Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is an exhibition that examines the relationship between fashion and art in 19th-century Paris. After a record-breaking opening last year at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and a stint in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the show came to its final stop at the Art Institute of Chicago in June.
The exhibit focuses on Impressionist paintings, juxtaposing them with clothing and accessories from the period. This pairing is supplemented with fashion plates and photographs, along with fashion-related quotes from the era.
Overall, the exhibition does a remarkable job of demonstrating why fashion became such an inspiration and focus for the revolutionary Impressionist painters. One quote from the opening gallery explains, “At a time of great urban change, the novelty, vibrancy, and fleeting allure of the latest clothing trends resonated with the Impressionists’ quest to give expression to the pulse of contemporary life in all its nuanced riches.” Artists participating in the movement sought to engage the world around them in a fresh way that appropriately reflected the shifting nature of their era, and their departure from the common academic painting branded them as radicals.
Indeed, the Impressionists’ boundary-pushing in traditional painting genres like portraiture result in images like Claude Monet’s “Camille (The Woman in the Green Dress).” Though the painting features Monet’s first wife, it focuses so heavily on the rich fabric she’s wearing that it’s hard to decide which is the real subject of the portrait, the woman or the dress. This theme is repeated throughout the show, in which most of the paintings focus on the “luxuriousness of [the subject’s] clothing rather than her physiognomy.” To this end, artists like Alfred Stevens and Berthe Morisot expertly rendered the appearances of difficult fabrics, inspiring awe through their medium mastery.
But the goal of this fabric-consciousness was not just to wow viewers with technical excellence. Many Impressionists focused on fashion in order to explore broader themes. One curatorial comment examined the recurring image of motif of “La Parisienne” in many Impressionist works, noting that she was “a readily recognizable subject, used by many artists to probe the nature of femininity, the significance of fashion, and the idea of modernity within the context of contemporary art.”
One of the greatest accomplishments of the exhibition is its redirection of viewer attention towards the sartorial elements in the paintings featured. Through the museum commentary and adjacent displays of everything from parasols to corsets, the exhibit invites the reader to consider more than just color and brushwork. While many of the exhibit’s paintings are familiar to even the least art-savvy (i.e. Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte), the show presents the works in a fresh context that casts them in an illuminating new light.
As a modern observer and follower of contemporary fashion in the 21st century, I found one of the most striking elements of the exhibition to be the women themselves. Because fashion photos and journals were relatively new on the scene, fashion images hadn’t yet departed far enough from portraiture to begin a new genre that would image bodies as mere advertising space, as is commonplace today.
This discrepancy was particularly obvious in the “cartes de visite,” small photographs used to spread the popularity of a particular style. While glancing over the palm-sized photos in a low-lit gallery, I found myself focusing not on the magnificent gowns, but instead on the women’s bodies and poses. Noting a double chin here, an awkward head-tilt there, and I caught myself thinking, These are real women. They look like me. I could’ve been one of them.
In short, the images provoked a completely different response in me than do the glossy sheets I encounter in Vogue. After looking through modern fashion’s most sacred literature, I may feel inspired, but I rarely feel that I belong between the covers. 21st-century fashion models represent a notoriously unattainable ideal to creative dressers, and the whole process—from hair and makeup to lighting and retouching—produces an end product more accurately described as an illustration than as a photograph. Though street style’s current popularity is beginning to shift this paradigm, the sad truth is that the kind of street fashion that makes it onto the pages of Elle is often worn by skinny, white women (who often “just so happen” to be models).
Besides the bodily differences between contemporary models and the exhibition’s models, the way in which they were presented was also noteworthy. The hyper-sexualization or fantastical narrative that often accompanies fashion in 2013 was largely lacking in the late 1800s, and fashion plates were more likely to depict models playing with children or reading books than posing provocatively or loitering in exotic locales. In short, fashion as explored by the Impressionists was both symbolic and visually compelling, even though it had yet to accumulate the eye-candy trappings that propel the industry today.
Overall, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is an excellently crafted exhibition that helps the viewer engage the relationship between fashion and art in a more conscious and lucid manner. As the curatorial notes remind visitors, “It was the Impressionists’ re-imaging of fashion… as both a personal experience and an expression of rapid social, economic, and artistic change that resulted in [these] revolutionary and memorable paintings.”
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is open until September 29 at the Art Institute— so if you’re in the Chicago area, don’t miss it!