IMPRESSIONISM, FASHION, AND MODERNITY
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Art Institute of Chicago
September 2012-September 2013
Part One: Fashion and Politics
Imagine if Impressionism existed today—not as a style but as content, indeed, if a certain content became an obsession—what would today’s Impressionism look like? What would today’s twenty-first century painters paint? They would paint fashion, from the clothes of Stella McCarthy to Alexander McQueen to Jason Wu and perhaps Vera Wang’s foray into Kohl’s or the latest frocks off the racks of Wal-Mart. In the wake of late twentieth century aesthetics and the definition of “serious” art with “serious” subject matter and “significant” spiritual content or compelling conceptual and philosophical investigations, it is hard to imagine a Manet or a Monet or a Morisot being taken seriously today. It seems absurd to think that we would consider fashion to somehow be the defining aspect of the new millennium. If we, of the twenty-first century were asked to make art of the compelling issues that move us or define us, what would we do? How would we proceed? It is doubtful that either class or clothing would be on the list of aspirations of any of today’s art makers in the so-called “fine arts.”
Manet’s La Parisienne. 1875
When one puts Impressionism into the context of today and a comparison is made in terms of how artists should respond to their own time, then what the modern Realists, from artists to authors, considered to be “reality” seems quite odd in 2013. On one hand the traveling exhibition of Impressionism and fashion that sadly does not make it to the West Coast is a beautiful show that will dazzle the eyes of those lucky enough to see the paintings. But on the other hand, perhaps it is time to take this most popular and most familiar of styles—Impressionism—and make it “strange” again. Perhaps the public knows Impressionism best from the beloved landscapes but once the attention shifts from an examination of formal innovations—white ground, broken brushwork, bright light colors—to subject matter then the (male) fascination with fashion (and with women) emerges as a major theme, and a rather strange one.
Fashion as Modernité
Indeed, from Baudelaire to Zola, as the exhibition catalogue points out, Second Empire Paris defined “realty” as fashion trends in Paris. Surely fashion itself could not have suddenly become so compelling in the nineteenth century. Therefore fashion must have signified something else, but what? One of the essayists for the catalogue, Heidi Brevik-Zender explained that during the Second Empire fashion became a major theme not just in the visual but also in the literary arts,
…fashion is interwoven throughout the very fabric of the literary works of this era, forming a complex textual discourse through which writers examined profound social and cultural changes associated with the experience of living as modern citizens. To follow fashion chart styles, and chronicle fashion’s influences was to participate in modern society. Writing about fashion was thus a form of cultural critique, but one that doubled as a self-conscious expression of modernity itself.
Modernity was essentially an urban condition, specifically located in only a few places, London, Paris and perhaps New York. It would be fair to say that, whatever the aspirations of New York, modernity was a European phenomenon characterized by the new wealth of a new aristocracy and continuing class tensions and the lingering memories of a series of failed revolutions. Underlying modernité in Paris—and this point is rarely made by nineteenth century scholars—is the anachronism of the Second Empire in what was a supposedly “modern” time of iron and steel buildings and trains and the explosion of industrial manufacturing. To have an Emperor and Empress in the midst of the rising tide of democracy, to drag an “empire,” of all things, a holdover form ancient times, into a century hurling towards a future was an absurdity and a doomed one at that.
If the “modern” cannot be found in the form of government, then where is modernity to be located? To establish modernity upon the foundation of fashion seems, from the vantage point of one hundred fifty years later, an absurd gesture of despair, a feint designed to divert attention away from the very real social issues and turn the gaze towards the divertissements of the cultural ballet. When the Impressionists and the Realists are viewed, not in a political context, but in an artistic context, this group of Second Empire artists was not avant-garde or vanguard but are part of an ongoing trend that is part of a configuration of a new class of French citizens as consumers who are being compensated for another failed revolution. Instead of rights, the people are given commodities, the most visible of which was the fashions seen parading down the boulevards.
Jean Béraud. The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris (1877)
Keeping in mind that the span of the exhibition is the Second Empire and the decade of recovery after the Franco-Prussian War, the title overstresses Impressionism, since most of the Impressionists were in the very beginnings of their long careers. Most of the Impressionists moved away from fashion as a focus after the Franco-Prussian War and they played a relatively minor role in creating fashion as content for Realist art. However, the exhibition does foreground those artists who were veritable students of male and female clothing during the decades 1850-1860, such as James Tissot and Alfred Stevens who are finally coming into prominence as (neglected) Realists. Although they were friends and associates with the Parisian avant-garde, these Realists artists have been historically neglected mainly because their style was detailed and precise, more in line with the still-dominant Pre-Raphaelites. In addition, Jean Béraud, who was an associate of Degas, is also present with several of his scenes of fashionable streets, The Church of Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, Paris (1877) and his study of A Ball, a year later, a dazzling display of beautiful dresses with long trains. The contrast of the dark and practical clothes worn by the women on the street and the impractical garments of ostentatious display and the slight adjustments required of men to go from day to evening is telling for gender roles.
Jean Béraud. A Ball. 1878
The exhibition provides is a portrait of a rather regressive age that expressed itself socially, politically, and culturally through as assertion that fashion is an art form. The most “modern” works of the nineteenth century after the French Revolution are not the faux antique mythological themes or the Napoléonic battle scenes but the portraits of the fashionably clad bourgeoisie. Ingres, of course, is the Great Precursor, who was riveted by the ornaments of early haute couture before the Second Empire. Charles Baudelaire, ever attentive to the strange or the bizarre, understood what the catalogue called the “mania” of Ingres for print and pattern and decoration that shrouded wealthy women in layers of class-consciousness. Although Manet was hardly a follower of Ingres in terms of style, he certainly resumed his concern for fashion. But there is a strong difference with how Ingres and Manet approached the mysteries of the female: Ingres was not just obsessive he was also often subtly contemptuous of pretentions of the nouveaux riche. Manet was aware of class but he understood female fashions not just as emanations of wealth but also of modernité or, as Baudelaire defined, that which was fleeting and ephemeral and changeable.
Constantin Guys. The Entourage
Scholars of modern art have puzzled over why modernité had to be carried, if you will, on the body, clothed or unclothed, of the female. Modernité had to be urban, indicative of the large city, and could not be part of the countryside or the rural landscape or the small town. The nineteenth century was the century of large urban areas and the migration of the rural population away from farms and peasant life swelled the size of the city, forcing vast coping strategies to avoid another revolution and to accommodate the restive population. These necessary changes to the city were also changes to life itself. The famous Goncourt Brothers mourned the demise of Old Paris but the new generation accepted the Haussmannization of a Paris ordered and regulated by the boulevards of the new Empire. The exhibition suggests that the “modern” was about change. If you were young like the Impressionists, you were excited by the demolition and the department stores and the electric lights; and you would be caught up in unprecedented change and change was exemplified by fashion, which is inherently faddish.
Constantin Guys. The Balcony
Indeed when one goes down a checklist of what kind of subject matter could be used to convey the “modern,” fashion emerges as the easiest candidate. Unlike the rebuilding of Paris, a work in progress for decades, fashion was a complete work of art that allowed the artist to present paintings that were art-about-art. The “art” of fashion was a particular type of art for a century undergoing the forced conversions of the Industrial Revolution. As the section on Edgar Degas’s fascination with millinery points out, much of dressmaking depended upon arduous handwork, done by women, with inherited skills that were centuries old. The only machines associated with the fashion “industry,” an oxymoron in this era, was the sewing machine, invented by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851.
19th century sewing machine
Fashion and the Haute Bourgeois Male
Therefore, like the century itself, fashion was hybrid and Janus-faced, old and new, hand and machine made, available for middle and upper classes, from prêt-à-porter to haute couture; and in its hybridity and complexity, fashion exemplified all that was modern—the shift from old to new, caught in a moment of transformation. In Realist and Salon painting, fashion was a man’s game, seen through the eyes of men. The very small number of paintings by women featured in this exhibition testifies to the extent that women as artists were virtually excluded from the ranks of the great painters of women’s fashions. This relative absence of women as painters of fashions is paralleled by a similar lack of women who wrote realist novels of manners—a strange gap between Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. It is difficult to know if the absence of all but a few paintings by women—Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales—reflects the small number of female Realist artists or the difficulty of obtaining works by these artists for the exhibition. But it is clear that male artists were fascinated by women’s clothes, from underwear to outerwear, and that male critics were uninterested in and hostile to seeing male costumes in works of art.
For these artists and critics, “reality” was Paris and the life of the upper class male flâneur who was a spectator and participant in the metamorphosis of the century. Unlike women who merely wore the clothes, men could actually participate in a life of luxury and leisure and spectatorship. Women, as the catalogue points out, were confined and contained and watched for details of deportment. They were allowed to venture out of their abodes alone and could walk in the streets alone, a real ordeal, given their costumes, provided they “kept moving” and had shopping as their main goal. Clearly women were constructed as consumers and throughout the catalogue themes of desire emerge: desire is manufactured, desire for things—dresses, hats, gloves, fans—although artificial could be fulfilled simply by purchasing something, no matter how small—a piece of trimming, a new set of buttons.
Fashion as Class
And when one peruses this beautiful catalogue and its sumptuous illustrations, it is clear that it was easy to be diverted by the lure of shopping for these lovely clothes. Never have women’s clothes been so lovely or so huge or such a feast for the eyes or so uncomfortable or so complicated. Brigit Haase described the astonishing procedures for simply lifting a skirt made from “fourteen panels of cloth cut diagonally on one side:”
The considerable quantity of material could be gathered by the wearer according to her preference by means of an arrangement of strings. To this purpose, long, narrow ribbons—called tirettes (literally, “little pulls”) or pages—were attached to the skirt’s inside along all vertical seams; their upper ends were tied to buttons loosely fastened above small openings in front and back of the waistline. Pulling the buttons raised the skirt’s hem.
In contrast to the intricate machinery of female attire, the clothing of men of all classes simplified and became a “democratic” uniform that nevertheless worked to mark off one class from another.
Charles Frederick Worth
Certainly after the failure of the Revolution of 1848, it was compensatory for men to compete over the cut of their redingote rather than over when to start the next uprising. Men disappeared into a dark uniform of “funeral” blackness, differentiated by tailoring details and accessories: the cane, the gloves, the collars and cuffs and the tall hat. No one wore clothes better than Édouard Manet who used his formal and elegant 1867 portrait (Édouard Manet) by Henri Fantin-Latour to convince his detractors of his moral worth.
Henri Fantin-Latour’s portrait of Manet
Given that tastes for male beauty has changed so much since the nineteenth century, it is difficult for us to judge Manet’s handsomeness but, for the young artist, George Moore, there was no doubt. His reaction to Manet was nothing short of rapturous:
Although essentially Parisian by his birth and by his art, he had in his physiognomy and his manners something that made him resemble an Englishman. Perhaps it was his clothes—his outfits with their elegant cut—and his way of carrying himself! His way of carrying himself!…those square shoulders swinging from side to side when he crossed the room, and his slender waist, and that face, that nose, that mouth.
Then as now, male clothing required a trim and slim body to wear with the appropriate panache. Figure flaws, short legs and large paunch, were hard to hide; and male fashion was best worn by young men with slim waists, long legs, and money. Frédéric Bazille’s Family Reunion (1867) exemplified the new style of portraiture, the ensemble, showed young and prosperous men and lovely and well-dressed women enjoying each other in an open-air setting. Although Bazillle foregrounds the women and their costumes, the men perform their upper middle class status. They pose casually and exude confidence: one seated male crosses one leg languidly over the other—a position forbidden to women, while the other males stand, almost at attention, showing off their white summer trousers and matching white vests and shirts, set off by the standard black frock coat.
Frédéric Bazille. Family Reunion (1867)
Manet was the epitome of the haute bourgeoisie who had inherited the earth, money and power and social status. He would be one of the last of his class to venture into fine art and his Impressionist cohorts and outsider artists, such as Monet and Renoir could not keep up with the sartorial splendor of Bazille and Caillebotte, men of his own class. Bazille who died in the Franco-Prussian war did not live to fulfill the promise of his talent relied on his mother to buy his clothes. The catalogue points out that Monet and Renoir often used female models (wives and mistresses) to act out their social aspirations. Bazille’s portrait of Renoir (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1867) shows the young and uncertain artist in his bourgeois suit with somewhat baggy pants with his knees pulled up to his chest, in yet another pose of male freedom that would never be allowed to a woman, even a young girl. One could argue that a truly upper class male would never sit in such a posture that is so inelegant, so uncaring of the proper fit of the clothing.
Bazille’s portrait of Renoir
Indeed upper class males have their own attitudes of privilege and poise and some of these paintings reveal the psychology of the unconscious advantages of their class. James Tissot’s The Circle of Rue Royale (1868) displays a group of men with prerogatives displaying themselves to each other on the neo-classical pavilion of the Gabriel balcony of the Jockey Club. Located in the Hôtel Scribe at this time, the Jockey Club was dedicated, as it said, to “the improvement of horse breeding in France. According to the Musée d’Orsay, the scene is set on “one of the balconies of the Hôtel de Coislin” and it should be noted that each languid aristocrat is a portrait of actual pedigreed males: the Comte Alfred de la Tour-Maubourg (1834-1891) the Marquis Alfred du Lau d’Allemans (1833-1919), the Comte Étienne de Ganay (1833-1903), the Capitaine Coleraine Vansittart (1833-1886), the Marquis René de Miramon (1835-1882), the Comte Julien de Rochechouart (1828-1897), the Baron Rodolphe Hottinguer (1835-1920), the Marquis Charles-Alexandre de Ganay (1803-1881), the Baron Gaston de Saint-Maurice (1831-1905), the Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834-1901), the Marquis Gaston de Galliffet (1830-1909), and Charles Haas (1833-1902).
Tissot’s aristocrats at The Jockey Club
No one depicted this kind of rarified male better than Tissot, a French artist in exile, who lived and worked in London, the original home of the original Jockey Club and perfectly captured the aristocratic male at his apogee in the twilight of the nineteenth century. To my mind, the greatest portraits of the these decades are devoted, not to women, but to these peacock males: John Singer Sargent’s Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881) and most of all, Tissot’s portrait of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870). Alone amidst incongruous floral furniture, the British Captain of the Royal Horse Guards lounges at his ease, mustaches waxed and uptilted, cigarette at attention between his graceful fingers. To the eyes of an untutored American, Burnaby looks “French,” but “Fred,” as he was called, was decidedly English. In fact his mannered style, the epitome of male mannerism, was the very essence of all that was the British aristocracy at its peak and it was this aspect of all things English that wafted across the Chanel as “Anglomania.” The French aristocrats at the Jockey Club are echoes and copies of Burnaby, most of them without his adventurousness and bravery, as are their favorite sports from yachting to tennis to horseracing to the very concept of “sport” itself—all British exports.
Tissot’s Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1870)
No where is the difference between the authentic English gentleman and the authentic French gentleman seen better than in the paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. In contrast to Burnaby’s misleadingly langurous long legged pose, Caillebotte’s well-to-do bourgeois males are causal and rather blunt. Like Mary Cassatt, he was able to capture the wealthy men au natural, in their habitat, in private moments. While most of his colleagues concentrated on female fashion, Gustave Caillebotte was concerned with male fashion and showed the world of the upper class male living in Haussmann’s new Paris in introspective luxury. These wealthy men seem idle and without purpose; they are rarely engaged in any meaningful activity and, in their pointless lives, seem to exemplify the alienation discussed by the catalogue. But Caillebotte was also careful to observe the lower class male. At the Café (1880) shows that particular male, marked by class differences: the small bowler hat, the short casual coat, the floppy collar and tie, the hands shoved in the loose pants. His confidence, his ease in his surroundings, indicate a sense of upward social mobility, but he also wears his class-bound clothing with a certain resignation.
Caillebotte’s Lower Class Male
Caillebotte’s men tend to be at once active and passive, often separated from friends and family, set apart as observers or choosing solitude as a defense mechanism against the crowds of the city. Alienation is a common sub-theme running throughout Impressionism like a stain of melancholia, apparent in the psychological distance between men and women in the painting of Degas and Manet. In Caillebotte’s The Pont de l’Éurope (1876) shows a range of classes, gender, and métier: the elegant upper class male, dressed for display, a middle class woman, bravely walking alone, a lower middle class male in the distance, and in the foreground, a worker in a loose blue smock. This lower class male in wears a loose fitting blue overshirt and small bowler hats, which allows him to do manual labor. In contrast, the upper class male, according to Balzac, supposedly wears “comfortable” clothes that allow for “movement,” but one suspects that the relative comfort of the wealthy man is in comparison to the culottes and the lace cuffs of the aristocrats of the previous century.
Caillebotte’s The Pont de l’Éurope (1876)
But now that the very privileged were without the embroidered waistcoats, it was the top hat that truly marked the leisure class off from the laboring class, for the tall shiny funnel on the top of the male head made it impossible for him to bend over or move quickly. The tall black hat immobilized the male but set him apart, made him taller and grander, just as the volumes of clothing worn by his female counterpart kept her paralyzed and numb. Edgar Degas made the shiny tall black “top” hat dominate his males in Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1897-9) which is not about portraits at all, unless one is studying the way in which the male personality is submerged beneath the cylindrical marker. One could argue that the middle class male, now firmly situated in a position of dominance, is using a black and plain costume as a disguise. Aristocrats of the past revealed themselves as privileged and reveled in their position by celebrating through flamboyant and excessive clothing that advertised their uselessness. The bourgeois male, learning from the past, hid the fact that he was equally rich and equally powerful and equally privileged behind a uniform that to the untutored eye looked the same, identical from man to man. But to those who mattered—those who could know—relative power was announced through details, clearly visible to the discerning and educated eye but invisible to the “mob.”
Degas’s Portraits at the Stock Exchange (1897-9)
The nineteenth century was a century of coming to terms with the eighteenth century and the explosions of revolutions towards its end. From 1789 to 1872 France had been in constant turmoil, punctuated with occasional decades of reconsideration. As with any revolution, or, in the case of France, several revolutions, there were winners and losers. In America, women and people of color—from slaves to Native Americans—were the losers, and everywhere middle class men of status and property were the winners. In France, the aristocrats or those who aped them were also the winners when the middle class males were preempted by being given a share of the power. After the frightening excesses of a series of upheavals, the upper and middle classes males in France could close ranks against the lower class males and women by keeping them from sharing in the political arena as long as possible. England, wary of the way the French had lurched from uprising to uprising, gradually gave up bits and pieces of privilege, a few laws here and a few rights there, to calm the agitation. Year by year the uprisings foretold by Karl Marx were forestalled by these grudging and necessary laws and by the rising tide of disposable commodities that would so distract that part of the citizenry who would remain excluded from the “democracies” of Europe—the female.
Revolution of 1848
The second half of this review will focus on how fashion soothed the savage breast of the malcontented woman.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger