“The Parisienne is not in fashion, she is fashion.” Though these words still ring true today, they were written by the French novelist/poet Arsène Houssaye for the magazine L’Artiste in 1869. In fact, the quote currently presides over a gallery in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that seductively transports visitors to the beginnings of Paris’s status as the fashion capital of the world.
Dazzling Impressionist-era paintings (some never before seen in the U.S.) parade the haute couture of the day—crinoline dresses and elaborate bustles—while taking care to capture the tactile qualities of fabrics and the smallest of details, in order to signal that the fashions represented were also the latest. Nineteenth-century fashion plates, photographs and prints, and sixteen period costumes and accessories—including everything from hats, shoes and corsets, to fans, parasols, and walking canes—not only bring to life the Impressionists’ creations in paint, but also whisk museum-goers away into an era newly inundated with the trappings of mass-consumer fashion, a time when being of the moment was paramount.
As the show emphasizes, artists sought to represent—both in content and style—their modern world, and in the mid-1860s–mid-1880s many embraced fashion as the ultimate indication of modernity. The allure of Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity’s eight galleries, organized both thematically and chronologically, thus derives from the dialogue they engender between the objects of modern life and the painters of modern life.
The innovative ways in which Impressionist painters gave expression to their world is showcased throughout. For example, there is still something shocking about the preference for fashion over portraiture in the large-scale figure paintings featured in the exhibition’s first gallery. Inspired by the nearby fashion illustrations and carte-de-visite photographs, the women pose facing away from the viewer, letting their luxurious trains spill out into the foreground of the canvases. The eye-catching elegance of the satin green-striped dress and fur-trimmed paletot in Camille renders the subject not merely Monet’s lover, but rather, a true Parisienne of the era.
Claude Monet’s fragmented Luncheon on the Grass (1865-6) and Women in the Garden (1866) are two of the show’s highlights. A nod to new railroads that whisked city dwellers to the countryside, Monet not only captures the prominent world of leisure, but also manipulates natural elements, such as sun and shade, to highlight the feminine details of the women’s country styles, versions of which can be found in the same gallery.
Two galleries, “The White Dress,” and “The Black Dress,” are particularly interesting for the way in which fashion and Impressionist painterliness come together. Paintings of women strolling in the country or engaging in activities in the home show them wearing informal, white morning or day dresses. Artists delicately render the ethereal quality of these cotton and muslin garments, as in Berthe Morisot’s Woman with a Fan (Portrait of Madame Marie Hubbard) (1874), conjuring in paint the quietness and solitude of these scenes.
Black, meanwhile, which in this time emerged as symbolic of elegance, worldliness, and sophistication, offered artists a chance to show off their abilities to describe the lights and darks of black dresses made of taffeta, faille, or organza. Two standouts are Éduoard Manet’s Lady with Fans (1873), which depicts a gold-embroidered bolero, an Algerian blouse, and Japanese screens, demonstrating an interest in the exotic, and Manet’s The Parisienne (1875), in which quick dashes of blue paint are used to invoke satin and ruffles.
An exciting moment in the show comes with discovering Albert Bartholomé’s In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé) (1881), the only painting to be accompanied by the actual dress it represents. The painting shows Madame Bartholomé, a well-known hostess in artistic and literary circles, welcoming the viewer. Visitors will know that Bartholomé accurately depicted his wife’s fantastic white and purple summer dress by examining the actual garment’s elaborate pleating, glass buttons, and faille bow.
Among the not-to-be-missed works later in the show is Pierre-August Renoir’s The Loge, depicting the model Nina Lopez in her box at the theatre, fashionable in stripes, and representing the spectacle of modern Paris—urban spaces were for seeing and being seen. Indeed, fashion in the 1870s and 80s was an urban phenomenon. In this regard, the iconic, large-scale Paris Street, Rainy Day, equally a portrait of Paris’s new boulevards and the latest fashion, by Gustave Caillebotte, provides the perfect capstone to the exhibition.
Replete with masterworks from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Metropolitan, many of the works constitute highlights. In short, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is a feast for the eyes. Parisian consumerism comes to life with displays of velvet, lace, ruffles, and even whalebone-clasped corsets. Objects both painted and real demonstrate the constant pull modernity had on designers and painters alike. As Édouard Manet is quoted in the exhibition: “The latest fashion…is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most.”
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 26–May 27, 2013. The exhibition will then travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on view from June 26–September 22, 2013.
See more exhibition highlights:
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