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
Women in the Garden: Claude Monet’s painting, seen here in detail, is dominated by the meticulously re-created summer dresses, with their high-waisted bodices and voluminous crinoline skirts. Photograph: Musée d’Orsay
Bold as brass: a detail of the sumptuously dressed woman in Auguste Renoir’s The Loge looks out at us from an opera box with a sense of entitlement that seems to come from her lavish attire. Photograph: Samuel Courtauld Trust
Portait of a dress: a detail from Claude Monet’s painting of Camille Doncieux, his 19-year-old mistress. Photograph: Kunsthalle Bremen
Ghostly sheen: in Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day, seen here in detail, the lavish individuality and colour of earlier paintings have given way to the other side of fashion: its creation of a uniform, depersonalised conformity. Photograph: Metropolitan Museum of Art
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.