Paris: The Thrill of the Modern

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity

an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, September 25, 2012–January 20, 2013; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, February 26–May 27, 2013; and the Art Institute of Chicago, June 26–September 22, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Gloria Groom
Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 335 pp., $65.00; $40.00 (paper)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Mary Cassatt: Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 32 x 23 1/2 inches, 1879

To walk into the first few rooms of the exhibition “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” now at the Metropolitan Museum, is to allow oneself to be immersed in the sweetness of life in the Belle Époque. On the walls, one finds a ravishing woman in pink, painted by Mary Cassatt (Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge), who smiles at the spectacle that surrounds her and also, one might say, at herself; a young woman dressed by Manet in sumptuous black, the polar opposite of mourning (The Parisienne), is the very picture of self-confidence; young women in white or pink are posed in gardens by Monet (Luncheon on the Grass) or we see them emerging from the shadows of the woods (Renoir’s Lise). The only soldier to put in an appearance here, depicted by James Tissot (Frederick Gustavus Burnaby), is shown stretched out languidly on a white couch, cigarette in hand, dress tunic and parade helmet casually tossed on a sofa upholstered in a floral fabric, and is so distinctly unwarlike that he might have been looked on approvingly even by Baudelaire, who detested the army.

National Portrait Gallery, London
James Tissot: Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 19 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches, 1870

Display cases contain lovely vintage costumes and a charming array of accessories. Impressionism, if viewed in fashion terms, becomes a runway presentation of evening gowns, silky, translucent peignoirs, dresses to be worn in the countryside, beribboned children’s outfits, and beautifully cut men’s suits. Still, what makes the exhibition so interesting is less the intersection of art with fashion than the concept of the modernity of art as it was understood by the artists of the last half of the nineteenth century.

Credit: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Caption: Édouard Manet: The Parisienne, 75 5/8 x 49 1/4 inches, circa 1875

The same exhibition was seen last year at the Musée d’Orsay, but with a substantial difference. In Paris, the chief focus was on decor and clothing, and the title of the show, “L’Impressionnisme et la Mode,” clearly emphasized that connection. The curators of the Metropolitan Museum, on the other hand, wisely chose to add a third dimension. Only fifteen or so mannequins have been placed in the galleries so as not to clutter the show. The display cases placed along the walls containing accessories—corsets, umbrellas, or hats—and the photographic panels do not interfere with the enjoyment afforded to a lover of pure painting. And in New York, the exhibition is called “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.”

A telling decision: in fact, the…

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