Impressionism, the “New Painting” that scandalized and transformed the culture of the nineteenth century, is making its presence felt in the twenty-first. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, presents a reappraisal of the work of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and other eminent Impressionists. It is an expertly mounted show, one that quickly exhausts the usual list of “stunning” accolades lavished on museum exhibits.
But there is more at work here than merely staging the “big art show” of the New York season. It’s not just a matter of revitalizing a selection of familiar Impressionist paintings with judicious loans from the Musée d’Orsay, though there are plenty of these in the exhibition. Rather, a vital new perspective for appreciating the age of Impressionism is on display at the Met.
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity presents an amazing array of period clothing, hats, shoes, fashion prints and photographs from the 1860′s to the 1880′s. These are brilliantly juxtaposed with some of the greatest Impressionist paintings. A perfect illustration of this is the pairing of a silk dress and cashmere shawl ensemble, dating to 1865-67, with an 1868 portrait by Claude Monet. Except for a few decorative bows on the skirt, the dress that Madame Gaudibert wears in the painting might well be the one on display.
The Impressionists – along with Édouard Manet who was never a formal member of the group – consciously endeavored to follow the advice of Charles Baudelaire by painting “modern life.” Much scholarly study has been devoted to the efforts of the Impressionists to capture the transitory effects of light and shadow in their landscape paintings and depictions of the boulevards of Paris. Yet comparatively little attention has been paid to the way that the Impressionists closely observed the fluent, fleeting course of the fashion scene in the “City of Light.”
With income generated by industrialization came the development of department stores in which to spend it. Under the Second Empire (1852-1870), middle-class families in France could enjoy a taste of the pleasures once reserved for the aristocrats of the Ancien Regime. By 1860, there was no stopping a lawyer’s wife from dressing like a duchess. Even a shop girl, like the one examining fancy bonnets in Edgar Degas’ The Millinery Shop, could buy a fashion magazine like Journal des Demoiselles and dream that she too could purchase an evening gown from the House of Worth.
A young artist from Le Havre, Claude Monet, sought to capture this new phenomenon in several paintings during 1865-66. Breaking with tradition, Monet painted studies for these works – and increasingly the paintings themselves – out of doors. These were the early years of the “New Painting,” before it received the derisive label of Impressionism that became in turn its badge of honor.
Two of Monet’s trend-setting paintings are on view in the Metropolitan exhibition: Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), of which two panels have survived of a vast 20-foot-wide canvas, and Women in the Garden (1866). These signature works depict the carefree hours of middle-class people, enjoying a day trip to the forest of Fontainebleau or the flower gardens at La Ville d’Avray, a suburb to the west of Paris much frequented by landscape painters.
Both of these paintings by Monet show the day dresses that were so popular for leisure time pursuits. There was quite a range in the style of day dresses, some created in shimmering silk like the one worn by Madame Gaudibert. Others sported jaunty Zouave jackets. The key element to all day dresses was their loose, more comfortable fit, suitable for picnics and country walks.
A white cotton day dress, made in the United States between 1862 and 1864, perfectly complements Monet’s paintings and several other Impressionist masterpieces in the exhibition. This dress is noteworthy for the bell shape of the skirt which was supported by lightweight crinoline hoops. According to the commentary in the exhibition catalog, the fabric of the dress was a “sturdy, breathable cotton pique … recommended for comfort while walking by the seaside or in the country.”
The contrasting black braid stitched to this day dress, recalls less happy pursuits. This “type of trimming was often used in military uniforms,” poignantly recalling the insignia of American Civil War uniforms.
There is an underlying poignancy to Monet’s paintings as well. These evocations of rest and recreation had little in common with his personal life experiences. Monet was still a comparatively unknown artist in 1866, struggling to keep the wolf from the door. His great friend and fellow artist, Frédéric Bazille bought Women in the Garden for the huge sum of 2,500 francs. However, Bazille was scraping by on a monthly allowance from his parents in Montpellier. He paid for Women in the Garden in installments of 50 francs per month, each one desperately needed by Monet whose model and future wife, Camille Doncieux, was pregnant with their child.
While Monet dodged bill collectors and tried to find lodging for Camille and their baby, Bazille painted his own version of la douceur vivre.
In masterly style, he depicted his family on the terrace at home in Montpellier. Bazille’s oil on canvas, entitled Family Reunion, is one of the many masterpieces on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It is a superb evocation of how a moment in time can resonate through the power of association.
Bazille caught the generational divide and suppressed emotions that often characterize family get-togethers, as well as touching displays of affection. With accomplished skill and a delightful touch of irony, Bazille positioned his family – he placed himself at the extreme left – as if assembling for a group photographic portrait. He contrasted the attire of the younger women in his family, wearing light, airy summer dresses, with the heavy, dark blue dress and shawl of his mother. Sitting stiffly next to her impassive husband, Madame Bazille looks fearfully at the viewer, wondering perhaps if being recorded for posterity did not also raise the specter of mortality.
Whatever Madame Bazille’s thoughts, her artist son was dead less than a year after retouching his masterpiece in 1869.
In the summer of 1870, the ruler of France, Napoleon III, blundered into a diplomatic ambush cunningly laid by Otto von Bismarck, the power behind the throne of Prussia, the most powerful of the German states. In the ensuing war, the French Army, well-prepared for colonial campaigns in North Africa and Mexico, was smashed by the long-range German artillery. After Napoleon III fell from power, the Third Republic was declared and thousands of patriotic young Frenchman like Frédéric Bazille rushed to defend France. On November 28, 1870, Bazille was killed in one of the last, futile battles of the war that Émile Zola aptly called “La Débâcle.”
Following the catastrophe of 1870, France rallied quickly. Hardly had the debris from the siege of Paris and the terrible spasm of civil violence known as the Commune been cleared away, than the French began to reassert the power and charm of their county, particularly of Paris. Much to the chagrin of the Germans, fashion-hungry tourists flocked to Paris, rather than to Berlin or Munich.
One of the main factors in the national recovery was the indomitable character of the style-conscious women of Paris. Édouard Manet captured this spirit in his imposing oil on canvas painted about 1875, The Parisienne. This magnificent work is on display for the first time in the United States, visiting from its home in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
Clad in a tight-wasted black silk dress, Manet’s The Parisienne is not necessarily dressed in mourning for the war dead of 1870. Black had been a favored color for women’s attire during the 1860′s. Earlier, during the 1600′s, black was the color of choice for the Spanish nobility because of its richness and expense. There had been a mania for Spanish Baroque art in France during the 1860′s, the subject of a Metropolitan exhibition in 2003, Manet/Velazquez. Before 1870, black had been, as Renoir noted, “the queen of colors.”
By her noble deportment and beauty, the black-clad Parisienne in Manet’s painting asserted that though France might suffer a military defeat, French couture – and culture – would never be vanquished.
“The Parisienne is not in fashion, she is fashion,” the novelist Arsène Houssaye, expounded in 1869.
Manet’s self-assured Parisienne showed that nothing had changed after 1870. Indeed, her high collar and bonnet with its upturned brim evoked French style during the 1600′s, the “splendid century” of France. Manet’s The Parisienne was undoubtedly influenced by the massive exhibition of historic costumes held in Paris during the autumn of 1874. But more to the point it was a testament to the French adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Eventually, black as a favored color began to lose a little of its luster. New aniline dyes, discovered by the chemical industry, brought vivid colors to the fore, beginning with mauve during the 1860′s.
Black, however, never entirely went out of fashion. It remained the ubiquitous color for the frock coats of bankers and businessmen. The Metropolitan exhibition has a fascinating gallery devoted to men’s fashion during the era of the Impressionists. Gone from the male wardrobe were the colorful hues and embroidered waistcoats of the eighteenth century. Upper class Frenchmen went to their government offices and investment firms clad in utilitarian black coats of varying styles. Class status was asserted by the style of hat that was worn, as we can see in Degas’ Portraits at the Stock Exchange, painted in 1878-79.
Degas’ painting shows his friend, the banker and collector Ernest May, anxiously conferring with colleagues about the latest scrap of information regarding France’s brittle economy. It was a scene that Degas knew only too well.
Top hats, like the one worn by May, conferred social status that could be quickly won or lost. There was no safety net in the money markets of the time, no government bailouts. There had been an international bank failure in 1873. The Degas family-owned bank, weakened by unproductive investments in the American cotton market, foundered in 1876. In January 1882, another bank collapse devastated France. Among the casualties was Paul Gauguin whose career as a broker never recovered from this financial disaster.
Portraits at the Stock Exchange reveals a truth about the age of the Impressionists that often goes unobserved. This period in French history was an age of acute anxiety. It was far from being an era characterized by evening dances at Bougival. Repeatedly, when studying the faces of these sumptuously dressed citizens of the Belle Époque, one catches a glimpse of people acutely aware of the fragile foundations of their civilization.
France, during the late nineteenth century faced crises on all fronts. Life for the French population remained harsh, especially in the industrialized cities. This was reflected in the health of the people. After making gains earlier in the century, the average life expectancy stalled in 1850 at 43 and did not reach 45 until 1900. With a very low birthrate, compared to Britain and Germany, this meant that there were fewer and fewer Frenchmen and women. During the 1880’s, the sabre rattling General Georges Boulanger tried to foment a war of revenge against the Germans, nearly toppling the Third Republic in the process. Fortunately, Boulanger fell from power and France had time to build the alliances that helped save it when war did come in 1914.
The implications of this grim situation highlight the great achievement of the Impressionists. When Manet, Degas and the rest sought to create art according to Baudelaire’s influential 1846 essay, “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” they were testifying to a truly heroic style of life. Under the trying circumstances faced by France, it took a great deal of heart to keep up a brave front. Yet, the French people succeeded brilliantly in opposing the harshness of life in the nineteenth century with all the love of beauty and ingenuity they could muster, including the handiwork of designers and seamstresses.
This quiet heroism can best seen in two works which embody the theme of Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity: the strikingly beautiful portrait by Albert Bartholomé of his wife, Prosperie de Fleury Bartholomé, and the actual dress she wore while posing. Albert Bartholomé, close friend and colleague of Degas, painted In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé) around 1881. It shows a close attention to detail and regard for the great traditions of French drawing.
In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé) is an extraordinary work – and one that ultimately challenges our assumptions. The brilliant handling of light and shadow, the gleam on the golden bracelet, the shaft of light caressing Madame Bartholomé’s arm as she opens the door to the conservatory – these set a scene of almost lyrical beauty.
It is Madame Bartholomé’s summer dress, however, that creates a special dynamism. At this point in the exhibition, we confront the face of a spirited, vivacious young woman. We are enabled to match this face with her apparel and with the physical surroundings of her life. This is not an evocation of Baudelaire’s concept of “modern life,” but rather a talisman of Madame Bartholomé’s actual life. And because of this synergy of actual dress/actual life in the case of Madame Bartholomé, we are able to acknowledge the resonance of the women, sight unseen, who wore the other dresses on display.
In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé) is clearly the creation of a man who loved his wife. It evokes all of the reassuring nostalgia we have for the era of the Impressionists. Surely this was a latter day Arcadia, the last golden age before the brutalities of the modern age intervened.
Alas, no. Madame Bartholomé died, aged 38, a few years after her portrait was finished. Albert Bartholomé, shattered by her death, gave up painting and became a specialist in sculpting memorial statues. World War I was to provide him with a thriving business. He preserved his wife’s dress, along with her portrait, thereby insuring a unique combination of art and artifact.
In holding open the door to the conservatory, Madame Bartholomé invites us to enter into the inner reality of her life and times. She – and this outstanding exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum and later at the Art Institute of Chicago – grants us access to the human fabric of the age of Impressionism.
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity February 26 – May 27, 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, 10028. Following its display in New York, the exhibition will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (June 26–September 22, 2013)