New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity has some glorious paintings assembled from far-flung collections. Every artwork focuses on the clothing of the day, and you can sense how the wheel of a new sensibility was turning toward our time. This was new subject matter for artists — not nudes, not scenes from ancient legends, nor queens in their heavy jewels — pretty ordinary people dressed for now. How fast and modern it would have seemed in its day. Painting people you knew for a market of savvy middle-class money. Ermined royalty was so yesterday.
One segment of the exhibit centers on women in white — what a subject for the Impressionists! They took a painterly practice known for centuries and zoomed in. White isn’t stark, it’s myriad pastels. In the fabrics of the day they could show the tones shifting, gauzy runnels of shadow, satiny glints. The following are some examples of the feast of snows being painted in the mid- to later 1800s.
All examples are from the Selected Highlights feature on the Met’s website.
Lise (Woman with Umbrella) by Auguste Renoir, 1867
Repose by Edouard Manet, 1871
Family Reunion by Jean-Frederic Bazille, 1867
Women in the Garden by Claude Monet, 1866
An actual dress similar to one above
Two panels from the unfinished Luncheon on the Grass by Claude Monet, 1865-1866
In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholome) by Albert Bartholome, 1881
Summer day dress worn by Madame Bartholome, French, 1880
Stop to look at the subtle dressmaker’s skill you see here. Inside the cuffs you see the two-toned stripes which are blue outside. Same in the peeps of white in the pleated skirt that would have kicked open with every step. Meticulous knife-pleats and many of them, in tiers. This is quite a piece of tailoring — and all that hand skill and lore to be dust-binned by pret-a-porter.
Polka dots appear in one floaty frock after another, possibly a fad of the day. And stripes were in fashion too. As we see above they leant themselves to dressmakers’ tricks.
The exhibit also has a handsome accounting of black dresses, as well as the dandy looks of gentlemen — Manet himself being quite the dresser.
One last note. The show is very much about Impressionistic light-handling technique. Compare the rendering of Madame Bartholome above, standing in leafy shadows, to the flat documentary lighting of her actual fabric dress.