Compared to other portraits of 19th century ladies, Édouard Manet’s painting of poet Nina de Callias was scandalously exotic, with her golden bangles, bolero jacket, Algerian shirt, and flourish of a feather in her curled hair, not to mention her open, sensual pose. A little scruffy dog rests its head on her flurry of skirts from which emerges an exposed ankle, and a tumult of colorful fans decorate the wall behind her. While the shock has totally subsided for contemporary audiences, the portrait drove her estranged husband to demand Manet not show it anywhere.
Fashion and the identities it offered or constrained in the mid-1860s to mid-1880s (centering on Paris) is an undercurrent in the works by the top Impressionists, along with examples of period clothing caged in glass display boxes, in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, opening February 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is a very pretty show, just like the women (and rarely gentlemen) who flit in oil paint through the gold-framed canvases. Each room is arranged around a couple of intricate clothing examples, with paintings that mirror their styles positioned on the surrounding walls. However, there are some darker stories hidden behind the poses and formidable gowns, particularly those that deal with the transformation of identity through the constricting fashions that were popular for women. In Charles-François Marchal’s “Penelope” (1868), the wife of the Greek king Odysseus is reduced to a bourgeois housewife working at needlepoint, thinking of her distant husband who is hinted at in a miniature portrait that rests on her table.
There’s also Gustave Courbet’s use of clothes to reveal rather than cover his subjects (perhaps even more so than if they had been naked, the label text suggests). When”Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer)” was shown at the Salon of 1857, viewers were startled by the two women’s missing items of clothing and the top hat left in the rowboat that suggested male company nearby to join their easy manner.
Yet the paintings that were once considered scandalous mostly start and end with an exposed ankle or glimpse of a petticoat, although Édouard Manet, “Lady with Fan (Baudelaire’s Mistress)” is still genuinely unsettling. It shows the Haitian-born Jeanne Duval, an actress and dancer and muse to poet Charles Baudelaire, who anointed her the “mistress of mistresses” in his poem “The Balcony.” In 1862, when it was painted, she was withered by syphilis, practically bed-ridden, and almost blind, a shadow of her fading self practically lost in an exaggerated skirt that blooms away from her frail body and the wispy curtains above her head that hint at her ephemeral life.
Mostly, the clothes encased in their display boxes are in an indirect dialogue with the fashions in the paintings, but with Albert Bartholomé’s “In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholomé),” the actual dress in the 1881 portrait of the artist’s wife Périe, who was a hostess “welcoming to commoners, bohemians, intellectuals, and dinner guests alike” (as indicated perhaps by her position in the open door), is there. She died only six years after the portrait, and Bartholomé left painting behind for sculpture, and carefully preserved the dress, so that it now haunts the exhibition space over a century after it was last worn.
Aside from a brief look at consumerism and retail, the exhibition is really all about high society and its social events, a world the artists themselves weren’t always privilege to. Claude Monet’s two panels for “Luncheon in the Grass” (1865-1866) are the only remnants of what was a giant picnicking scene that the artist anticipated would “cause a tremendous stir” with its 11 life-size figures at the 1866 Salon. While painting it, he had to keep changing the clothes, covering over old hats with new ones and altering colors, so that when it was finished it would be right up to fashion. However, he wasn’t able to finish it in time for the Salon and, not being able to pay his rent, he abandoned it with his landlord and later returned to find it much destroyed from being stored in a dripping basement. He tried to save what he could, but what he did preserve was likely by then hopelessly out of style.
The exhibition closes with glimpses of fashion in late 19th century society, and the realism of showing life on the streets of Paris is there in works like Jean Béraud’s “A Windy Day on the Pont des Arts” (1880-81). Béraud rode around Paris in a specially made carriage in which he could quickly sketch the bustle of the city, and here on the Pont des Arts men hold their hats to in a gust of wind, while well-dressed lady shows just a bit of her petticoat as she strides down the stairs. As examples of the fashion of the day, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is interesting, but it is most compelling when it shows how these styles were actually a part of the daily lives of its subjects.
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) beginning February 26 and concluding May 27.