It would be easy to dismiss the Art Institute’s big summer exhibition as yet another survey of French Impressionism. But this isn't your mom's Impressionist show. (Although she'd likely enjoy it.) Billed as “the first [exhibition] to uncover the fascinating relationship between art and fashion” of the time, "Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" brings together an impressive selection of more than 75 figure paintings alongside a collection of vintage garments. Organized by the Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay, the exhibition is on the final stop of a three-city world that included Paris and New York.
Curated by the Art Institute’s Gloria Groom, in collaboration with her New York and Paris colleagues, the ambitious show explores the confluences of history, social mores, literature, art and fashion during the late 1800s. Paris was the style capital of the world throughout the 19th century, and French fashions were seen as forward-thinking and trend-setting—i.e., “modern.” According to Grooms, “Fashion was synonymous with modernity,” a notion reflected in the work of the Impressionist painters who rejected academic subjects in favor of depictions of modern life.
One of the first pairings of painting and costume we see is Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert (1868) by Claude Monet (1840–1926) and a clothing ensemble (1865/7) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Created 20 years before his Postimpressionist water lilies or haystacks, the portrait features Madame Gaudibert dressed in a striking olive-colored gown and wrapped in an Indian shawl. Monet depicts his subject from the side, her face angled away from the viewer. It's an unusual compositional choice, perhaps inspired by Japanese prints, but it turns the focus on the gown, and the length of the train gives Madame Gaudibert an illusion of exaggerated height. Her tall and stunningly elegant figure makes the Met’s nearby vintage gown look squat and informal by comparison.
Besides Monet, the show features other usual suspects, from Manet to Renoir and Seurat to Morisot. But the curators include lesser-known Impressionists, too, such as Eva Gonzales (1849–'83) and Frederic Bazille (1841–'70)—and even a few non-Impressionists, most notably James Tissot (1836–1902) who's represented by no less than 10 canvasses. Like his Impressionist contemporaries, Tissot was interested largely in depicting modern life, but he embraced a more academic painting style, with brushstrokes largely hidden. His paintings of fashionable young women, such as Portrait (1874), are early versions of the 'It' Girl, or what the French termed La Parisienne—the fashionable woman of the late 1800s. Tissot's fascination with clothing à la mode carries into his monumental Circle of the Rue Royale (1868), a painting depicting 12 immaculately dressed men on the veranda of a neoclassical building. It's one of the few works on display that showcases a range of men's fashions and reads as more of an advertisement than a group portrait.
Aside from the formidable selection of paintings and couture gowns, the exhibition’s main strength is its clear thematic organization. Each gallery focuses on a different aspect of 19th-century clothing, such as casual wear for the home or formal wear for nights out on the town. The French had a distinct type of dress for every occasion, and this is expertly reflected in the design of each gallery. Sometimes it's fun, as in the “shopping gallery” featuring a display case of vintage hats next to Eva Gonzales’s paintings and prints of delicate ladies’ shoes. Occasionally, the choices are a bit over-the-top, as in the "outdoor gallery” where Astro Turf covers the floor. (Yes, Astro Turf inside the staid Art Institute!) The sound of footsteps crunching the plastic grass is somewhat distracting when you’re trying to admire Frederic Bazille’s iconic Family Renuion (1867), but credit is due the Art Institute for creating a series of immersive environments that deftly reflect the art and themes of each space.
"Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity" also includes a range of style-related ephemera such as photographs, cartes de visite and fashion plates from magazines and newspapers. Unfortunately, these objects have largely been separated from the paintings and costumes and placed in two separate galleries. It would have been instructive to have intermixed more of these pop-culture images with the paintings to show how the French fashion industry and social morays influenced Impressionist art.
Predictably, the show ends with an icon of the Art Institute’s permanent collection, the pointillist masterpiece A Sunday on La Grand Jatte (1884) by Georges Seurat (1859–1891). The painting was a showstopper at the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886 and represents the transition from Impressionism to Postimpressionism. Famous is the silhouette of the lady with the exaggerated bustle (or "shelf butt") which was all the rage in 1880s Paris. A complementary display of vintage bustle dresses lines one wall of this final gallery. Seurat and his bustle fetish are appropriate endings to this well-curated show exploring how Impressionism acted as a mirror of style and modernity in late-19th-century Paris.