Impressionism and Fashion

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Artists and Men of the World

painting
Gustave CaillebotteParis Street, Rainy Day© The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago
In 1858 Théophile Gautier attacked a certain type of artist who claimed that black suits and jackets were an obstacle to creating masterpieces: "Are our clothes so ugly? Do they not have a meaning, little understood, sadly, by those artists steeped in old-fashioned ideas? With their simple cut and neutral colours, they allow the eye to be drawn to the head, the seat of intelligence, and to the hands, the tools of the intellect and a sign of breeding".

A few years later in 1863, Ernest Chesneau proclaimed, "If a great painter, alumiériste, is bold enough to depict modern life, and if he is truly a painter, if he does not mock his subject, if he has courage and a touch of genius, he will create a masterpiece from our black suits and our paletot jackets.” And in 1868, Emile Zola congratulated Frédéric Bazille, on his Family Reunion, for believing that one could be "an artist by painting a frock coat"..
Frédéric Bazille
 (1841-1870)
 Réunion de famille also called Portraits de famille [Family Reunion also called Family Portraits]
 1867
 Oil on canvas
 H. 152; W. 230 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, bought with the help of Marc Bazille, the artist's brother, 1905
Frédéric Bazille Family Reunion© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

It was never an easy task. The very same author in his novel The Masterpiece (1886) describes the anguish of the painter Claude Lantier when he comes to depict the black velvet jacket of the character in his large scale painting entitled Plein air. But for this one failure, how many stunning successes have there been? The frock coats and top hats in conversation by Degas, Caillebotte's dreamers and flâneurs, thoughtful husbands and lovers by Manet, Monet and Renoir, Bazille looking distinguished in his frock coat or jacket, his hands handling his hat, cane and umbrella quite naturally, as well as a cigar or a cigarette.

 

Enjoying the Open Air

Claude Monet
 (1840-1926)
 Femmes au jardin [Women in the Garden]
 Circa 1866
 Oil on canvas
 H. 255; W. 205 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Claude MonetWomen in the Garden© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
For the Impressionists, the representation of outdoor leisure activities was closely linked to the world of fashion. Whether it was the parks of Paris, suburban gardens or even the forest of Fontainebleau, these spaces were perfect for displaying fashionable clothes, as demonstrated in 1865-1867 by two great manifestos of the "new painting" that extol the fleeting beauty of a summer's day: Monet's Luncheon on the Grass] and Women in the Garden

A tight-fitting, high-waisted bodice, a mid-length jacket or even a loose fitting “sack” jacket coming down as far the crinoline skirts, which, in the 1860s tended to be flatter in the front and fuller at the back. Trains, which were even worn on days out in the country, were drawn up by a system of cords revealing the petticoats.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir 
 (1841-1919)
 La balançoire [The Swing]
 1876
 Oil on canvas
 H. 92; W. 73 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, bequest of Gustave Caillebotte, 1893
Pierre-Auguste RenoirThe Swing© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
The most common motifs were stripes, broad or thin, blue or green, dots, braided arabesques, with dark piping or trimmings.

But this was also the era when plain white prevailed. In 1868, Lise Tréhot, Renoir’s model and mistress, emerges from the undergrowth in a white muslin dress, leaving us to imagine the delicate flesh beneath the low cut dress and sleeves. But the silhouette changed as we see in the long slim figure of the young girl from Montmartre on The Swing, who is also wearing white muslin but embellished with blue bows. Nevertheless the clothes still capture the play of light and shade, even at the risk of losing some detail.

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