Impressionism and Fashion at the Musée d’Orsay

Impressionism and Fashion at the Musée d’Orsay

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“…the exhibition pays homage to French genius, that of Impressionism and that of the savoir-faire of the 19th century.” Guy Courgeval, curator, Musée d’Orsay

Think of an elegant friend whose beauty has withstood the passage of time. Pleasant and entertaining, often taken for granted, our friend has a radical past. So it is with Impressionism.

The Impressionists were the bad boys of 19th-century French art, defying convention both in their technique and in their choice of subject. Their work was spontaneous, concerned more with an idea than with the realistic depiction of a subject. Scorned by critics and refused entry to the Salon de Beaux Arts, they began their own (the first Impressionist salon took place in 1874), and found that an enthusiastic public appreciated their fresh vision.

They were the first painters of modernity in an era of rapid change. At a time when most painting was still done in a studio, they took to the streets, the cafés, workshops, the stock exchange and the racecourse – all of the locales where changes were taking place. They participated in the life of the time while they observed and then reported, leaving behind a rich visual chronicle of contemporary urban life.

Fashion played a dual role on the Impressionist stage: on one hand, an expression of the modernity these painters sought to document, and on the other, a vehicle for experimentation.  The austere geometry of Caillebotte’s “Rue de Paris, jour de pluie” (Paris Street, Rainy Day) represents the anomie of an industrial age, with a nod to the increased presence of women in society, while in the intimacy of “Femmes au jardin” (Women in the Garden), Monet employs the sumptuous garments of his subjects to explore the play of light on fabric and the profusion of colors in his painting.

So, what could be more natural than Paris as the site of an exhibition celebrating Impressionism and fashion? “L’Impressionnisme et la Mode” (Impressionism, Modernity and Fashion) opened last week at the Musée d’Orsay and covers the period from 1865 to 1885. It includes paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Caillebotte, Morisot, Cassatt and others, as well as works by less experimental painters like Alfred Stevens and James Tissot.

Novelists and writers of the time are represented – Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Zola – and there, again, we see the reciprocal role of fashion in their work, for many of them also wrote for fashion reviews of the time. The diffusion of styles through these reviews changed the face of fashion and, along with the invention of the sewing machine and the appearance of department stores, made fashion accessible to a larger public in a time of an emerging middle class.

In the first room, contemporary costumes and accessories set the stage for what is to follow.  As we progress, we see many of the paintings next to dresses of the era. Only in Albert Bartholomé’s portrait of his wife do we see the exact dress of the portrait, from the museum’s collection. In other cases, dresses similar to those in the paintings have been loaned for the exhibition.

The sobriety in male dress is striking. Most men opted for black, taking a step back to allow women the spotlight. La Parisienne was the definition of feminine elegance in the 19th century, but women’s roles were changing. They were becoming more visible, although most had not yet achieved independence. At least among the bourgeoisie, the 19th-century woman was still an object of representation, exhibiting her fortune or that of her husband, or to be contemplated, as noted by Baudelaire and other novelists of the time.

The scenography is by Robert Carsen, whose theatrical background is apparent in his recreation of an era. Gilded ballroom chairs bearing cards written in copperplate (M. Baudelaire, Mme Halévy, M. Degas, and so on) face a procession of portraits of women in black hung on scarlet walls. We are at a fashion show, a nice tie-in to Fashion Week. In other rooms, period wall coverings dress the walls. Enter the final room, devoted to painting en plein air, and you might be sitting in the sun in any of the parks of Paris, viewing paintings of outdoor scenes from park benches posed at intervals on a carpet of faux grass.

One minor complaint, overheard from more than one fellow spectator, regards circulation.  Following the sequence of commentary on the audioguide may be difficult, as corresponding numbers on the exhibits are sometimes difficult to discern. Progress through the exhibition is confusing when, at the end of one room, we have two choices of direction, without a clue to which way to proceed. Perhaps this will be rectified.

Forgive the slight inconvenience and enjoy the exhibition. As with our old friend, when you scratch the surface, there are stories here. “L’Impressionnisme et la Mode” continues at the Musée d’Orsay through 20 January 2013.

Jane del Monte studied and worked for a number of years in Paris. She offers personalized tours with a focus on French art and *l’art de vivre*. When she isn’t in Paris, she’s writing about it.

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