The Proto-Feminist Parisienne? "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" Opens at the Met

Gustave Caillebotte, "Paris Street; Rainy Day," 1877
(The Art Institute of Chicago)

One might argue that the Parisian woman is the protagonist of the Metropolitan Museum’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” the first exhibition to document the formative influence of contemporary fashion on the advanced art in the period between 1862 and 1887. Arriving on the coattails of mass production, capitalism, and the spectacle of urban modernity, the Parisienne was a cultural construct and real phenomenon. She was a national symbol, artistic muse, object of both flannurial desire and misogynist ridicule, as well as an economic force devoted to the consumption of French fashion. Urban planner Baron Haussmann destroyed the labyrinthine alleys of medieval Paris to make way for broad boulevards, evicting the poor and turning the city into a platform of middle-class spectacles and shopping destinations. Artists, the Impressionists among them, rejected the historicism of the academy and established a dialectical flirtation between art and fashion. It’s a rare treat to see the work of the Manet, Monet, Renior, and Degas — so often flattened in their reproductions on calendars, coffee-mugs, and other museum-store knickknacks — in an expanded field of visual culture including photographers, calling cards, fashion plates, and, of course, the ephemeral, newly-mechanized fashions of the Second Empire. 

The well-dressed woman — and her constant rotation of costumes, accessories, and hairstyles — became a symbol of modernity itself. Historian Gloria Groom writes, “By the 1860s and 1870s, the Parisienne…occupied the center of a cultural wheel whose radiating spokes included the fashion industry and the avant-garde.” Evidence of the Parisienne lines the walls of the exhibition’s first room. In Charles Carlous-Duran’s portrait “Lady with a Glove,” the artist’s wife poses in a formidable black silk gown and what was once a devastatingly trendy hat trimmed with flowers and lace lappets. Society painter James Tissot’s “Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon” is the epitome of the haute bourgeoisie in her pink ruffled peignoir (negligee), enshrined among so many decorative curios in her posh upholstered drawing room. Even so, the underclass of prostitutes, artists’ models, and kept women surface beneath the Parisienne’s veneer of bourgeois respectability. Édouard Manet’s portrait “Young Lady in 1866” pictures Victorine Meurent (also the model for Manet’s notorious “Olympia”), sporting a monocle and a loose-hanging champagne-pink peignoir (a color produced with the aid of newly-invented aniline dyes), negligently unbuttoned at the décolletage. In Claude Monet’s “Camille,” the artist’s 19-year-old mistress sports an opulent mink-trimmed velvet paletot and a green and black striped gown, though her lack of crinoline would have been read as a signifier of easy virtue.

In the next room, a pair of cotton piqué day dresses foregrounds Monet’s bucolic afternoon scene “Women in the Garden,” two panels from his unfinished masterpiece “Luncheon on the Grass,” and Coubert’s languid ode to alfresco hanky-panky, “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine.” Galleries are devoted to respective charms of white and black dresses. An elaborately ruffled cotton batiste day dress seems to have jumped right out off canvases by Morisot, Manet, and Renoir. If white muslin was the ideal tabula rasa for the transitory effects of light and shadow, black silk, worn in the 1860s for afternoon social calls, was the apotheosis of urbanity. Low-cut black dresses, much like the one worn by Berthe Morisot in her unflappable self-portrait “Before the Theater,” were often embellished with transparent grenadine sleeves or bodices.

One room is devoted to accessories, corsetry, and the various fetishes of the ladies toilette, while another is devoted to the flanneural uniform of Parisian gentlemen, epitomized by Henri Fantin-Latour’s portrait of a dandified, top-hatted Manet. Ingenious little chapeaux trimmed with silk tulle, velvet bows, and artificial leaves are accompanied by a micro-genre of pictures of women trying on hats. Degas, a consummate hat enthusiast, made over twenty millinery pictures. According to Paul Gauguin, he “went into ecstasies before the milliner’s shops on the Rue de la Paix, those charming laces, those famous touches by which our Parisian women drive you into buying that extravagant hat.” In Degas’s strangely cropped, flattened hat pictures, commodity fetishism is cut with the beginnings of modernist abstraction.

In the last room, a group of realist society paintings by Tissot depicts the intrigue of balls and operas, a sea of shimmering damasks and shifting gazes.  These are thoughtfully accompanied by confections by couturier-of-the-day Charles Frederick Worth, a cream satin silk evening dress in silk satin embroidered with artificial roses, an ice-blue ball gown, and a high-necked silk damask similar to the one worn in Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street, Rainy Ray.” A superlative picture of Haussmannian alienation with its harshly bifurcated avenues, tenebrous colors, and disassociated figures, “Paris Street” offers a rare melancholic note in an otherwise giddy carnival of fashionable modernity. 

The aesthetic theories of Charles Baudelaire underpin the exhibition. In his famous essay, “The Painter of Modern Life," he equates Modernity with "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable.” If art is embedded in essentialist notions of the timeless, the unique, the universal, fashion becomes art’s feminized Janus-face: ephemeral, frivolous, conditional. While holding up the Parisienne as an emblem of effervescent modernity, Baudelaire metonymically conflates her and her clothes, claiming, “everything that ornaments women, everything that serves to illustrate her beauty, is a part of her.” Baudelaire’s aesthetics gender the categories of art and fashion, corseting women into immanence and objectification. Even so, the Parisienne refuses to be bracketed by Baudelaire’s polemics. Impossible to pin down, she is an engine of capitalism, an object of artistic fascination, a precursor to the modern woman, and an artist of her own self-fashioning. 

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