
As curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis (Mo.) Art Museum, Charlotte Eyerman ’87 spends her days surrounded by some of the world’s most precious works of art. Last September, she enhanced this already illustrious collection by negotiating the $10 million purchase of Degas’ The Milliners—one of the most expensive acquisitions by an American museum to date.
An English major at Holy Cross, Eyerman had always been interested in the expression of ideas and the portrayal of the human condition through literature.
She had an equally powerful encounter with art during her first art history class at Holy Cross, in which Professor Joanna Ziegler instructed her to write a paper on a 17th-century Merovingian belt buckle.
Eyerman remembers the assignment vividly: “I was amazed at how a work of art could reveal so much about a culture, a region and a time period,” she says.
Her love of art flourished during her junior year abroad in France—a destination recommended to her by adviser Blaise Nagy of the classics department.
“I had intended to go to England,” recalls Eyerman, “but Professor Nagy inspired me to take a risk—one that ultimately changed my life.”
Under the encouragement of Ziegler—whom she refers to as her “champion and mentor”—Eyerman earned her Ph.D. in art history at the University of California at Berkeley.
Now a specialist in 19th-century French art, she is responsible for installing the permanent collection, organizing exhibitions and augmenting the collections at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
To that end, Eyerman is constantly on the lookout for great works of art. Last year, thanks to her wide network of contacts in the international art community—and her ability to speak fluent French—she was able to locate an exceptionally valuable oil painting by French artist Edgar Degas. In private hands since 1918, The Milliners is compelling for its excellent condition as well as its “astonishing beauty,” according to Eyerman.
Painted around 1898 as part of a series the artist launched at the height of Impressionism, the work bridges the 19th and 20th centuries. The Milliners, pioneering in its bold use of color, complements the great strengths of the museum’s collection of Impressionist and early 20th-century art as well as its other works by Degas, including two pastels, three drawings, nine prints and two sculptures.
The painting portrays two female milliners—or hat makers—and a prominent, centrally placed feather arching between them as they decorate a vivid yellow hat with streaming ribbons. It fits with the artist’s larger theme of representing modern women at work.
“In this work, as in his depictions of dancers, bathers and ironers, Degas displays empathy toward his subjects,” explains Eyerman. “Degas, like the milliners he represents, uses humble raw materials to create something spectacular.”
Whether she is engaging art aficionados at the museum or instructing newcomers to the field, Eyerman manifests fascination with art that is is contagious.
“An encounter with a great work of art has the power to stop you in your tracks,” she says. “My role is to give people the opportunity to experience art in their own way.”