The Art of Fashion in the Impressionist Era
“The latest fashion . . . is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most.” — Édouard Manet, 1881.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is curating a sumptuous show this winter/spring, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, opening this week and running through May 27, 2013.
A collaboration between The Met, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the works collected chronicle the golden years of Impressionist painting from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s when Paris became the style capital of the world.
It was during this time that the avant-garde sought to distinguish themselves from old-school portraitists and paint their subjects in a new, modern light, focusing on au courant costumes and accoutrements at the expense of the individuals’ physical characteristics.
The show pays homage to modernity and, specifically, the Parisienne, who as Gary Tinterow writes in the catalogue’s opening essay, “became in the 1860s a fashion statement; the dress, not the face, was the focus.”
Scholar Ruth Iskin, author of Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting, explains: “For the Impressionists (excluding Pissarro), the chic Parisienne replaced the earlier interest of Realist painters in rural working women. She also played a central role in the shift from academic to modern painting led by Manet and the Impressionists, replacing nude or draped mythological figures with modern Parisiennes in contemporary fashions.”
A parade of fashion statements — some 80 landmark figure paintings, many monumental in scale, mimicking grand history paintings — plays out in the exhibit’s eight galleries. Sixteen lavish period dresses, accessories (corsets, bonnets, parasols, slippers), fashion prints and magazines are on display, the inspiration for the canvases’ depictions of le dernier cri.
The exhibit has a breathtaking quality as one surveys room after room of iconic Impressionist works representing the intersection of fine art and fashion. The show opens with a display case featuring the green striped dress illustrated in Monet’s masterpiece Camille (1866), a picture of his then-19-year-old mistress who later became his wife. The dress, a promenade dress, has a long train, and its life-size artistic rendering can be seen in the next room, complete with fur-trimmed fitted jacket and Empire bonnet that ties under the neck. The dress is the thing. It dominates the canvas, completely eclipsing Camille’s face, which is small and painted in profile; her eyes are lowered (see painting above).
For the artists of this period were interested in painting modern female prototypes, not specific individuals. Renoir’s Lise — The Woman with the Umbrella (1867), dubbed the “sister” to Camille, illustrates the point. Lise was Renoir’s 19-year-old companion and mistress, in other words, a Camille and a Parisienne. In the picture she is portrayed in a country outfit in a country setting. She wears a full-length, sheer, white muslin dress, sans crinoline, that is cinched at the waist with a long black sash; she carries a black lace parasol and sports a porkpie hat. Her face and shoulders are bathed in shadow, masking her precise features; the folds of her skirt and the sleeves of her dress are illuminated by sunlight, directing viewers’ attention to her apparel and away from her face and head.
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926), Camille, 1866. Oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Bremen, Der Kunstverein in Bremen
Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919), Lise (Woman with Umbrella), 1867. Oil on canvas, Museum Folkwang, Essen
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