Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity
A first-ever exhibit of art’s historic passion for 19th century French fashion
By Robin Jay
Paris’ prominence as the international capital of style ignited in the latter half of the 19th century, when countless artists yearned to capture nuances of modern life. Impressionist luminaries – like Jean Beraud, Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir and Georges Seurat – saw fashion as the ideal instrument for defining and expressing modernity.
In the first-of-its-kind, world-touring exhibit, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris collaborated to compile an incredible collection focusing on fashion in the works of Impressionists.
“Working with paintings of this caliber is thrilling for a curator,” said Gloria Groom, David and Mary Winton Green Curator of 19th Century European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. “But equally exciting is to be able to add dimension to the works of art by the presentation of period dresses and accessories. Establishing the conversation between the paintings and the actual artifacts – dresses, gloves, corsets, fans, hats parasols…have made this exhibition unlike any other presented at the museum.”
Back in the day, the Impressionists found inspiration in fashion as a result of the city’s burgeoning new department stores, made-to-wear clothing and fashion magazines.
The swiftly evolving styles, adventurous dress cuts and enterprising suit shapes evoked a modern essence that charted the social, commercial, economic and artistic modifications that more directly take after today’s way of life.
The collection examines the booming middle-class consumerism during the period and shifting silhouettes as seen, for example, in the switch from crinoline to the bustle.
Actual period fashion pieces – some the identical item depicted in a painting – provide a never-before opportunity for visitors to see in person the flourishing consumer culture from the 1860s to the 1880s. Take, for example, Albert Bartholomé’s In the Conservatory (c. 1881) and the purple and white summer dress worn by Madame Bartholomé or Claude Monet’s Camille (1886) and an English promenade dress (1865/68). The Impressionist canvases not only accentuate the intimate correlation between fashion and art, but also represent how artists utilized, manipulated and altered fashion as a stage for their trailblazing examinations.