May 05, 2013

"Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" at the Met

Despite my love of Impressionist paintings and pretty dresses, I was not in a great rush to see this continuation of the exhibition I had visited last October at the Musée d'Orsay.  The French version had certainly presented some beautiful paintings and elegant gowns but I found the installation rather dark and overbearing - more about the setting than the works on display - with a very heavy emphasis on documentation.

But it was my fashion forward friend Betty's birthday and I though she would enjoy an afternoon at the Met so after a nice lunch (with a celebratory glass of champagne) we joined the queue and stepped back in time to a period when fashion and art went hand in hand.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the Metropolitan's re-interpretation of this show.  Rather than first slogging through an entire gallery of fashion magazines exhibited in subdued light to preserve the printing, the New York venue was light and airy and a more general overview.  Divided into eight galleries including "En Plein Air" (see below), "The White Dress", "The Urban Male" and "Consumer Culture", the curators presented over eighty marvelous paintings and a full compliment of costumes, accessories and fashion plates to illustrate the relationship between art and fashion from the 1860s to the 1880s. 

You may be wondering what is so special about this period that would warrant a survey of this sort.  The answer is probably more profound than you would imagine.  The mid-1860s marked the beginning of the Impressionist movement and at the same time the establishment of Paris as the style capital of the world.  Department stores and ready made clothing became more common and the proliferation of fashion magazines made the topic of dress very popular and quite acceptable.  The result was that any artist who wanted to be considered "modern" had to be aware of current fashion trends.
 Albert Bartholomé (French) 1848-1928
"In the Conservatory - Portrait of Madame Bartholomé", 1881

Society portrait painters and contemporary avant garde artists all incorporated the latest styles into their work and this exhibition is resplendent in examples by such luminaries as Monet, Manet, Renoir Cassatt, Degas, Tissot and many others.  Anchoring each gallery are several prime examples of sartorial splendor, from day dresses to men's Frocks coats, many of which were the actual examples worn in the paintings.  With the addition of accessories like canes, hats, corsets and shoes, the Victorian era comes to life much more vividly than by the canvas alone.

 Summer dress worn by Mme Bartholomé in her portrait
White cotton printed with purple dots and stripes, 1880

I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more the second time in New York despite the absence of a few paintings that had been included in the original venue.   The Met's installation allowed a far better appreciation of both art and fashions and it was great fun to watch the other visitors, especially men, realize that what they were looking at on the mannequin and in the painting were one and the same!  It was a refreshing new way to look at art and a very lovely way to celebrate a beautiful spring day!  "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" remains on view until May 27th.

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