“The latest fashion…is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most,” read a quotation by Edouard Manet displayed at the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, on view from Feb. 26 to May 27. The Paris-centric exhibition reveals how painters from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s “embrace la mode (fashion) as the harbinger of la modernité (modernity),” as the website description for the exhibit explains.
Featuring the most important art works of Impressionism and its contemporaries, such as Monet’s “Luncheon on the Grass,” the exhibition is a must-see for those who crave the opportunity to see precious 19th-century modernist artworks selected from museums such as Musée d’Orsay, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
By presenting more than 80 paintings accompanied by period apparel—such as a gray and green striped silk day dress that sets the stage for Monet’s captivating “Camille,” delicate 19th-century fans, fashion plates, photographs, and popular prints—the exhibition transmits the charming ambiance of late-19th-century Paris to viewers in a very intimate way.
Looking at the paintings with an eye toward fashion, viewers get a glimpse of Parisian society. For example, one dress bears close resemblance to that depicted in Renoir’s “Madame Georges Charpentier et ses Enfants,” painted in 1878. Along with the Japanese-style drawing room of the family’s Parisian townhouse in the painting, the black silk gown is a testament to Madame Charpentier’s stylish taste.
As a nostalgic Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris” understands some paintings by mysteriously traveling back to the 1920s every midnight, viewers of this exhibition also get a great opportunity to understand modernity, the core concept dealt with by impressionists and their contemporaries, by looking at famous paintings through the lens of fashion. By reimagining figure painting, exploring the effects of light and shade on newly aniline-dyed fabrics, and focusing on accessories such as single jet earrings, artists of that time aligned with Baudelaire’s definition of modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” through different treatment of fashion.
In addition to considering Manet’s treatment of the female figure in his paintings in a sexual, and thus controversial way, viewers may be inspired to reconsider his works, such as the famous “Lady with Fan (Portrait of Nina de Callias),” from a fashion perspective. With her golden bangles, bolero jacket, and Algerian shirt, Nina was a dramatic contrast to most female figures in other paintings in this exhibition, including Madame Charpentier in Renoir’s portrait.
The exhibition ended with the topic of Spaces of Modern Life. Indeed, public spaces such as grand ballrooms, gilded theater boxes, and open gatherings offered “new vistas and venues to see and to be seen,” according to the exhibition description. And fashion is the epitome of such a visual culture. The unique perspective of the exhibition, which the catalog claims is the “first to explore fashion as a critical aspect of modernity,” provides a fresh look into Parisian life and modernity as a whole.