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"Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" at the Met

By Adèle Bossard

Claude Monet, "Luncheon on the Grass," Musée d'Orsay, 1865-66. Photo by Adele Bossard.

While the Autumn/Winter fashion season opened a few days ago with the New York "Fashion Week," the Metropolitan offered a new eye on fashion with its new exhibition "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity," that focused on the defining role of fashion in the works of the Impressionist painters and their contemporaries. The exhiiibit opened February 26 and runs through May 27, 2013.

With a collection of 80 paintings, seen in concert with period costumes, accessories like hats or shoes, fashion plates and photographs, the exhibition features a large illustration of what was fashion during the impressionist era, from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, when Paris emerged as the fashion capital of the world.

Period corsets. Photo by Adele Bossard.

In a time of great changes, capturing the up-to-the-minute fashion on canvas was a way for the Impressionists to express the pulse of their time. The exhibition, organized chronologically and thematically, carefully showcases how Parisians wished to be fancied, always privileging the latest fashion. The contemporary dresses, for instance, whose representations are mostly on view on the first gallery, were seen as a way to invigorate threadbare traditions.

Most of the paintings from the 1860s seem to illustrate slice-of-life views. Frequently posing inside their home, women wearing white dresses depict an intimate and authentic wardrobe while women in black dresses were redolent of a worldly elegance. Capturing those moments constituted an ultimate test for artists to render nuances of light and dark.

James Tissot, "The Circle of the Rue Royale," Musée d'Orsay, 1868. Photo by Adele Bossard.

The late 1870s brought the integration of stylishly dressed figures into landscapes, leading one to observe the models as elements of nature. Artists were able to capture outdoor light, as they had a decade ago in "plein air" views of Parisians wearing colorful dresses for their country retreat weekends.

Female dress codes offered an infinite panoply of outfits and the options for men were too simple and limited to be a fruitful inspiration for artists. But the male sex was not forgotten by the Impressionists. On the contrary, they took up the challenge and added distinction to their depictions of the modern man with invented poses and new accessories, as in James Tissot's "The Circle of the Rue Royale," painted in 1868.

Gustave Caillebotte, "Paris; Rainy Day," Art Institute of Chicago, 1877. Photo by Adele Bossard.

An entire room of the exhibition is also devoted to the exploration of the consumer culture of this time. At the end of the nineteenth century, fashion was made accessible to the middle class with the rise of department stores, as brightly narrated in Emile Zola's novel "Au bonheur des dames." Those warehouses replaced all the small Parisian boutiques and introduced fixed prices, whereas prices used to be haggled and fixed subjectively. Fashion was this way made accessible to a larger part of the society.

The last gallery is devoted to fashion in modern life. Modernity is there seen as an urban phenomenon, notably with the new boulevards of Haussmann's Paris, another one of the great changes of the late nineteenth-century.

If you go:
“Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity”
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street).
On view through May 27, 2013
Recommended admission:
General $25, Seniors $17, Students $12
Tues-Thurs and Sun: 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Fri-Sat: 9:30 AM – 9:00 PM
Closed Monday.

Adèle Bossard is a free lance writer from Saumur, France.

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