Exhibition Review: Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity

This weekend, while visiting the newest exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum Art,  I watched as ruffles became brush strokes and bright buttons became dots of paint on a canvas.

At Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, gowns, suits, parasols, hats, and fans from the period are available for your study, as they appear alongside paintings containing similar and sometimes the same objects. Each object reveals details the Impressionist painters left to our imagination, but being removed from this period, it is difficult to imagine and infer the beautiful detail of the bustle or the expertly sewn soutache trim without seeing the garment or accessory firsthand.

This exhibit teaches how to see these paintings more accurately. It gives us a hint of the reality Monet, Courbet, Tissot, and others transformed into statements of style and feeling. The artists captured distinct moments in a previous time, one that was vastly different from our own.

Credit Suzanne De Chillo of the New York Times.

Credit: Suzanne De Chillo/New York Times

In the paintings displayed at Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, bold fashions are as prominent as the subject, sometimes overwhelming a portrait with a striped dress or a red bolero. The striking gowns and accessories in these works demand an audience; the color, setting, and subject matter reflect on a new era in fashionable clothing and conduct for the epitome of urbanity – the Parisian.

The women wearing peignoirs, day dresses, and evening gowns captured by the Impressionist painters convey an intimacy and immediacy of the moment and of the era. The quick brush stokes share an expediency with the industrial age, as ready to wear and patterns made fashionable dress available to most social classes. The large, loose application of color exploits the frivolity of fashionable lace and trim, building volume where none existed. And the variety of colors upon the canvas explores the novelty of alkaline dyes on women posed near treasured antiques.

The Impressionists were capturing a change in lifestyle, a nod to the new consumerism, an acceptance of relaxed morals (at least for those among the artistic community), and the increasing disparity between men’s and women’s fashion.

The first half of the exhibit features dresses from the 1860s and their triangular silhouette, with a fitted bodice and a full skirt with additional gathering at the back. With the crinoline, the volume of the skirt becomes a dramatic feature of many of the Impressionist paintings, especially when artists borrowed poses from the popular fashion plates, also on exhibit. These skillfully rendered illustrations, created as steel and wood engravings, display intricate dress details overlaid by bright paints carefully applied by hand.

Monet, Claude. Luncheon on the Grass (left panel and center panel), 1865-66.  Oil on canvas, 164 5/8 x 59 (left panel) and 97 7/8 x 85 7/8 in. (right panel). From the collection at the Musée d'Orsay. Found online.

Monet, Claude. Luncheon on the Grass (left panel and center panel), 1865-66. Oil on canvas, 164 5/8 x 59 (left panel) and 97 7/8 x 85 7/8 in. (right panel). From the collection at the Musée d’Orsay. Found online.

A moment, a glance, and a well-placed prop – much of Impressionism is just that.  They are works that quietly share their stories through quick, bold brushstrokes documenting both dress fabric and model. Dollops of lace or tarlatan share the canvas with the subject strolling languidly en plein air or relaxing in a lavish interior space. A fashionable cashmere shawl draped dramatically over a woman’s arm and back is forever captured, and a glove drops to the floor remaining there as posed as the model wearing its mate. A coquettish turn of the head replaces the structured pose of a formal portrait, and the yardage of unstructured intimate apparel reveals much about a relationship.

In some these portraits, fashion gives an impression of impropriety. Illicit affairs are subtly implied by the presence of men’s accessories – a monocle or a top hat. Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress, received a cavalier portrayal in Manet’s work of 1862, as she lays crippled and blind from syphilis. She is of course, dressed in white, but as Emile Zola said, she is in one of the many tones of white used during the period. Could this white be an accusatory tone, or simply an accurate one? Her portrait does certainly not pay her any compliments.

Zola has a quite a presence at the exhibit. His words appear on walls adjacent to Impressionist masterpieces, and his flattering description often describes his appreciation for the artists and their subjects. As a contemporary, Zola and other quoted critics provide a valuable perspective to the artwork surrounding them.


Credit: Suzanne De Chillo/New York Times

In the 1880s, the triangular silhouette evolved into the shortened princess style, its bustle and elegant swept tiers hinting at movement and providing a new canvas for jet beading, fringe, and other popular trims. Men’s fashion had also developed a more streamlined shape. According to a contemporary critic, a suit had become two pipes feeding into a larger pipe, and topped “by a gutter pipe” – a hat! The urban male had become stylishly serious, requiring only two types of clothes, both day and evening. In the 1880s, a woman’s wardrobe was still confined by the corset and fashions that mandated many changes of dress based on time of day and activity.

Fantin-Latour, Henri. Édouard Manet, 1867. Oil on canvas; 46 5/16 x 35 7/16 in. Part of the collection at The Art Institute of Chicago. Found online.

Fantin-Latour, Henri. Édouard Manet, 1867. Oil on canvas, 46 5/16 x 35 7/16 in. Part of the collection at The Art Institute of Chicago. Found online.

Of course, Worth has a presence at this exhibit in both fabric and pictorial scenes of parties and festivities. His detailed gowns, with their well-placed pleats and trims, were widely copied both in Europe and in the United States. When describing a particularly gossamer Worth creation, a plaque in the exhibit mentions that the rose and leaves stitched to the gown would have “trembled with every movement of the wearer”. A man’s top hat, both stately and serious, was the perfect foil for a woman’s flower-covered bonnet.

The enduring appeal of the Impressionists is this: these omitted details that place garments to a certain period or year are replaced by an emotional expression – an expression of joy, of lust, of friendship. It is this emotional expression that allows these interpretations of period fashion to remain relevant.  It also best serves the fashions and designers of the day. For what is fashion removed from feeling and a designer removed from his zeitgeist? Clothing without context is just a shell of a story. Alongside a painting, a dress or a suit becomes part of a visual essay on context and culture.

For a multitude of images of the exhibit, please visit this site. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until May 27, 2013.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10028-0198
Phone: 212-535-7710

Tuesday–Thursday: 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 9:30 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Sunday: 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

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