The Metropolitan Museum of Art has done it again. Living up to its famous name, the Met has produced yet another stellar and model exhibition. (Their best to-date this year has been Matisse: In Search of True Painting, on view earlier this winter.) Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity closes today, Monday, May 27, so if you have nothing else to do on Memorial Day, stop by to see this exhibit. Located next to their newly opened Punk: Chaos to Couture show, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity is attractively designed right from the very beginning.
Visitors are welcomed to the show with the luscious colors of a green and gray dress, the very first thing we see, replicated on the expansive entrance wall. The silhouettes of late 19th-century fashionable women are imprinted on the adjoining wall, heralding the show with a brief introduction. The green-gray striped dress itself takes pride of place before the first gallery and happens to be the same dress featured in the first painting we see – a portrait entitled Camille, painted by Claude Monet.
The thesis of this Impressionism show is that artists of the Impressionist period (at its height circa 1874-1886) were very much in tune with the dress styles of the day and incorporated that into their works with careful deliberation. Major works of art by Carolus Duran, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas hang on the walls. Accompanying these are illustrations, photographs, magazine clippings, and of course, the actual fashion pieces themselves.
There are eight galleries in the exhibition, each gallery dedicated to a separate theme: figure painting, plein air, the white dress, the black dress, the dictates of style, male dress, consumer culture, and high society. There are about eighty paintings on view throughout the rooms, and each room holds at least two or three bustling day gowns or shimmering ball gowns. Interspersed throughout the rooms are additional fashionable accouterments, including two black and white parasols, a fan, corsets, bonnets and hats, and opera glasses. Each actual artifact on view, seen in concert with the paintings behind them, give the visitor a sense of true high society life in 19th-century Paris.
A better exhibit could not have been created. Produced in concert with the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Fashion and Modernity has the perfect combination of factors that makes this one of the best museum exhibitions in New York this year. Brilliant and diverse works of art, not one inch of wall space left wanting, informative walls labels, and easy themes are all why this show is so impressive.
One of the most arresting combinations of the exhibit is the pairing of Albert Bartholomé’s In the Conservatory with the same purple polka dot dress as in the painting. The painting itself is a prime example of 19th-century portraiture, with such delicate attention paid to painting the woman’s hands, the scenic view through the conservatory glass doors, and the minute details of her dress. As we learn in the text label, the artist was so taken with this portrait of his wife that he kept the dress she posed in for him.
Other notable works on view include Carolus Duran’s Lady with a Glove, Manet’s Parisienne, Monet’s dual-panel Luncheon on the Grass and Berthe Morisot’s Woman at Her Toilette. In the final room of the exhibit, visitors are introduced to high society functions – luncheons, dinner parties, balls. Late-night dancing and revelry mark the themes of these paintings. Jean Béraud’s A Ball is the most glamorous work on view here, the jewels and dresses simply glittering off the canvas.
Accompanying the exhibition is a heavy catalogue, replete with full-color photographs and up-close images of the paintings on view. Curator contributions to the catalogue are also well-written and provide meaningful discourse on the topic.
Although Impressionists and painters throughout history have depicted fashion in their artworks, this exhibition seems to be one of the first that actually combines the artwork with the actual dress of the period, providing a smart commentary on just how transformative and modern these artists were.
Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity travels to the Art Institute of Chicago for its final stop from June 30 to September 22. If you didn’t get the chance to see this stellar show in New York, be sure to see it in Chicago!