I can happily say that my initial reaction was totally off base. While indeed this show can please anyone with a pulse (as evidenced by eavesdropping on my fellow viewers), the thoroughness of the gallery labels and insightful curatorial work produced an exhibit rich in layers. You could find the dresses beautiful and the gardens enchanting, (as did the many small children breezing by with their parents), or by really focusing on each object and their grouping as a whole, it is possible to access a brief but true understanding of the age of Impressionism.
The principles of changing fashion underpin the organization of the exhibit. Each gallery has one or two garments displayed on mannequins in the center of the room that exemplifies the fashion depicted in the paintings, (and sometimes is the exact dress itself.) There are also ladies’ magazines and advertisements that described the fashion trends, and in many direct cases parallels are drawn from the mass- produced adverts to the unique works of the artists.
The first room serves as a slow introduction to ease you in the subject matter – a series of full-length portraits that shocked the bourgeoisie in pose and costume. For example, Édouard Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866” pictures his favorite model,
Victorine Meruent, proudly posing in a dressing gown surrounded by attributes that allude to a male presence and her work as a prostitute. While magnificent, this room is but a dulcet taste of what lies ahead.
The second room is a study of the outdoors – garden parties, picnics, and naps on the grass. It is in this room that the sheer grandeur of the exhibit becomes apparent. Objects were acquired from the greatest collections of Europe (especially Paris) and the United States, and brought together they are overwhelming.
It’s like the pages of every Impressionism textbook or children’s book come to life – and the extraordinary chance to see these images temporarily united is breathtaking. And they aren’t, as I originally pictured, the repetitive smaller landscapes or water lilies, but rather grand tableaus that are each individually worth their own exhibit.
Claude Monet’s “Women in the Garden” and “Luncheon on the Grass,” both from 1866, are two such paintings. Borrowed from the Musée d’Orsay, they dominate the theme “En Plein Air,” and really capture the spirit of the age. Men and women enjoy the pleasures of modernity, which includes clean parks in which to gather and fritter away the hours.
Their more gauche counterparts hang on the opposite wall. Gustave Courbet’s “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine,” 1857, scandalized audiences with its depiction of two napping prostitutes enjoying the same freedoms as their bourgeoisie compatriots.
The next two galleries are dedicated first to the trend of dressing entirely in white, and then dressing entirely in black (trends exclusive to women’s fashion, of course). The dresses displayed reach a new level of decadence, as designers seek to exploit the monochromatic palettes to their fullest using multiple materials, extravagant detailing and fripperies. As one six year old so aptly put it to her younger brother, “Oh my goodness, LOOK at this dress! Do you KNOW what I would do if I had this dress?!?”
The paintings reflect this material splendor, for example in Manet’s “The Parisienne,” 1875. His depiction of the model Ellen Andrée garbed entirely in black is, more than anything, a study in the richness of paint. His dashes and dabs bring to life a garment that dances with life, and she appears as a shimmering mirage that at any moment threatens to disappear. This encompasses one of the strongest sentiments of the age, as the speed of life introduced by modernity caused a new awareness of the fleeting and temporary nature of life.
Dramatic color returned in the 1880s as a new silhouette emerged, the “Princess Dress.” Albert Bartholomé painted a portrait of his wife entitled “In the Conservatory” that exemplifies this new style. His wife, dressed in a striking dress of bold purple and white stripes and polka dots, is captured mid-stride entering the conservatory and exuding a welcoming personality.
On the one hand, the viewer feels like a guest being welcomed to her home, and on the other it is easy to feel the intimacy between the artist and his subject. She died soon after this was painted, and Bartholomé preserved her dress, which is on display just in front of the painting, truly bringing the subject to life.
Briefly the exhibit shifts focus to men’s fashions, which were largely unchanging and considered boring by critics of the age. Black coats and top hats were the standard garb, and although not as dynamic as the women’s dress, the paintings displayed are fascinating, such as Frédéric Bazille’s informal portrait of artist Auguste Renoir, his knees bent, feet drawn up on a chair, gazing into the distance in a pensive meditation.
Just before the finale is a glimpse into consumerism and mass production that resulted from the opening of department stores such as Le Bon Marché and Printemps. Factory-made dresses, gloves and hats became available to the public, ruining the one-of-a-kind stores that excelled in quality and creativity. Many artists focused on these dying mom-and-pop shops, such as Degas who loved to paint the hat shops for their abundance of ribbons and lace. This room has examples of such hats, as well as gloves, shoes and corsets that, more than anything, demonstrate just how tiny the women were expected to be.
Turning the corner, the grand finale is revealed: Spaces of Modern Life. Focus turns to the opera houses, circus, balls and even the street. The showstopper is Gustave Caillebotte’s iconic “Paris Street; Rainy Day” from 1877.
The newly opened boulevards of Paris swarm with strolling Parisians, all dressed in black with umbrellas, presumably on a quest to buy more goods. But the austerity of this piece is sharply contrasted with the surrounding images of sumptuous ball gowns and elaborate gatherings. On display are the finest fashion specimens yet, and the glamour of La Belle Époque is in full swing.
It is on this high note that one then exits through the gift shop, tempted by overpriced lace gloves and hand mirrors, and reemerges into the world created by these first modernist revolutions of mass consumerism and uniformity. This exhibit was awe-inspiring and an all around pleasurable experience. If nothing else, it set a very high bar, nearly impassable, for Impressionism exhibits in the future.
Coincidentally, André Dombrowski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on 19th century French painting, is visiting campus this week. For an even deeper look into Impressionism, attend his lecture “Reaction Time and the Origins of Impressionsim” tonight, Thursday March 28 at 6pm in Taylor Hall 203.