A stylish bunch: why the impressionists loved fashion

A terrific show at the Met in New York shows us that when it came to their painting, Renoir, Manet and Monet often started with the clothes


It seems too much the result of the marketing department’s fantasies. With the possible exception of Sex, Violence and Money , it is hard to think of a title for a blockbuster art show more crowd- pleasing than Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity . The impressionists are sure-fire box office, and so is fashion. Throw in modernity for a touch of intellectual respectability and wait for the queues to form.

Yet cynicism quickly evaporates in the face of this superb exhibition, which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until the end of May. (It opened last September at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, and will move on to the Art Institute of Chicago in late June.) It turns out that impressionism, fashion and modernity really do have a great deal to do with each other.

In some respects, the most shocking picture in the show is an 1867 portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour of a perfect mid-century bourgeois gentleman. He is wearing a beautifully tailored black frock coat over a perfectly fitted waistcoat hanging from which we can see just the right amount of his fine gold watch chain. On his head is a sleekly shiny and improbably tall silk top hat. In his hands, from one of which dangles a brown kid glove so sensuously painted that you can almost feel its softness, he holds a silver-topped cane. Everything about the man’s dress speaks of money, taste and, above all, care. He cares deeply about his clothes.

Dedicated followers of fashion
And who is this impeccably turned-out gentleman? None other than the great impressionist Édouard Manet: the same Manet who had scandalised bourgeois society with his infamous Le Déjeuner sur l ’Herbe , with its naked woman among clothed men, just four years earlier. Yet this is Manet as he wishes to be seen: not just clothed but very self-consciously dressed. These men, you realise, take fashion very seriously indeed.

When we look at impressionist paintings now, we see all sorts of things: the light, the brush strokes, the subjectivity of the image. It is easy to forget that at least part of what the artists wanted us to see were the fabulous frocks.

The exhibition often juxtaposes real period dresses with their representation in paintings and it is startling how literal that representation can be. The first great painting on show is Claude Monet ’s breakthrough work, Camille , painted in 1866. One would normally say that it shows, in virtual life-size, Monet’s 19-year-old mistress, Camille Doncieux. But the context makes us face the truth that it would be more accurate to say that it is a portrait of a dress: the long, trailing, green-and-black-striped alpaca and silk number that stands next to the painting. Of the woman herself, we see only one hand and her face turned almost in profile, her eyes almost closed, so her features and personality remain obscure. Dominating the image are her black fur-trimmed jacket and especially that dress.

This is what contemporary viewers noticed. The critic Léon Billet wrote that the painting was a pretext for “the most splendid dress of green silk ever rendered by a paintbrush”. Emile Zola, that paragon of hard-edged realism, wrote rapturously of “the dress, how supple it is, how solid. It trails softly, it is alive, it declares loud and clear who this woman is.”

Yet that is precisely what it does not do. For us, this loving reproduction of high fashion may seem conservative. But what we’re seeing is something new and astounding: the power of clothes to confuse identities. Camille raises all sorts of questions. If this woman is not important enough to be painted in full portrait, she must not be rich, but if she is not rich, how can she afford such clothes? Is she a chic and elegant daughter of the haute bourgeoisie or a woman of easy virtue?

This, you realise, is both the fascination and the terror of the way these paintings use fashion. They introduce a new way of looking at a woman. The question they ask of her is not is she upper class or is she virtuous. It is not even is she beautiful: many of the models are not in themselves especially stunning, and, in any case, their faces are seldom the focus of attention.

The question is more brutally simple: is she fashionable or not? The impressionists invented a new ideal creature, the Parisienne: young, on display and, above all, chic. And if the dress is right, you can’t tell whether the Parisienne in question is respectable or loose, a rich man’s wife or a dangerous courtesan. The sumptuously dressed woman in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Loge (1874) looks out at us from an opera box, bold as brass, with a sense of entitlement that seems to come from her lavish attire. Her relationship to her male companion, his eyes obscured by opera glasses, is entirely a matter of conjecture.

Invisible women
At its most extreme, this revelling in uncertainty makes the women in question invisible to an extent that borders on the surreal. Take Claude Monet’s group “portrait” from 1866, Women in the Garden . It does what it says on the tin, showing four women gathering or enjoying flowers. But in fact it is utterly dominated by the meticulously re-created summer dresses, with their high-waisted bodices and voluminous crinoline skirts.

All the play of dappled light through the trees is on the fall of the fabrics. A consequence of this is that the women’s faces are scarcely seen. Two are in profile; one holds a bunch of flowers in front of her mouth. The one who is seen full-on has a mask-like expression, her eyes turned down, her features stripped of individuality. Fashion, in this image, generates anonymity – which is, in turn, a creature of urban modernity.

This is what makes the impressionists’ obsession with fashion more than merely frivolous. They may seem to be fashion victims. There is something at first laughable about the idea of Edgar Degas going shopping with his women friends and poring over their choice of hats. But Degas makes great art from these visits: the series of paintings of the interiors of milliners’ shops are as rapturous and mysterious as any impressionist images of the natural world.

For something happens in this relationship of painting to haute couture. Fashion really does become a way of representing modernity as a complex phenomenon. It may start out with the rather banal idea that these Parisiennes are modern because they are fashionable, with an unabashed celebration of the explosion of consumerism made possible by the imperial exploitation of exotic materials and the arrival of mass manufacturing and department stores. But it also acquires the haunting sense that individual humanity, in this new age of consumerism, is being replaced by things.

In Gustave Caillebotte ’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877), all the figures carry over their heads apparently the same model of black umbrella, each giving off the same ghostly sheen. The lavish individuality and colour of earlier paintings have given way to the other side of fashion: its creation of a uniform, depersonalised conformity.

Thus fashion eats its creators – including the impressionists. It is a lovely touch to include, at the end of this enthralling show, George Seurat ’s Study for a Sunday on La Grande Jatte . It too is full of figures in fashionable clothes, but they are represented in a wholly new way, with geometric shapes and shifting, atomised patterns of colour. Impressionism has suddenly gone out of fashion.

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until May 27th