PRINT December 2013

Isabelle Graw

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop, ca. 1882–86, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 43 5/8".

THIS EXHIBITION WAS A FEAST: both visually delightful and a work of solid scholarship. Curators Susan Alyson Stein, Gloria Groom, and Guy Cogeval demonstrated with unprecedented clarity that fashion was the secret operating system underpinning the development of artistic production in France in the pivotal period from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s. The show left no doubt that artists of the time were drawn toward the milieu of fashion, toward fashion itself as subject matter, and toward painterly techniques that emphasized the material qualities and textures that are clothing’s and painting’s common ground. With intricate garments, illustrated magazines, and accessories displayed alongside some eighty paintings, the exhibition allowed the transformation of fashion into painted pictures to happen before the visitor’s very eyes.

The first remarkable insight I took away from the show was that the fascination with fashion was shared across the various cultural factions of Paris. Official society painters such as James Tissot, whose tidy brushstrokes and somewhat merciless style the exhibition invited us to rediscover, studied fashion and the self-presentation of its (mostly female) devotees with a close eye for detail, but so did the champions of nouvelle peinture—Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and especially Berthe Morisot, who had remarkable paintings in the show. An artist’s familiarity with fashion was evidently regarded as proof of his—or her—modernité. To establish their membership in modern society, painters had to engage with the most recent styles, down to the details of seasonal shifts. Thus Baudelaire’s definition of modernity famously emphasized “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”: Fashion and its relentless pace would or should correspondingly be the epitome of modernity, even synonymous with it. Baudelaire’s own influence on the painters of his time—another point the exhibition brought out very well—is impossible to overstate. In particular, his preference for the artificial over the natural, for the theatrical over the authentic, was evidently shared by many portraitists of the period: See, for instance, Morisot’s Young Woman Seated on a Sofa, ca. 1879, which pays less attention to the sitter’s personality than to her accoutrements—prominently featuring a straw hat adorned with flowers—and the contrived pose she strikes.

It is strange to think that Morisot was considered a minor artist until the feminist reevaluations of the 1980s; her work here confirmed Linda Nochlin’s high estimation of her “formal daring.” And besides, although gender was not explicitly addressed in the exhibition, we know from art historian Carol Armstrong’s 2002 book Manet Manette that there was a close affinity between modern painting and the “fashioning of modern woman.” As Armstrong notes, Manet (and he was not alone in this) was fully conversant with women’s consumer culture, down to the minutiae of toilette and maquillage. The connoisseurship and keen eye for detail evident in the corset and powder puff in his Nana, 1877, betray an extensive familiarity with the rituals of female beauty and the secrets of lingerie.

But if the show established how thoroughly au courant painters were with the universe of fashion, what made it so interesting was that it did not stop at this initial observation. For example, as made plain in the highly readable and well-researched catalogue (in particular Groom’s essay, “The Social Network of Fashion”), the convergence between fashion and art at the time was also a matter of the people involved—then as now, there was significant overlap between the two milieus. Like the major collector and fashion czar François Pinault today, the owners of the nineteenth century’s new large department stores were busy art collectors. Quick to embrace innovation in business, they had an open mind for the artistic avant-garde as well. And there were tangible benefits that are usually but not always less explicit in today’s version of this intimate relationship: The commitment of the nineteenth-century magnates of luxury brands to the art world was also a way to further the sale of their products, using art as a kind of advertisement. Now as then, the relations between art and fashion were defined by reciprocal desires, projections, and very real economic interests.

The dialogue between painted pictures and clothing that was established through the presentation of both together at the Met opened up unexpected perspectives. Large vitrines in the middle of the galleries contained dresses that were à la mode at particular moments and matched those in the paintings on the walls, such as the resplendent white “day dress” worn by one of the figures in Monet’s Women in the Garden, 1866. Seen alongside (or literally through) the showcases, painting became an extension of fashion by other means. Conversely, fashion proved to be a central prop of painting. The fashion magazines and illustrations on view provided further insight into how, exactly, painting drew energy from fashion: by mobilizing the rhetoric of the fashion plate. Numerous portraits, including Monet’s Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert, 1868, Morisot’s Interior, 1872, and Renoir’s Lise (Woman with Umbrella), 1867, attest to this formal influence; like commercial illustrators, the painters captured their sitters in profile and gave them the empty and seemingly expressionless faces of mannequins. To virtually efface a sitter’s distinct personality was to make a trade-off that allowed clothes and accessories to be shown to the fullest advantage. (After all, dresses were also a form of self-fashioning, supposedly telling us the truth about “who this woman is,” as Émile Zola once put it.) This focus on theatrical staging and on the details of a certain style is exemplified by my favorite picture in the show, Degas’s Mademoiselle Marie Dihau, 1867–68, which seems to anticipate the significance that the accessory has acquired in the early twenty-first century. Next to the schematic-looking face of a woman seen in profile—her primary task in the picture would seem to be to show off her oversize earrings and elaborate headdress—a dark red and oddly rustic-looking bag occupies at least as much space in the picture. In fact, the bag seems to be the painting’s true object: Like an “it” bag, it anchors its owner’s identity. And the black-and-white pattern makes it seem vaguely alive and possessed of subjectivity—in contrast with its owner, who, thanks to her petrified features, looks more like an object, a commodity, than does her prized possession.

View of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” 2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Foreground, from left: Day dress, French, ca. 1886; day dress, American, 1883–85. Background, from left: Georges Seurat, Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”, 1884; Jean Béraud, Sunday at the Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris, 1877; Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877.

Fashion endowed painting with artificiality and theatricality, but it also endowed it with new life. This increase in vitality was, of course, not new: The painters of the Renaissance had already shown expertise in using folds of fabric to convey a sense of animation. They also saw the depiction of sumptuous or diaphanous textiles as an opportunity to demonstrate their painterly skills. The Impressionists were not blind to this possibility; they were eager to take on the formal challenges presented by fashionable fabrics such as black tulle or white piqué. But there was another, more important issue at stake, which the exhibition illustrated with aplomb: Although the protagonists of nouvelle peinture were devoted to fashion, they also sought to defy its hegemonic expansion and shore up the autonomy of art. This rivalry plays out in Morisot’s Woman at Her Toilette, ca. 1875–80. Covered by a wall of bluish-white brushstrokes, the picture foregrounds the materiality of paint and insists on its specificity. The depicted bodice relates the painting to a specific social context—late-nineteenth-century Paris and its celebration of lingerie—yet it also dissolves into a swell of rapid brushstrokes that flood the canvas. This manner of painting, which makes almost no distinction between the motif and its background, turns the entire picture into a fabric; more precisely, it highlights the distinctive material qualities of oil painting in a virtual allover composition.

The Impressionists’ openness to fashion and the fashionable ultimately strengthened their resolve to defend painting as a specific métier and enabled them to emphasize and fully savor the unique characteristics of their own art. However close the two became in terms of subject matter and procedure, painting insisted on the distance between them. And this distance was all the more necessary because painting needed to protect itself from an accusation fashion faced then and still faces today: that it is irredeemably frivolous and superficial. The exhibition reminded us that painting, like fashion, is all about effects and make-believe—but it didn’t just register the manifold structural affinities between the two. The show also allowed us to see that painting embraced fashion only to emphasize its own specificity: the picture on canvas, pigment and brushstrokes.

“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” was co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic and the publisher of Texte Zur Kunst.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.