Art Criticism and Writing | MFA Program

Thursday May 2nd, 2013
Filed under Spring 2013

“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Tyler Akers

Albert Bartholome, "In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholome)," 1881. Oil on canvas. Displayed with the sitter's gown. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the late nineteenth century, many American and European Impressionist painters glamorized fashionable clothing and the standard of living that came with it. They painted parties in opulent interiors, luncheons in lush summer landscapes, and the exquisite liveliness of going out for an evening, attending a ball or visiting the theater. These artists articulated an image of their world through a personal lens of formal style, as in the bright strokes and atmospheric perspective of Monet, the brushy, delicate figuration of Renior, or the painted dots of Seurat.

“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in cooperation with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The exhibition is evidence of the Metropolitan’s rich collection of images and objects from the twenty-year period between 1860 and 1880: it presents over eighty paintings and sixteen period dresses and costumes with matching hats and shoes. In addition to an array of accessories such as fans, parasols, and walking sticks, there are also display cases of fashion illustrations, photographs, and publications from the era. The show provides the context of a Parisian bourgeoisie during the time of Impressionism, displaying an interaction between fashion and art.

The material is presented within eight galleries that are navigated linearly, one after another. In the first room is a grouping of large, full-length portraits, each demonstrating a different modern ideal of beauty. Images of women, in paintings such as Monet’s Camille (1866) and Manet’s Young Lady (1866), are shown with concurrent fashion trends, and the favored facial features of the time are represented by models in popular fashion illustrations and journals, some more provocative than others. They present the women in repose, relaxing in their beautiful attire or gently pulling off a glove or shoe.

Paintings in the second gallery explore the ambient qualities of sunlight with leisurely scenes of men, women, and children wearing their best summer clothes. The feathery white cottons and silks kept people cool, and the painters depicted them waving in the wind while they shimmered in the light. It is the perfect subject for the Impressionist eye, tuned to atmospheric phenomena and the dreamlike potential of painting.

The show continues with two counterpart gallery spaces, one focusing on the white dress and the other on the black dress. The comparison addresses the stylistic differences between wearing the two colors. White day dresses were usually made of thin, airy materials and were meant to be worn in the flowing wind. A couple of white dresses featuring light chiffon and frilly lace are shown in large glass showcases. Monet’s romantic paintings of daytime parties in the French countryside are hung adjacent to the dresses. Conversely, the black dress represented refinement and the elegance that came with rigid corseting and elaborate ornamentation, as seen in the paintings of Renoir and Manet.

Albert Bartholomé’s In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé), 1881, is positioned in the center of the fifth gallery as a tour-de-force example of the dialogue between fashion and art. In this comparison of dress and painting, Bartholomé’s representation of his wife wearing a white and dark blue dress is paired with the dress itself. The outfit is a conglomeration of details, including fringe, buttons and drapery; polka dotted and striped, it has a tight waist and a large bustle at the back. Viewing the dress alongside the painting, which shows the artist’s wife standing in a garden entrance to a greenhouse, is a back and forth process. One walks around the dress as if witnessing a memory.

The sixth and seventh rooms examine the role of men in art and fashion during the twenty-year period. As seen in Degas’s Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1878), men wore vested suits and top hats with canes, which seem simple and stiff compared to the lavish garments of women at this time. In the seventh space is an organization of paintings and objects that show the avid consumerism of this era, and the relationship it established between husband and wife. Advertisements, packaging, and magazines associated with selling clothes—and an image of beauty—are shown alongside paintings such as Tissot’s The Shop Girl (1883), a scene in a Parisian boutique in which a woman subtly smiles at the viewer as a man peers with confusion through the window.

The last gallery features paintings of city life, the changing weather and movement of people: snapshots of Paris with its dazzling streets and venues. In Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), residents of the city are shown on the misty sidewalk of a cobblestone street wet with rain. They wear overcoats and clutch umbrellas, their facial expressions relating to the somber energy of the scene. Every element of the painting serves to render an emotional impression.

“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” offers several ways of entering the world of fashion and of considering its meaning during the late 19th century. Aside from a couple of galleries toward the end, much of the exhibition explores the role of women and their representation during that time. A few feminist currents run through the curatorial choices. The paintings objectify women and relegate them to idealized pictorial settings, but they are also an account of their dominance, demonstrating the power of a wife in marriage and the importance of women as muses. The show also includes the work of female impressionist painters such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, without their usual labeling as a token female other, honoring their contributions without highlighting their gender. Instead of getting derailed in a critique of the system, the show generously explores styles of painting and bourgeoisie Parisian society, and the ways in which they informed each other.

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