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Impressionism and Fashion

At the entrance to the  “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened on February 26, there’s a quote by French artist Édouard Manet inscribed on the wall:“The latest fashion… is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most.”

Manet said this during the Impressionist era, an artistic movement in the mid-19th century known for using thick brushstrokes, natural light and asymmetrical compositions. Fashion is prominently showcased in each work in the exhibition, proving its aesthetic value to the art of the time period.

The exhibit unfurls in eight galleries that range from full-length portraits of the 1860s to illustrations of modern life toward the end of the century. Costume dresses and accessories are also shown in each room, along with photographs, drawings and clippings from art journals. Works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas are on view, as well as other artists who drew upon the fashion trends of the time—as seen in department stores, fashion magazines and on the street—and made them the focus of their art.

A voluminous green striped silk dress with a crinoline skirt is the first costume piece on display. It complements Claude Monet’s Camille (an 1866 painting of the artist’s mistress and future wife), which hangs in the next room. The full-length portrait is entirely fashion-focused: Camille wears a fur-trimmed jacket and a green satin-striped dress with an impressive train that extends in the rear. Her outfit was so impressive, in fact, that the portrait has since been dubbed “The Green Dress.”

Auguste Renoir’s 1867 Lise presents the artist’s 19-year-old mistress as an elegant Parisienne, dressed in country garb and clutching a dainty parasol. Her sheer white dress absorbs the light in the painting, blending her in with her surroundings—a plein air technique.

Among the accessories on display are straw hats (pictured in Edgar Degas’s millinery series), satin corsets, white leather gloves and slippers with rosette accents. These, combined with the paintings and costume pieces, make it unmistakably clear that fashion mattered then. (And still does today.)

Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Oil on canvas
90 15/16 x 59 1/2 in. (231 x 151 cm)
Kunsthalle Bremen, Der Kunstverein in Bremen

Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919)
Lise (Woman with Umbrella)
Oil on canvas
72 7/16 x 45 1/2 in. (184 x 115.6 cm)
Museum Folkwang, Essen

“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” runs now through May 27 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Claire Stern

Photo credits: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; facebook.com/metmuseum