At the Met: Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity

A Review of the Newest Breakaway Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Kyera Giannini, Fashion Publishing

The Ball, by James Tissot

An ingenious combination of two and three dimensional, the exhibit revolves around the introduction of contemporary fashion and modernity into art during the 1860’s-1880’s and the new class of painters who began the movement: the Impressionists.  The curators describe the hallmark of the Impressionist as, “integrating stylishly dressed figures into landscapes suffused with light.”  In the words of Degas, they were “painting our time”, a surprisingly controversial action, and the beginning of modern art as opposed to classical.  The Impressionists painted modern day women in vogue clothing doing normal actions as opposed to epic battles or famous mythological scenes.

The exhibit contains dozens of works by 1800’s artists like Manet, Renoir, Monet, Tissot, Zola and Degas, along with actual dresses that match (sometimes exactly) the dresses depicted in the paintings.  It’s a wonderful experience to look at Monet’s Women in the Gardens and then turn around to see the actual white and black dress from the painting.  The rooms are arranged by theme and chronology; the White and Black Dress rooms stand between the first examples of Impressionist portrait fashion and the later, light-diffused samples.  The second to last room devotes itself to accessories, with actual hats, incredibly tiny corsets, gloves and shoes.  Parasols dot the landscape and cases with fashion plates act as room dividers.

Descriptions add a fourth dimension to the experience.  The little cards next to the dresses explain the important construction details in full sentences, not the usual bare-bones details.  The descriptions of the paintings take it a step further, anecdotally describing the painting, as with Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass, which he had to rescue from a flooded basement after he left it in a previous apartment.  The curators had the brilliant idea of using pertinent quotes by the artists themselves, which they interspersed throughout the rooms on the walls and within longer descriptions.

Before the Mirror, Manet

It is this longer description of an entire room, located on a large plaque by its entrance, that captures the essence of the exhibit.  Quality writing, heaps of French words and well selected quotes by the artists paint a vivid picture of the era.  Here you learn of the controversy surrounding the use of “Master” and artistic techniques used to paint modern everyday life.  The Impressionists were mocked for attempting to “invigorate threadbare traditions with modern sentiment.”  Sitting on a couch or peering through opera glasses was not considered appropriate material for a painting, nor was the usual subject: a mistress painted in a suggestive manner.  The curators also place the clothes into the larger context of the fashion industry, describing the rise of ready-to-wear, department stores and designers like Charles Worth.

By the time you round the last corner, glancing back to look one last time, you realize that current fashion has stormed the art world and plans to stay.  As Monet put it, “The latest fashion…is absolutely necessary for a painting.  It’s what matters most.”

The exhibit runs from February 26 to May 27, 2013.