Refashioning Art History

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The New York Sun

Followers of contemporary art are surely aware of the fashion world’s influence on a number of today’s leading artists. With Andy Warhol’s illustrations for fashion magazines as a precedent, Vanessa Beecroft’s and Yayoi Kusama’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton, Cindy Sherman’s work with Balenciaga and Karen Kliminick’s portrait of Kate Moss are examples of the intertwined relationship between fashion and art now.

But a newly opened exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, makes the case that the influence of fashion on art goes further back. With around 80 paintings and numerous vitrines displaying period costumes and accessories, this show argues that new styles of contemporary dress coming out of Paris in the 1860s, 70s and 80s played a “defining role” in shaping the work of avant-garde artists at the time.

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which started in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay and will end at The Art Institute of Chicago, was organized here by Susan Alyson Stein, curator with the Met’s Department of European Paintings. The exhibit stretches, more or less chronologically, through eight galleries, each room devoted to a particular theme, among them outdoor scenes, white dresses, black dresses, men’s attire, and fashion accessories.

The show’s catalog describes a “vital relationship between fashion and art,” the latest trends in clothing serving as a “quintessential symbol of modernity” to Impressionists. There is evidence to support the point that Impressionist painters, tired of the history paintings that dominated the salons, were eager to make more personally-relevant artwork that focused on the hustle and bustle of modern life. But to maintain that the latest trends in dress designs, in particular, (more than, say, café culture, alla prima landscapes and cityscapes, or portraits of friends and loved ones) played an oversized role in the artistic development of Impressionist painters seems a bridge too far, distorting the lens through which these paintings ask to be seen.

One of many quotes from Émile Zola that appears as wall text in the exhibit seems to belie the show’s very thesis. Writing about the Salon of 1868, Zola, a fierce advocate of Impressionism, says “[There are] painters who love their era with all the artist’s mind and heart…. They try above all to penetrate the exact meaning of things…. Their works are neither banal and unintelligent fashion pictures nor journalistic drawings such as those published in the illustrated press. Their works are alive because painters have feelings for modern subjects.”

Despite over-emphasizing the role of fashion on the Impressionists, this show is certainly worthwhile, for it includes some wonderful loans. The exhibit opens with a full-length figure by Claude Monet, a painting over seven feet tall of his wife-to-be Camille. Wearing a lush green and black dress, Camille’s turned pose spins away from us, a rich, burgundy-colored curtain behind her. First exhibited in the Salon of 1866, this painting helped launch the career of the 26-year-old Monet.

Another even larger-scale work by Monet, Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66), was made around the same time as Camille. Cut into pieces after becoming moldy in storage, this enormous painting, on loan from Musée d’Orsay, has never before been exhibited in America. With its loose paint handling, Luncheon on the Grass gives visitors a sense of the young artist’s energy and ambition.

From The National Gallery in London comes Courbet’s dreamy masterpiece Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer), 1856-57, featuring two women reclining on a riverbank, one dazed, in a sexually suggestive pose, undergarments exposed, the other nonchalantly gazing into the distance. Though the dresses and shawls the two women wear are beautifully described, the subject here is not the timeliness of their costumes but the timelessness of the moment they share.

The Chicago Art Institute has loaned Gustave Caillebotte’s iconic Paris Street: Rainy Day (1877), a picture that puts the viewer on the sidewalk with the umbrella-holding Parisians in the painting. Beyond the cobblestone streets of the Place de Dublin, a building in the distance in two-point perspective brings the eye through the space.

Other highlights include a surprising figure study by Paul Cezanne based on a fashion plate, Edouard Manet’s Woman with Fans –a painting of the bohemian Nina de Callias in an Algerian costume, surrounded by Japanese-style décor– and Degas’ series of milliner pictures.

The relationship between art and fashion is at odds. While tastes in attire change frequently, great art has staying power. Beyond the fickleness of trends, many of the works in this very exhibit will continue to inspire viewers for generations to come. During the second half of the nineteenth century, as department stores opened in Paris selling ready-to-wear garments, as sewing machines became more prevalent and textile dyes, more advanced, there is no question that how people dressed changed. And while it is amusing to look at the dresses and suits that were popular in Paris over a hundred years ago, separating out the clothing depicted in these paintings distracts us from the fact that these are first-rate works of art that ask to be enjoyed in their entirety.

Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, on view through May 27th, 2013 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 212-570-3951,

More information about Xico Greenwald’s work can be found at

The New York Sun

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