In 1863 Charles Baudelaire declared in the French newspaper Le Figaro: ‘Modernity is transitory, fleeting, contingent’. He instructed contemporary artists not to ‘scorn or forgo this transitory, fleeting element that undergoes such frequent metamorphoses. By removing it, you lapse into the void of an abstract, indefinable beauty.’ The Impressionists wanted to capture the beauty and excitement of modern life in and around Paris, the capital of modernity, prior to and following the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. Their lively brushstrokes sought to animate the ephemeral and transitory qualities of Parisian modernity, as described by Baudelaire, and its recently established commodity culture, which was shaped by the imperatives of fashion, consumerism and incessant innovation.
Paris had emerged as a rapidly transforming metropolis, due in part to its swift modernisation by city planner Baron Haussmann (1809-1891), who fashioned an extensive landscape of wide boulevards, grand parks, avenues, squares and gardens throughout the city. This period also witnessed the evolution of the department store, such as Au Louvre, Les Grands Magasins and Le Bon Marche, in which women could buy ready-to-wear fashions off the shelf that needed little if no alteration, not to mention the proliferation of specialist fashion magazines such as La Mode Illustrée and Les Modes Parisiennes.
Artists at the vanguard, such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) breathed new life into the rigid poses of fashion illustration. They succeeded in capturing, above all else, the emotional connection that viewers and wearers had with items of fashion. Fashion served as the quintessential symbol of transitory modernity, encapsulated by the Parisienne, the elegant modern woman who was accustomed to such bourgeois luxuries.
We can examine the fashioned feminine body in closer detail through three “snapshots”, each of which give a sense of the importance of fashion to the Impressionists’ priority to express modernity: Lady with a Parasol (1870-2) by Degas, Portrait of a Woman (1872) by Morisot and La Loge (1874) by Renoir. These paintings exemplify how Morisot, Degas and Renoir made skilful use of oil paint to capture the light and texture of the various folds and shapes of the fabrics that adorned the bodies of their subjects and which, rather than give a painstaking reproduction of fashionable trends in feminine dress, revealed a sense of the visual effect that fashion as a whole conveyed by way of the movements and gestures of Parisian women from 1870-1874.
DEGAS’ LADY WITH A PARASOL (1870-82)
Degas’ Lady with a Parasol is made up of quick, expressive strokes of black, grey and white oil paint on canvas and forms part a series in which the artist experimented with the results of light on the transient, fashionably attired female form. Degas once declared: ‘The source of ornament. Think of a treatise on ornament for women or by women, based on their manner of observing, of combining, of selecting their fashionable outfits and all things on a daily basis they compare, more than men, a thousand visible things with one another.’ Degas’ observations on women’s abilities to choose their own accessories and ornamentations from a plethora of possibilities reveal his active interest and participation in fashion. A label on the back of this painting reads ‘At the Race-course’ and explains the subject’s elegant appearance in a bustle dress that is lovingly sculpted by the artist and draped over layers of petticoat, complete with a nipped in waist to emphasise the trim female form. A parasol shields the subject from the open air as she is captured from behind and in motion. The rough sketch-like forms give a sense of immediacy to this unfinished image, which is reminiscent of the couturier’s direct creative process as fabric was draped over a model’s body. The fluid application of paint highlights a dynamic contemporary femininity that the viewer is invited to experience by envisioning how the fabrics may have swished and undulated with an unexpected gust of wind, sway of the hips or flurry of activity. Other areas of the painting, such as the subject’s profile and the details of her exquisite headwear, are painted with great delicacy and reflect Degas’ unequivocal interest in the chapeau, which formed the crown and status symbol of any respectable woman in the 1870s and was inevitably matched to her visage and attire.
MORISOT’S PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN (1872)
Like Degas, Morisot paid equal attention to the materiality of female dress, as can be seen in a portrait of her sister Madame Edma Pontillon, which she completed in 1872. The painterly texture of her brushwork, which encompasses broad and delicate strokes freely applied, evokes the flounces, frills and ornamentation of the luxurious fashions depicted. As the only woman represented in the first group exhibition of the Impressionists held in Paris in 1874, Morisot had an innate knowledge of the individual elements of feminine dress, from underwear to day dresses, evening wear and outdoor attire. She depicts her subject dressed in a beige and chestnut brown day dress with pleated edging, a high waistline, and long, close-fitting sleeves, which show the remaining influence of pagoda-style sleeves that were fashionable throughout the 1860s. The bodice of her dress is V-shaped, filled in with a chemisette comprised of muslin trimmed with lace, and adorned with a splash of purple and mauve flowers. The subject wears her hair piled high on top of her head in a pleated chignon that is threaded with a silver ribbon. She shows off matching purple and gold drop earrings and a pendant that is strung on a black velvet ribbon, both of which reflect the decorative accessories prevalent at the time. A thick sash comprised of velvet envelops her waist to form a bow that places the decorative bulk at the back of her dress, and emphasises her curvaceous feminine form. Unlike Degas’ energetic painting, which gave a tangible sense of the rush of modernity through the artist’s frantic sweeps onto the canvas, Morisot delivers a quiet nod of appreciation to female finery through her carefully orchestrated and meticulously executed portrait.
RENOIR’S LA LOGE (1874)
Like Morisot and Degas, Renoir placed fashion at the heart of his paintings, as can be seen in an examination of La Loge, which he painted in 1874. Renoir had an intimate knowledge of the technical and material nature of dress since his mother was a seamstress, his father a tailor and his elder sister a dressmaker, who in 1864 married the fashion illustrator Charles Leray. Here he depicted his favourite model and mistress, Nini Lopez, who is ostentatiously dressed in a fashionable tenue de premiere in black and white, an ermine mantle, pink flowers placed in her carefully-coiffured hair and adorning her bodice, a strand of pearls, gold earrings and a gold bracelet, white gloves and conspicuous powdered make-up. This overt display of wealth may have been suitable for a married woman but Nini has an ambiguous relationship to her male companion, who is dressed in full evening wear consisting of a white waistcoat or gilet cut very wide and low, a stiffened white shirt, a starched white cravat, black trousers and gold cufflinks. This unclear relationship is expressed through the complex interplay of gazes presented in the painting: he raises his binoculars to scrutinize the other women displayed in their theatre boxes, whereas she sits perfectly still, seated in full view of her admiring audience, a smile playing across her lips, one gloved hand holding her fan and white-laced handkerchief, the other a pair of binoculars. It is hard to tell the exact material of the subject’s dress, which remains blurred by the Impressionistic style, although it appears to be of white silk chiffon with appliqued ruched black silk net. Such hazy and insubstantial fabrics would have appeared at their best in the evening, particularly under the artificial lights of the theatre which would have caused the various layers to shimmer and gleam in contrast. Her sparkling jewellery captures the viewer’s eye and evokes the visual and literal consumption so fundamental to fashion. Renoir produces a poetic interpretation of the more prosaic details of dress through delicate, softly brushed forms of varying colour and tones. His paint handling is varied and fluent. Forms are delicately rendered without crisp contours. Nini’s gown provides a strong monochrome and triangular underpinning to the composition. By depicting Nini in the latest vogue, which would have been unaffordable for both the artist and his model, Renoir hoped for recognition and the consequent monetary gain that might reward him with the upper-class lifestyle that he imagined his luxuriously dressed mistress within.
If we look at any of these three paintings we get a sense of the importance of public display and spectacle in modern Parisian life, and the significance of fashion within that as a vibrant non-verbal system of communication, indicative of wider social, cultural and economic meanings. The Impressionists captured fashion as a whirlwind spiraling towards modernity, which simultaneously inhabited the past, captured the essence of the present and was imbued with potency for the future. Whilst clothing might be understood as a stable and utilitarian form of dress, for Degas, Morisot and Renoir, fashion, with its affinity for transformation and innovation, was constantly shifting in a cyclical process.