You know it’s a post-feminist moment if the hottest ticket in town is an art show featuring paintings of stylish women in beautiful gowns.
“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a not-to-be-missed extravaganza of approximately 80 paintings by Bazille, Caillebotte, Cassatt, Cezanne, Courbet, Degas, Manet, Monet, Morisot, Renoir, Tissot, and the rest of the French art pantheon. Also included—and this is a little unusual—are 16 period costumes displayed on mannequins in the galleries, along with cases filled with corsets, canes, parasols, hats, shoes, and the like.
First to be said is that the clothes are just fabulous. Fashion (or “costume” as museum curators would have it) has been steadily making its way into the fine art world, and "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" represents the apotheosis of the trend. We now have plenty of shows of “fashion as art,” like the much-buzzed “Punk” coming up at the Met in May and an installation by the fashion group ThreeASFOUR set to open at the Jewish Museum this fall (not to mention the epochally successful "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" in 2011), but the Met exhibition must be the first to integrate costume into an Impressionist blockbuster.
Whether placing mannequins in the galleries is a good idea remains uncertain. The dresses themselves are exquisite examples of craft and design, but they do give the museum something of the feel of a shop display. In addition to the fashion, the paintings show people picnicking, drinking, and sitting about. Should the exhibition therefore incorporate wicker hampers, glassware, and furniture? Perhaps; the era did see the dawn of the department store.
Quibbles aside, not only is the exhibition fantastic, but it contains the kernel of a fantastic notion: that from the 1860s to the 1880s, as Realism morphed into Impressionism, the spirit of avant-garde art was embodied by the image of pretty bourgeois women in glorious dresses — “la Parisienne.”
Thus we have many, many life-sized portraits of lusciously turned-out society women, some clearly devoted to the dresses as much as to the people. Albert Barholomé’s ca. 1881 In the Conservatory, a tour-de-force portrait of his wife in a tight purple polka-dotted number, is the only picture in the show that is accompanied by the actual garment (whose designer is unknown).
For his large 1866 Salon portrait, Monet attired his 19-year-old mistress Camille in a dramatically striped green-and-black gown, giving an everyday woman the status and scale of an aristocratic subject. He apparently slimmed her profile as he worked. As a rule, the painted dresses look rather more fetching than the dumpy real ones on the mannequins.
Other pictures are more anecdotal, and frequently flirtatious. In Charles Carolus-Duran’s stunning 1869 painting of a woman dressed head to toe in fashionable black, the lady has suggestively allowed a single glove to drop to the floor at her feet. Master of this sort of narrative puzzle is Manet, whose six-foot-tall "Young Lady in 1866" from the Met's own collection famously allegorizes the five senses (including a parrot, a monocle, a nosegay of violets, a peeled orange, and a silky nightgown), all for an unseen gentleman caller.
And we have outdoor frolics, like Monet's 1866 Women in the Garden, an eight-foot-tall showstopper of vivacious female plumage, for which the artist posed his wife several times in various dresses, some which may have been borrowed (and which turn up in other works as well). To work en plein air on the oversized canvas, Monet supposedly raised and lowered it in a hole in the ground.
Even Paul Cézanne gets into the act with The Promenade, a small 1871 canvas of two well-flounced ladies with parasols, a direct, if freehand, copy of a fashion plate from La Mode Illustrée, which is displayed on the wall alongside Cezanne’s “appropriation.”
The exhibition does include its portraits of men, of course, rendered as patriarchs in family groups, members of military fraternities, or as individual exemplars of what is called “virile urbanity.” In 1867 Bazille dashed off a portrait of a young Renoir perched on a chair with an impatient insouciance that seems at odds with the sitter's own kewpie-doll painting style, while Fanton-Latour impeccably portrayed Manet in a frock coat and top hat with a golden watch chain, blue cravat, and strangely foreshortened walking stick—an image of refinement that belies Manet’s own rough-hewn painterly style. Both artists were considered "men of elegance," the exhibition catalogue informs us.
Another, slightly different surprise is provided by the 1878-79 Portraits at the Stock Exchange by Degas, with its pronounced Shylock types.
But the breakout star of the show, if an Impressionist exhibition can have such a thing, is Berthe Morisot, Manet's sister-in-law, model, and good friend. Morisot’s 1869 drawing-room portrait of two nearly identical women, both with the same hairdo, black choker, and gauzy white polka-dot dress, is enchanting—and an enigma. Did she paint the same model in two different poses, or dress herself and her sister as identical twins? Either way it’s a most pleasing painterly conceit.
Morisot’s narrative wit is also evident in two paintings from 1872, Interior and On the Balcony, both of which introduce the motif of a restless little girl looking away from the action, out of the rear of the picture space. A year later, Manet made the same joke in The Railway. Surely he was giving a conspiratorial nod to a fellow painter.
Also especially alluring is Morisot's portrait 1874 of Madame Marie Hubbard lying almost prone on a daybed, her head barely propped up on two pillows. Though her recumbent pose is reminiscent of Goya’s The Naked Maja (ca. 1797-1800), Morisot’s model remains quite well covered, though in a fluffy white nightgown of some sort. In a show filled with subtle erotic charges, this picture is almost serene. If Madame Hubbard’s intimate audience is with a man, it’s clearly one who troubles her little.
Impressionist “modernity” included admitting the viewer into the bourgeois boudoir, and the show is filled with pictures of women in peignoirs. The art historian who accompanied me to the show pretended to be baffled by their plenitude, though of course the clear counterpoint to pictures of women in dresses is pictures of women out of them. Too bad Morisot never painted a man in his garters. Now that would have been something.
Walter Robinson is an art critic who was a contributor to Art in America (1980-1996) and founding editor of Artnet Magazine (1996-2012). He is also a painter whose work has been exhibited at Metro Pictures, Haunch of Venison, and other galleries; he currently has a new show on view at Dorian Grey Gallery in New York's East Village. Click here to see his previous See Here column on Artspace.