Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 26, 2014
Gloria Groom, ed. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity Exh. cat. Chicago, New York, and Paris: Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Musée d’Orsay, 2012. 336 pp.; 478 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300184518)
Exhibition schedule: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, September 25, 2012–January 20, 2013 (under the title L’impressionnisme et la mode); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 26–May 27, 2013; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, June 26–September 29, 2013
Installation view of Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013).

During its time at the Musée d’Orsay L’impressionnisme et la mode elicited a flurry of anxious reviews from French critics and journalists, who sketched connections between the museum’s approximately twenty-eight-million-dollar facelift, the decline of public funding for museums, the institution’s increasingly liberal loan policy, and the need to generate revenue through ticket sales and private sponsorships—which, in the case of L’impressionnisme et la mode, was fittingly provided by Christian Dior and the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton. (LVMH is Dior’s parent company; the financial interests of the two companies are intimately intertwined.) Indeed, from the time of its opening in September 2012, the exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, attracted almost as much attention for what it indicated about emerging trends in museum management and administration as for its content. Burdened with labels such as “machine à cash-flow” and “blockbuster,” here in the United States, where it opened under the name Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, the exhibition’s curatorial and scholarly merits were initially difficult to assess (see, for example, Philippe Dagen, “L’impressionnisme, cette machine à cash-flow,” Le Monde, October 2, 2012; and Roberta Smith, “The Cross-Dressing of Art and Couture,” New York Times, February 22, 2013).

Interviewed backstage at Milan Fashion week in September 2013, Tomas Maier, the head designer for Bottega Veneta, gave credit to the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition for his inspiration: “I greatly appreciated the rigor and colors of nineteenth-century women’s outfits” (Godfrey Deeny and Hélène Guillaume, “La féminité et toutes ses possibilités,” Le Figaro, September 24, 2013). In comparison to the world of fashion, academia moves more slowly: we will not be able to appreciate fully the impact of the exhibition and its eminently informative, well-illustrated catalogue on academic scholarship for a couple of years. But we can, no doubt, already testify to the significance of this multi-year, international project, which as its instigator, Art Institute of Chicago curator Gloria Groom, rightly insists “is the first major loan exhibition to examine the role of contemporary fashion as a catalyst for modern painters” (12).

Assembling around eighty paintings by Impressionist artists and hanging them alongside nineteenth-century garments and accessories, photographs, fashion plates, and other relevant ephemera, the exhibition explores a primary theme in Charles Baudelaire’s now-famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), namely, the notion that there exists a privileged connection between modernity in art and the depiction of modern dress. “What poet, in sitting down to paint the pleasure caused by the sight of a beautiful woman, would venture to separate her from her costume?” Baudelaire asked, highlighting what he saw as the absurd artifice of Salon artists’ fixation on the past at the expense of the transitory beauty that surrounded them every day (“The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon, 1964, 31). Scholars of Impressionism have been mining this rich, colorful vein for quite some time, from Mark Roskill’s groundbreaking essay “Early Impressionism and the Fashion Print” (Burlington Magazine 112 [June 1970]: 391–95) and Marie Simon’s Mode et peinture: Le Second Empire et l’impressionnisme (Paris: Hazan, 1995) to Ruth Iskin’s more recent Modern Women and Parisian Consumer Culture in Impressionist Painting (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). But the topic has never before received such thorough and thoughtful consideration in a museum setting. The selection and display of photographs, fashion plates, items of dress, and accessories not only provided a rich context for interpreting the Impressionist artworks but were also worthy of scholarly attention in their own right. For indeed, it is clear that, in the end, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue maintained a very successful balance between spectacle and academic study, entertainment and popular education, despite journalists’ assertions that might initially have suggested otherwise.

Before going further, it is worth noting some significant differences between the French and U.S. exhibitions, as well as between the two editions of the catalogue (Gloria Groom, ed., L’Impressionnisme et la mode, Paris: Musée d’Orsay; Skira-Flammarion, 2012). Certain paintings I remember seeing in Paris, such as Édouard Manet’s Nana (1877), are conspicuously absent from the New York-Chicago exhibition checklist. While others, such as James Tissot’s Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérèse Feuillant (1866) and Manet’s striking portrait of Berthe Morisot, Repose (ca.1871), appeared only in North America. More noticeably, the New York and Chicago exhibitions displayed clothing and accessories drawn almost entirely from U.S. collections, including the Metropolitan Museum’s own Costume Institute; gone were the hats, skirts, shoes, dresses, and other garments from the Palais Galliera, Musée de Mode de la Ville de Paris, and the Musée de la Mode et du Textile—a point to which I shall return later. Lastly, where the French version of the catalogue presents an interview between Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie president Guy Cogeval and Robert Carsen, the set designer responsible for the exhibition’s controversial mise-en-scène, North American readers are treated to an essay by architectural historian David Van Zanten, analyzing the evolving appearance of Parisian streets, the background against which fashionable women made their colorful mark.

Otherwise, both catalogues bring together the same impressive roster of scholars, including familiar names in the history of nineteenth-century art (such as Groom and Gary Tinterow) and the history of fashion (namely, Valerie Steele and Aileen Ribeiro) as well as high-profile international contributors and younger scholars in the field. Coming in at over three hundred pages, divided into thirteen chapters, the catalogue covers a remarkably comprehensive range of topics, from models’ often overlooked role in shaping artists’ engagement with fashion to the symbiotic relationship between photography and the ever-changing world of couture. The dominant themes that emerge from the authors’ collective analysis of nineteenth-century art and fashion will, no doubt, already be familiar to specialists in the field. Common threads running through the essays include the relationship between fashion and social identity; the birth of modern consumer culture; artists’ gradual move away from historical and mythological themes in favor of portraiture, genre scenes, and the depiction of the more transient aspects of everyday life; representations of fashion in literature, women’s magazines, and the daily press; the iconographic, formal, and technical parallels between fashion, fashion plates, photography, and Impressionist painting; and finally, the intersections between the Impressionists’ enthusiastic investigation of contemporary fashion and that evidenced contemporaneously by painters Tissot and Alfred Stevens, whose naturalistic styles aligned more closely with the dominant aesthetic standards of the time.

In addition to this cogent overview of recent scholarship, the catalogue’s refreshingly international, multidisciplinary approach to the topic also offers readers a number of original scholarly insights. English audiences will be particularly delighted to discover the work of European scholars Françoise Tétart-Vittu and Birgit Haase. Tétart-Vittu’s discussion of the industrial, commercial, and creative operations of the French fashion industries counts among the clearest and most instructive available in English. Focusing on Impressionist artists’ large-scale depictions of figures in outdoor settings, notably Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1865–66) and Women in the Garden (1866), Haase’s contribution successfully brings together two dominant interpretations of Impressionism, hitherto seen as conflicting accounts: the first, which situates the significance of Impressionism in its depiction of contemporary urban subjects, and the second, equally influential interpretive tradition, that sees Impressionism as an heir of the Barbizon school’s innovative practice of plein air landscape painting. Attending to both content and form, Haase convincingly shows how these large-scale figure paintings played a central role in the emergence of la nouvelle peinture.

Like all provocative exhibition projects, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity inevitably leaves a few unanswered questions. One concerns the exhibition’s definition of modernism—and its evident investment in the continuing use of this rather controversial term. In her excellent essay explaining how, through a complex network of personal and professional relationships, fashion emerged as a central preoccupation for nineteenth-century artists, Groom provocatively observes, “Modernism as an artistic concept in the middle of the 1860s and 1870s—a rejection of history painting to focus on modern-life subjects—was key not only to the Impressionists, but also to many of their friends and colleagues who were successful at the Salon. . . . These artists represent not opposite camps but rather two sides of modernity connected by an interest in contemporary fashion” (36–37). This framing gestures toward ongoing scholarly interest in the co-existence of multiple intersecting modernisms. The benefits of designating as “modernist” what can more simply be described as “modern” are still unclear to me, however, especially when the alternative seems to be a definition of modernism centered only on iconography. What might we mean, exactly, by “Tissot’s modernism”? As the artist with one of the greatest number of works in the exhibition, Tissot’s interpretation of fashion—and its ostensible modernism—needed to receive more substantial treatment than that provided in Cogeval and Stéphane Guégan’s short essay.

Another aspect of the exhibition that gives pause for thought follows from the conditions under which knowledge about fashion currently is produced and circulated in both France and the United States. As Cogeval remarks in his interview with Carsen, “It’s worth pointing out that curators at fashion museums are among the most difficult in the world, and for good reason. It’s easier to obtain a loan for a painting from the Middle Ages or Italian Renaissance than to borrow a dress from the nineteenth century” (L’Impressionnisme et la mode, 24; my translation). This observation of differences among curatorial subfields may come as a surprise to nonspecialists. In fact, considering the great effort organizers put into finding contemporaneous clothing items that recalled those depicted in the paintings, it would be remarkably easy to miss the fact that many of the garments on display are of U.S. rather than French origin. It is unfortunate that this point was not more explicitly addressed in the catalogue, if only to better illustrate the international influence of Parisian fashion—as well as the unique challenges faced by historians of fashion, for whom access to their primary research materials is generally a more time-consuming and uncertain affair than for historians of the finer arts. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity must be commended for bringing together a remarkable collection of paintings, and its catalogue is certainly the most comprehensive treatment to date of the mutual influence of nineteenth-century art and fashion. Its impact, one can only hope, will be felt not only on the runway and at museum cash registers, but also in the libraries, study rooms, and reserves of fashion history museums and departments.

Laura Anne Kalba
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Smith College