PARIS (Reuters) - The bold horizontal brushstrokes of Manet’s 1876 female portrait, “The Parisian,” convey the raw energy of a new painting style that turned heads well over a century ago with its focus on light, its sketch-like feel and contemporary subjects.
But the star of the life-sized oil is a shimmering black dress of taffeta silk that highlights the painter’s prowess - and provides a starting point for “Impressionism and Fashion,” a show that runs through January at the Musee d‘Orsay in Paris.
The exhibit brings together more than 60 major works from 1865-1885, when French painters from Monet and Renoir to Degas and Caillebotte found inspiration from daily life in and around Paris, then a world capital of style and scientific progress.
The show - organized with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, and sponsored by luxury group LVMH - calls itself the first dedicated to the “determining role of fashion” in the art of the Impressionists.
Besides paintings, it features dozens of mannequins in bustled, tightly corseted dresses, fashion magazines of the time as well as hundreds of sepia photographs of bourgeois women posing in their best finery by Eugene Disderi.
“The invention, dynamism and fleeting charm of fashion couldn’t help but seduce a generation of artists and writers anxious to record the palpitations of modern life in its infinite diversity,” wrote Guy Cogeval, president of the Musee d‘Orsay in the exhibit’s catalogue.
Here we see Renoir’s “The Theatre Box” - on loan from London’s Courtauld Gallery - in which a woman, resplendent in a black and white striped gown accessorized by strings of pearls, poses with her opera glasses, well aware she is being watched.
The variety of textures in her outfit offered the painter as many opportunities to flaunt his technical mastery.
The Impressionists, who eschewed the idealized subjects of romanticism, chose to portray their subjects in everyday settings, whether at cafe tables, strolling the new grand Paris boulevards, at dances, in front of the piano, or in the park.
Two of the female subjects of Claude Monet’s colossal “Luncheon on the Grass” face away from the painter, providing us with a better view of their full crinolines and trains, and replicating the three-quarter pose popular in fashion plates.
The changing landscape of Paris in the latter half of the century provided ample fodder for the Impressionists, as old neighborhoods gave way to gleaming new boulevards - Belle Epoque catwalks where society women could parade their best trappings.
Manet’s “The Balcony” depicts a well-dressed man and two women in white, one of whom is painter Berthe Moriset, who watch passersby from above as they, in turn, are watched.
Depicting male dress was a frustration for the Impressionist painters, who felt constrained by its limited vocabulary of long trousers, black tail-coats and top coats.
But in Caillebotte’s “At the Cafe,” the burly male subject’s rumpled trousers, out of date bowler hat and solitary stance speak volumes, hinting at disillusionment with modern urban life.
After all, the modern bourgeois man was “judged by the cleanliness of his cuffs and shirt collar ... and by his tie which had to be of a certain width,” the exhibit notes said.
Nudity could pose a problem for a show focused on clothing, but the satin undergarments worn by the young courtesan in Manet’s “Nana” offer related titillations.
In Henri Gervex’s huge canvas, “Rolla,” a beautiful young woman is stretched out dozing on a rumpled bed, her clothing cast aside, under the gaze of a half-dressed man. The painting was refused entry to the 1878 Salon on moral grounds.
The exhibit ends ironically with Caillebotte’s masterpiece, “Paris Street; Rainy Day,” whose figures are covered by long coats and umbrellas as they stroll the city’s wet streets.
“Impressionism and Fashion” travels to New York and Chicago in 2013.
Reporting By Alexandria Sage