Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity


of an Exhibition

by Niki Jones

Published on April 08, 2013

  • Description:

    “The latest fashion…is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most,” (Edouard Manet, 1881). These are the enticing words that draw you into the visual tour de force that is ‘Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity’, the most recent offering from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A combination of well-known Impressionist masterpieces, innovative photography and extravagant accessories, this exhibition presents the rise of fashion in 19th-Century Paris, the style capital of the world at the time. It was the period that saw the birth of the department store and ready-to-wear fashion, a time when the stylish Parisian knew that a la mode mattered. Artists moved with the times and began to shift from painting the familiar portrait, to large scale formats, to depict the wealth of their clients and exhibit a more modern outlook. These artists used fashion as a stimulus in their work and the end result does not disappoint.

    At the entrance to the exhibition, I was met by a mannequin who is lavishly draped in the haute couture of 19th-century Paris. The rich green and black striped day dress from the 1860s, perched majestically under a spotlight, is echoed in the green and black wall paper behind her. A simple setting, but alluring in its arrangement, which perfectly connected me to Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) ‘The Woman in the Green Dress’ (1866) in the first gallery. The model Camille, angled with her back to the viewer to give a full view of her fashionable striped silk dress and fur-trimmed jacket. In this gallery, I was greeted by an abundance of color and opulence, in sharp contrast to the dark entrance hall I had just left. Each painting standing out boldly against the dark taupe walls, that appear to enhance the clarity of the works of art.

    “The Parisian is not in fashion, she is fashion,” (Arsene Houssaye, 1869). Houssaye sums up beautifully what it is the artists aim to capture within their paintings. The latest dress, the styled hair, the hand-sewn kid gloves, the lace parasol – all an expression of wealth and status at the time. The second gallery, ‘En Plein Air’ celebrates ‘the heroism of modern life’, something readily available to the upper classes who could afford the time to relax and enjoy the finer things in life, whilst ensuring their stylish attire was fully on display. Claude Monet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ (1865-66) demands attention from the moment one walks into the gallery (see picture below). The two remaining pieces of this masterpiece, which were once rescued from Monet’s landlord’s basement, offer bold and vibrant splashes of color on a seemingly warm summers day. The richness of the fashion is complimented by the lushness of the surrounding forest backdrop and the soft dappled light on the grass. The picnickers parade their latest fashionable threads and their privileged lifestyle in an informal gathering. This painting is brought to life via the fashionably attired mannequin in a glass case directly in front of the paintings.

    The white dress and the black dress are paid homage to in the preceding galleries. The white dress offers a breath of fresh air into an already roomy and spacious setting, and the black dress offers a ‘taste of the exotic’. Both rooms display examples of wealthy past-times and intimate moments in time, transporting us back to a period when pinched in waists and layers of silk taffeta were the norm. Pierre Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) ‘Woman at the Piano’, (1875-76), captures a romantic depiction of a wealthy woman enjoying a moment of respite, offering the viewer a glimpse into her every day life and a ‘sense of familiarity’. Moving through the gallery, the black dress, which was a staple in the 19th-century wardrobe, is shown in iconic paintings by Berthe Marisot (1841-1895), Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Albert Bartholome (1848-1928) and complimented by mid 19th-century day dresses set in glass cabinets in the center of the rooms, easily spaced to allow room for viewers to maneuver around them. I was mesmerized by a small painting in the corner at the end of this gallery, Bartholome’s ‘The Artist’s Wife’ (1883), a simple, yet exquisite representation of the elegant black dress. This painting allowed me to share a quiet moment with Bartholome’s wife, who although lying reading a book looks as though she is dressed for dinner with friends, or a night out. Her hair coiffed and her accessories gleaming, she looks the epitome of fashionable chic.

    The remaining galleries took me on a journey of evolving modern art and the advancing trends in fashion. I learned how the bustle gave way to more streamlined skirts and the ethereal white dress saw its demise. This was a time that the Impressionist art movement was truly conceived, with every day subject matters depicted and great pains taken to show the best representation of light and movement. Bartholome’s painting of ‘In the Conservatory’ (1881), is the only painting in the exhibition that is shown with the actual dress represented in the painting. The minute waist, eye-watering to look at, is captured beautifully in Bartholome’s piece and is further emphasized by the dress itself. It left me mesmerized to think that his wife, the model, actually wore it and I was left to wonder how on earth she squeezed into it!

    On leaving the vivid, fresh colors of modern women’s fashion behind I entered the staid and altogether formal expression of men’s fashion during the 19th-century. In comparison to the fluid pastel tones of Monet and the feathery brushstroke of Renoir, this gallery takes on a more serious tone. It is seemingly darker and the paintings hang ominously on the walls staring down upon those walking past. Unlike the fashionable women of the 19th-century, who changed their clothes depending on the time of day and occasion, the men had two choices: day wear or evening wear. They did not have the same freedom of colors and their options were very simple. As women’s fashion increased in detail and extravagance, men’s fashion became more sober and the paintings in the gallery reflect this.

    To add distinction to their work, the artists chose to focus on innovative cropping and clever use of props and accessories. Examples of some of these accessories are found within the center of the room, in a glass cabinet. James Tissot’s (1836-1902) ‘The Circle of the Rue Royale’ (1868), brilliantly captures the ‘arrogantly relaxed gentry’ languishing in their frock coats, with an array of top hats, canes and bow ties adding depth to the painting. This is in comparison to Jean-Frederic Bazille’s (1841-1870) work, which seems out of place amongst the formality of the other paintings. Bazille has captured the artist Renoir in a relaxed stance, knees bent with feet resting on the seat of his chair, gazing off to his right. Although very different to the other paintings which display wealth and opulence, I rather liked the nonchalant air of this piece. For me, it added an element of personality to an otherwise ‘grey’ room.

    My exhibition experience sadly came to an end with ‘Spaces of Modern Life’, a tribute to the venues that the fashionable set went to parade themselves and to be ‘seen’. Along the wide promenades of Paris, at the opera, in the ballroom – all places where ‘fashion mattered’. The anticipation depicted in Tissot’s ‘Evening (The Ball)’ (1878) drew my attention. The form fitting canary yellow dress, the elegant form of the model in a luxurious ballroom setting. I could almost hear the music and laughter that emanated from this painting. This was juxtaposed next to Gustave Caillebotte’s (1848-1894), ‘Paris Street: Rainy Day’ (1877), where the wet cobbles shimmer under the spotlight and fashionable Parisians huddle under umbrellas to their destination.

    When I left ‘Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity’ and ambled through the dedicated gift shop, I was shocked to realize I had been in the exhibition for two hours, yet it felt like much less. Not once did I feel overwhelmed, bored or eager to leave. The introductory passages in each gallery and the label information was short, simple, yet engaging and the curators left the artwork and artifacts to do the talking. The galleries successfully combine to fluidly tell this story of fashion and the change of traditional minds during the 19th-century not only through the paintings, but also through the clever use of supporting photography, original media and actual fashion. Although the focus would appear to be on fashion and therefore might dissuade some to attend, it is also an exhibition about the changing face of art, the passage of time and the evolution of cultures and minds. The stunning paintings and the artifacts within the galleries make this an exhibition that is accessible to all demographics and it is an exhibition that I would highly recommend.

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