Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity

Impressionism, Fashion, Modernity, ed. Gloria Groom (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012). 336 pp., 250 col. illus., 25 black and white illus.  £45.  ISBN 978-0-300-184518

This catalogue is published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title organised by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (25 September 2012 - 20 January 2013), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (26 February - 27 May 2013) and The Art Institute of Chicago (26 June - 22 September 2013).  


Fig.1. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Woman Reading an Illustrated Journal, c.1880-81, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island (USA).

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) declared in Le Peintre de la vie modern (1863), an essay that is key to the exhibition’s theme of fashion as a quintessential aspect of modernity, that the challenge facing modern artists was to ‘depict [the fabric] of modern manufacture’, something the draperies of Rubens or Veronese ‘will not teach you to do.’ Paris was the centre of the fashionable world and in this sumptuously-illustrated catalogue, a series of essays examines fashion and its social, cultural and artistic content during the years of the Impressionist painters and their contemporaries. Some 140 paintings are discussed in the light of topics such as the establishment of the great couture houses, especially those of Charles Frederick Worth (1826-1895) and Jacques Doucet (1853-1929); the new working methods for the design of clothing; the emergence of department stores along the new broad avenues and boulevards of Paris designed by Baron Haussmann (1809-1891); the proliferation of fashion magazines and fashion plates; and the numerous literary works on fashion written by French novelists, poets, playwrights and essayists.  

In both the catalogue and the exhibition’s visually stunning presentation in the dramatic spaciousness of the Musée d’Orsay, the paintings are brought together with contemporary costumes and accessories, fashion plates, photographs and cartes de visite. The influence of fashion plates on artists is one of the most interesting facets of the exhibition. The Impressionists and their contemporaries were inspired by the huge range of fashion plates available to them, encapsulating scenes of modern Paris and the fashionable dress of its inhabitants. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), for example, borrowed fashion plates from the fashion magazine, La Mode Illustrée, for his paintings, The Promenade and The Conversation. The costume painted by James Tissot (1836-1902) in his Portrait of Mademoiselle L.L. is very similar to a fashion plate in Les Modes Parisiennes. In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) Young Woman Reading an Illustrated Journal, the page is open to show a fashion plate which is more prominent than the model herself. Many of Ėdouard Manet’s (1832-1883) works have the registrative quality of fashion plates, for example his delightful watercolours, Trois Tếtes de Femmes and Deux Chapeaux  and  Quatre Saisons, his paintings of young Parisiennes wearing a variety of fashionable costumes and accessories. Manet, himself a flaneur, noted for his fastidious attention to dress as seen in the portrait of him painted by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), remarked that ‘the latest fashion, you see, is absolutely necessary for a painter. It’s what matters most.’ Manet was a close friend and disciple of Baudelaire. It was Baudelaire who recommended the study of fashion plates in Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne.  He himself was inspired by the magnificent French fashion plates of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, particularly those from the most widely subscribed and influential fashion magazine, the Abbé Pierre de La Mésangère’s Journal des Dames et des Modes (published between 1797 and 1839).

Fig.2. Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago.

It is a pity that Baudelaire’s great interest in, and knowledge of, fashion plates were not discussed in the essay on fashion illustration in the catalogue. In addition to the essays, the catalogue contains a useful chronology, a checklist of the exhibition, and appendices. All these sections are included in the exemplary index.

Alice Mackrell