Impressionism and Fashion

Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 25 September 2012 to 20 January 2013

1. Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
young Woman in 1866 or
Woman with Parrot, 1866
Oil on Canvas - 185.1 x 128.6 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum / RMN

Fashion week in Paris, the meeting place for the world’s designers and couturiers. How does it relate to art history ? Apparently thanks to Impressionism, as stylish as ever, as "in" as today’s jeans (created at about the same time). In fact, in an effort to communicate the spirit of the period, the painters carefully observed the way their contemporaries dressed. Today, the Musée d’Orsay is the place to be, having brought together "Impressionism and Fashion" in one exhibition, astutely inaugurated during fashion week, making it definitely a must venue. The works will then travel to the Metropolitan in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago which both collaborated with the Parisian museum and lent prestigious canvases such as Manet’s Woman with Parrot and Renoir’s Madame Georges Charpentier (ill. 1 and 2). The catalogue is a bit disappointing as the works are reproduced without entries and scattered throughout the essays - abundant but brief - ; only a few paintings receive a commentary of several pages. The authors present fashion locations (boutiques and department stores) and the persons who created it, as well as the thoughts of writers such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé. The role of photography and the evolution of the figure, the dress codes between the city and the country are also evoked in passing, always in connection with artists’ productions.

2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Portrait of Madame Georges Charpentier and her Children, 1878
Oil on Canvas - 153.7 x 190.2 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum / RMN

What artist ignored the fashion of his time, except for those who painted nudes ? In other words, were the Impressionists any different from those who preceded them ? As the critic Louis Edmond Duranty explains "What we need, is that special note of the modern individual, in his clothes, amid his social customs, at home or in the street. [1]. In fact, the painters turned fashion into a symbol of modernity. This was the period of the new Paris under Napoleon III and Haussmann which witnessed the rise of the bourgeois class and the opening of department stores. Industrial designers such as Charles Pilatte provided clothing designs made popular through lithographs. Tailors and dressmakers abounded as clothes were still custom fitted, and haute couture houses experienced a heyday. This context is evoked in the first exhibition rooms with extensive quotes from Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, fashion magazines and engravings. The Parisian woman - her attire, her look, her allure - became the reference, the ultimate sign of elegance.

3. Albert Bartholomé (1848-1928)
In the Greenhouse or Madame Bartholomé, 1881
Oil on Canvas - 235 x 45 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

4. Anonymous
Madame Bartholomé’s Dress, 1880
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay
RMN / Patrice Schmidt

The thematic visit juxtaposes works produced between 1860 and 1885, by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot and dresses from the same period, sculptural pieces some of which were restored for the occasion, perfectly enhanced in large display cases allowing us to admire them from every possible angle, despite the sometimes dim lighting. The aim is not to have a dress match a canvas in order to compare the fabric and the canvas - this would not really be very productive - but rather to create correspondences and point out the specific character of high society in the second half of the 19th century. There is one exception, however, the painting In the Greenhouse by Albert Bartholomé is presented next to the dress worn by the model, the painter’s wife ; Bartholomé kept it preciously after she passed away (ill. 3 and 4).

5. Summer Suit (boléro, skirt, belt), 1867
Beige Linen, Black soutache and braid
Paris, Galliera,
Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
Photo : Stéphane Piera / Galliera / Roger-Viollet

6. Black Dress with Mme Roger’s Label, 1878
Private Collection
Photo : Gilles Labrosse

Satin, silk, taffeta, cotton muslin, trimmings, one walks through the rooms, the eye is subjugated by the rich fabrics and weaving, making the evolution of fashion easy to understand (ill. 5 and 6). Crinoline for example makes way for the change in the early 1860’s, as the figure stretches to become longer ; the volume of the skirt is pushed to the back, thanks to the bustle. The style of dress varies not only according to the fashion and the season but also the time of day : women go from a "déshabillé" (peignoir and "matinée") to a morning dress, from an afternoon dress to evening wear depending on the social outing in store : opera, theater or dinner determine the fabric, cut and neckline. The different sections of the exhibition do an excellent job of revealing these subtle differences by first presenting women inside their homes, such as Manet’s Woman with Fans and Morisot’s The Two Sisters, then the outings, where the purpose is to "see and be seen", with notably paintings by Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and particularly Renoir’s The Box (ill. 7). Even undergarments are quickly evoked by Manet’s famous Nana and Rolla by Gervex. Visitors then discover accessories, hats, gloves, shoes and the precious allies which provide instant poise such as parasols or fans, assembled in a display case or painted by Degas and Gonzalès. Frock or morning coats, top hats for men are exhibited in passing in another room ; severe and with little variation in somber solid colors, they did not really attract artists’ attention. However, some painters succeeded in illustrating them brilliantly, as seen in Street in Paris ; Rainy Weather by Caillebotte (ill. 8) and Portraits at the Stock Exchange by Degas, although feminine attire allows for more effects and reflections ; in fact, clothing is the only domain where "A civilized man (...) is just a woman’s attachment." [2], at least in the 19th century.

7. Pierre Renoir (1841-1919)
The Box, 1874
Oil on Canvas - 80 x 63.5 cm
London, The Courtauld Gallery
Photo : The Courtauld Institue Galleries
2012 Scala Florence

8. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1870)
Street in Paris ; Rainy Weather, 1877
Oil on Canvas - 212.2 x 276.2 cm
Chicago, The Art Institute
Photo : The Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibition closes with the pleasures of the outdoors, in parks, gardens and forests where the petticoats and dresses sway gracefully ; the highlight of this section is of course the Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet and Women in the Garden by Monet. The canvases on view in this last room needed absolutely no staging for effect ; and yet, the floor is turned into a lawn with park benches installed in the corners and birds warbling to charm visitors. The only thing missing is a few shrubs, flowers galore and perhaps a tablecloth to set up a picnic. Robert Carsen produced the setting for this exhibition and therefore it could only have been obviously theatrical, even spectacular. The paintings alone however are more than enough to fill the space and deserved to be the only focal point for the eye. Indeed, we should not forget that these are works of art and not fashion plates. But the risk taken throughout the visit in choosing this theme is to transform the paintings into simple illustrations, and it is patently border line in several instances throughout the show.

9. Édouard Manet (1832-1883)
The Parisienne, 1875
Oil on Canvas - 192 x 125 cm
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
Photo : Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden/
The Bridgeman Art Library

10. Charles Carolus-Duran (1837-1917)
The Woman with a Glove, 1869
Oil on Canvas - 228 x 164 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Some juxtapositions between canvases by James Tissot, Carolus Duran and Alfred Stevens reassure us that this is also a painting exhibition, emphasizing the artistic freedom taken by Impressionists. In this light, the succession of large formats, The Balcony by Manet, The Woman with a Glove by Carolus Duran, The Parisienne by Renoir (ill. 9 and 10) and October by James Tissot is very eloquent. Without going into each minute detail of the garment, buttons, lace, the Impressionists captured an elegant moving figure and played with the reflections of light on the fabric. They did not attempt to scrupulously reproduce a costume or a likeness, but rather an attitude ; scorning the portrait genre as well as the genre scene, they transmitted the illusion of capturing spontaneous movement, a moment in action. Indeed, they were impressionists ; unlike others, such as Auguste Toulmouche criticized by Duranty, these artists who were too precious, "ruffled, disguised, trussed up nature, covering it with frills. They treat it as if they were hairdressers, preparing it for a musical comedy. Industry and commerce are too present in their operation". This last observation might well be applied to this exhibition. In any case, it is absolutely superb, splendid but empty, like a dress without a body.

Curators : Gloria Groom, Guy Cogeval, Philippe Thiébaut and Susan Stein.

Collective work, L’impressionisme et la mode, Skira/Flammarion, 2012, 320 p., 45€. ISBN : 978-2081286047.

Visitor information : Musée d’Orsay, 62 rue de Lille, 75007 Paris. Tel : +33 (0)1 40 49 48 14. Open every day except Monday, from 9:30 am to 6 pm, on Thursday until 9:45 pm. Admission : 12€ (reduced : 9.50€).

Musée d’Orsay website.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 2 octobre 2012


[1] La Nouvelle Peinture à propos du groupe d’artistes qui expose dans les galeries Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1876.

[2] Louis Ulbach, Guide sentimental, 1878.

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