Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, Part One

IMPRESSIONISM, FASHION, AND MODERNITY

Musée d’Orsay, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago

September 2012-September 2013

Part One: Fashion as the Trope of Modernité

Imagine if Impressionism existed today, not as a style but as content, and, if a certain content became an obsession, what would today’s Impressionism look like? What would today’s twenty-first century painters paint? They would paint fashion, from the clothes of Stella McCarthy to Alexander McQueen to Jason Wu and perhaps Vera Wang’s foray into Kohl’s or the latest frocks off the racks of Wal-Mart. In the wake of late twentieth century aesthetics and the definition of “serious” art with “serious” subject matter and “significant” spiritual content or compelling conceptual and philosophical investigations, it is hard to imagine a Manet or a Monet or a Morisot being taken seriously today. It seems absurd to think that we would consider fashion to somehow be the defining aspect of the new millennium. If we, of the twenty-first century were asked to make art of the compelling issues that move us or define us, what would we do? How would we proceed? It is doubtful that either class or clothing would be on the list of aspirations of any of today’s art makers in the so-called “fine arts.”

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Manet’s La Parisienne (1875)

When one puts Impressionism into the context of today and a comparison is made in terms of how artists should respond to their own time, then what the modern Realists, from artists to authors, considered to be “reality” seems quite odd in 2013. On one hand the traveling exhibition of Impressionism and fashion that sadly does not make it to the West Coast is a beautiful show that will dazzle the eyes of those lucky enough to see the paintings. But on the other hand, perhaps it is time to take this most popular and most familiar of styles—Impressionism—and make it “strange” again. Perhaps the public knows Impressionism best from the beloved landscapes but once the attention shifts from an examination of formal innovations—white ground, broken brushwork, bright light colors—to subject matter then the (male) fascination with fashion (and with women) emerges as a major theme, and a rather strange one.

Fashion as Modernité

Indeed, from the art criticism of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) to novels of Émile Zola (1840-1902), Second Empire Paris defined “realty” as fashion trends in Paris. Surely fashion itself could not have suddenly become so compelling in the nineteenth century. Therefore fashion must have signified something else, but what? Heidi Brevik-Zender explained that during the Second Empire fashion became a major theme not just in the visual but also in the literary arts,

…fashion is interwoven throughout the very fabric of the literary works of this era, forming a complex textual discourse through which writers examined profound social and cultural changes associated with the experience of living as modern citizens. To follow fashion chart styles, and chronicle fashion’s influences was to participate in modern society. Writing about fashion was thus a form of cultural critique, but one that doubled as a self-conscious expression of modernity itself.

Modernity was essentially an urban condition, specifically located in only a few places, London, Paris and perhaps New York. It would be fair to say that, whatever the aspirations of New York, modernity was a European phenomenon characterized by the new wealth of a new aristocracy and continuing class tensions and the lingering memories of a series of failed revolutions. Underlying modernité in Paris–and this point is rarely made by nineteenth century scholars–is the anachronism of the Second Empire in what was a supposedly “modern” time of iron and steel buildings and trains and the explosion of industrial manufacturing. To have an Emperor and Empress in the midst of the rising tide of democracy, to drag an “empire,” of all things, a holdover form ancient times, into a century hurling towards a future was an absurdity and a doomed one at that.

If the “modern” cannot be found in the form of government, then where is modernity to be located? To establish modernity upon the foundation of fashion seems, from the vantage point of one hundred fifty years later, an absurd gesture of despair, a feint designed to divert attention away from the very real social issues and turn the gaze towards the divertissements of the cultural ballet. When the Impressionists and the Realists are viewed, not in a political context, but in an artistic context, this group of Second Empire artists was not avant-garde or vanguard but was part of an ongoing trend that was part of a configuration of a new class of French citizens as consumers who were being compensated for another failed revolution. Instead of rights, the people were given commodities, the most visible of which were the fashions seen parading down the brand new boulevards.

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Jean Béraud. The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris (1877)

Keeping in mind that the span of Impressionism is the Second Empire and the decade of recovery after the Franco-Prussian War, most of the Impressionists were in the very beginnings of their long careers at the peak of the Empire. In addition, after the Franco-Prussian War, many of the Impressionists moved away from fashion as a focus, and artists such as Claude Monet (1840-1926), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), played a relatively minor role in creating fashion as content for Realist art after the conflict. However, there were artists who remained veritable students of male and female clothing during the decades 1850-1860 and for the rest of their careers, such as James Tissot (1836-1902) and Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), who are finally coming into prominence today as (neglected) Realists. Although they were friends and associates with the Parisian avant-garde, these Realists artists have been historically neglected mainly because their style was detailed and precise, and stylistically were more in line with the still-dominant Pre-Raphaelites in England. In addition, Jean Béraud (1849-1935), who was an associate of Degas, comes to the fore with several of his scenes of fashionable streets, The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris (1877) and his study of A Ball, a year later, a dazzling display of beautiful dresses with long trains. The contrast of the dark and practical clothes worn by the women on the street and the impractical garments of ostentatious display which demanded an entire costume change, and the slight adjustments required of men to go from day to evening is telling for gender roles.

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Jean Béraud. A Ball. 1878

The costumes of the era provide a portrait of a rather regressive age that expressed itself socially, politically, and culturally through as assertion that fashion is an art form. The most “modern” works of the nineteenth century after the French Revolution are not the faux antique mythological themes or the Napoléonic battle scenes but the portraits of the fashionably clad bourgeoisie. Ingres, of course, is the Great Precursor, who was riveted by the ornaments of early haute couture before the Second Empire. Charles Baudelaire, ever attentive to the strange or the bizarre, understood the “mania” of Ingres for print and pattern and decoration that shrouded wealthy women in layers of class-consciousness. Although the painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was hardly a follower of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) in terms of style, he certainly resumed the concern that Ingres, the son of tailors and dressmakers, for fashion. But there is a strong difference with how Ingres and Manet approached the mysteries of the female: Ingres was not just obsessive he was also often subtly contemptuous of pretentions of the nouveaux riche women and their ostentatious garments. Manet was aware of class but he understood female fashions not just as emanations of wealth but also of modernité or, as Baudelaire defined, that which was fleeting and ephemeral and changeable.

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Constantin Guys. The Entourage

Scholars of modern art have puzzled over why modernité had to be carried, if you will, on the body, clothed or unclothed, of the female. Modernité had to be urban, indicative of the large city, and could not be part of the countryside or the rural landscape or the small town. The nineteenth century was the century of large urban areas and the migration of the rural population away from farms and peasant life swelled the size of the city, forcing vast coping strategies to avoid another revolution and to accommodate the restive population. These necessary changes to the city were also changes to life itself. The famous Goncourt Brothers (Édmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt) mourned the demise of Old Paris, but the new generation accepted the Haussmannization of a Paris ordered and regulated by the boulevards of the new Empire. The “modern” was about change as witnessed by those who lived in a city simultaneously being torn down and rebuilt. “Modernity,” a very new term elevated and popularized and, indeed, defined by Charles Baudelaire, was tied by the writer to fashion. If you were young like the Impressionists, you were excited by the demolition and the department stores and the electric lights; and you would be caught up in unprecedented change and change was exemplified by fashion, which is inherently faddish.

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Constantin Guys. The Balcony

Indeed, in reading The Painter of Modern Life (published 1863), when one goes down Baudelaire’s checklist of what kind of subject matter could be used to convey the “modern,” fashion emerges as the prime candidate. Unlike the rebuilding of Paris, a work in progress for decades, fashion was a complete work of art that allowed the artist to present paintings that were art-about-art. The “art” of fashion was a particular type of art for a century undergoing the forced conversions of the Industrial Revolution. As the section on Edgar Degas’s (1834-1916) fascination with millinery and milliners points out, much of dressmaking depended upon arduous handwork, done by women, with inherited skills that were centuries old. The only machines associated with the fashion “industry,” an oxymoron in this era, was the sewing machine, invented by Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875) in 1851.

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19th century sewing machine

The sewing machine and the department store and haute couture fashion were distant marks of class: the lower class women could purchase fabric and find fetching patters and make their own fashions; the middle class woman could enjoy a day at an elegant department store, the only public site that had restrooms for women; and the elegant wealthy women could get their expensive clothes hand made by teams of seamstresses. Interesting, not much has changed today in the world of fashion, except that fast fashion has rendered a blow to the sewing machine as a guaranteer of fashionableness.

The next section will discuss the coincidental rise of fashion and modern life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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