Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity

Although it's somewhat outside the subjects I usually comment on, I thought I might mention the special exhibition now underway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Called "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" it is a sumptuous and fascinatingly frothy concoction of paintings and clothing from the last four decades of the 19th century.

Claude Monet, Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert
French, 1868
Paris, Musee d'Orsay
Exhibited nearby is a virtually identical dress and shawl.
Beginning with the 1860s we are treated to gallery walls lavishly arrayed with paintings of beautifully dressed women (and a few men), from the brushes of the founders of Impressionism and other selected contemporary painters, of the fashionable people of Paris in particular.  On the floors of the same galleries are samples of clothing similar to or, in a few amazing cases, the actual clothing worn by the sitters.

Day Dress of Grey Silk Faille and Indian Multicolored Wool Shawl
French, 1866-1867
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
I think that it is the latter instances that are the most poignant. 

Gallery View showing painting and original dress

Albert Bartholome, In the Conservatory
French, 1881
Paris, Musee d'Orsay
One pairing in particular stands out in my mind.  It is a painting called "In the Conservatory" by the French painter, Paul Albert Bartholome in 1881.  In the painting the artist's wife stands in the doorway, framed by the light from outdoors.  She wears a gown of purple and white that mixes polka dots, stripes and solids.  In front of it stands the very gown, in almost pristine condition, its white still white and its purple still seemingly unfaded. 

Cotton dress worn by
Mme. Bartholome
French, 1880
Paris, Musee d'Orsay
What struck me particularly as I looked from one to the other was the nearly impossible size of the waist and the painful thought of how difficult it must have been for this young woman squeezed into it to take a deep breath or to engage in any activity more robust than a sedate walk.  Not even a child above the age of 6 could have so small a waist!  Seeing this, it is not difficult to believe stories of deformed rib cases and displaced organs among women of this era.  It is not too surprising then, to read elsewhere that this young woman died only six years after this picture was painted.

Not every dress in the show demonstrates such tight lacing but they do show, in various ways, some restructuring or exaggerated outline of the body:  impossible bust lines, and the rather absurd bustle, for instance.  They remind me of something my mother told about a woman who was an acquaintance of her parents when she was a child.  This woman clung to the old style of dress and was wearing long skirted, corsetted clothing into the 1920s.  My mother said that her bustline resembled a table top.  And, viewing these "modern" fashions at the Met I can see exactly what she meant!

Some examples of the means by which these unusual effects were achieved are also on display.  One gallery includes a display of three corsets, showing varying degrees of cinch in the waist, but all cutting in pretty deeply.  Surely our foremothers must have hurt from wearing these contraptions and been very glad to unhook them at the end of a day!

Still, much of the fashion on display is beautiful, either for its fabric or for its workmanship, or for both.  A favorite of mine is among the last items in the show, a beautiful, bustled, navy blue silk faille and velvet day dress of American design and workmanship from the late 1880s. 
The dress described above is the dress on the right in this gallery view.
In spite of the rather ludicrous bustle shape of its back, this dress manages to suggest the air of an efficient and decorously outgoing personality.  One wonders for whom it was made. 

An interesting issue taken up by the show is the effect of mass production and the emergence of the department store on the world of fashion and the reflections this cast in the arts.  One instance is the 1874 painting by James Tissot (whose Biblical illustrations have often been seen in this blog) called "The Ball on Shipboard". 

Tissot, who initially made his name with paintings in the popularly Romantic style of medievalism, had, in the 1860s emphatically embraced painting modern life, especially fashionable modern life.  Although never an Impressionist, he shares many of his themes with them, but was far more acceptable to contemporary taste and, therefore, more financially successful.  Until 1884 he continued to paint these fashionable, meticulously rendered works for wealthy patrons.  His reversion to Catholicism and the lifework of his two Biblical series came after 1884. 

James Tissot, The Ball on Shipboard
French, 1874
Private Collection
Note:  This is the closest copy I could find for color. 
However, it has been cropped on the right side.

In "The Ball on Shipboard" Tissot shows, presumably with tongue in cheek, the effects of mass produced fashion on a social climbing crowd.  Set on a yacht off the Isle of Wight during the Cowes Week Regatta, the company includes two women, placed full center, each wearing identical, nautically inspired white outfits with black trimmings.  To their right another young woman climbs the stairs.  She is attired in an outfit of pink with maroon trim, and even sports a matching bonnet.  However, her fashion statement is not unique, as two others identical to her can be seen in the crowd standing on the far side of the railing that surrounds the stairs.  In the left background, several young women appear to be wearing the same frothy gowns in different pastel colors.

Auguste Renoir, Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children
French, 1878
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is truly a privilege to be able to compare the paintings, such as the Met's own beloved Renoir "Mme. Georges Charpentier and Her Children", with the actual (or closely related) garments that appear in them. 

This comparison reminds us that some things don't change, such as favoring black for evening wear.  It's also interesting to contemplate the lengths to which people, especially women, will go to appear fashionable.  We may decry the idiocy of the tight-laced corset or the idea of wearing a skirt covering a metal hoop skirt or a bustle frame, but we see the same dynamic at work today in items such as the ultra high heels currently fashionable. 

The show is open until May 27th in the second floor special exhibition galleries.  You can learn more on the web at:  http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/impressionism-fashion-modernity