The dialogue that existed between art and fashion from the mid 1860’s to the mid 1880’s at Paris, meant that many in society lived what we now consider a seductive style of life. The novelty, vibrancy, and fleeting allure of the latest trends in fashionable attire provided an appealing basis for a whole new generation of artists and writers as they sought to give an impression of the pulse of their modern life, in all its nuanced tones and richness.
They were wanting to not only reflect the spirit of their age, but also to allow its human element to be revealed.
They wanted to leave future viewers of their work with a lasting impression of an intimate scene of the city or country life that they led, one in which they merged seamlessly into their surroundings in a setting of tones of green and blue on a palette of honey.
Unlike their posh artist predecessors French Impressionist painters, while passionate, were mostly spectacularly poor. They wanted to provide an all-new view of life as it really was and not by following an old set of rules. They pulled away from the French Academy, whose focus was on the ancient past, to produce a new style of painting set in the reality of a present full of people within natural settings and without ‘artifice or grandeur’
Artists such as Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and the poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-1867) embraced la mode as the harbinger of la modernité.
Monet’s friend Renoir’s women were all a healthy exultation of the flesh. A rose always comes to mind when one speaks of Renoir. His admiration for women extended from the timid modesty of a young girl to the more considerable sophisticated charms of more mature woman.
Renoir re-interpreted the traditions associated with women in art, in much the same way Monet did with the landscape genre. He said, ‘she is beautiful and that’s enough!
If we pause over the work of the impressionists today we can feel the heat of a summer day, sense the vibration of the light and embrace the wholesome joy they felt in the refreshing country air.
Fabulous costumes abound in many of the celebrated works of the Impressionist era.
Graphic fashion plates were a way of spreading the news about what was in and what was considered ‘cool’ in their age.
The extent to which artists responded to the dictates of fashion between the 1860s and 80’s is revealed in Claude Monet’s superb portrait of his future wife Camille as the Woman in The Green Dress.
The late nineteenth century Parisian milieu was one that inspired and nurtured the talents and ambitions of The Impressionists, who were innovative and expressive recorders of contemporary life.
A very ‘cool’ group of painters, they brought about a peaceful painterly French revolution of their own.
They had their critics, who seemed not to be able to embrace them expressing the joy of a life lived well by revealing many of its secrets or truths.
We know that faced with reality most people will turn away, because truth can often lead us down difficult pathways we just don’t want to go.
The Impressionists wanted society to become forward thinking so they provided subjects that were either dark or light, en grisaille or in full glorious rich sensuous colour.
They recorded them at play, at the opera, the ballet or the horse races, at home, in their gardens, their bedrooms and from under their beds, whether undressing, dressing or, buck naked in their bath or when bathing outdoors and much more.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) wanted to be seen as a thoroughly ‘modern’ man. He rendered his famous series about milliners during the mid 1880’s, capturing the realism of their day.
Dear Monet as he was known to his friends, was the very incarnation of the painting style known as Impressionism. He spent his whole life chasing ‘subtle nuances of colour, atmosphere and light in landscape’.
He went with Camille Pissaro to London in 1870 and viewed the paintings of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and he seized upon their ability to capture the moment, especially Turner’s fleeting, delicate, hazy nuances of light and colour.
Monet befriended a man of English ancestry, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), who was desperate to be a French citizen.
Sisley painted landscapes, particularly in the valleys of the rivers Seine and Loire in France as well as the Thames in England.
His fresh, quick brush strokes with touches of lapis lazuli blue and an acidic green caught the mobility of the moment in a continual vibration of color and vitality, which became one of the virtues of impressionism.
Georges Pierre Seurat (1859-1891) in his Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte depicted members of the different social classes that existed at the time in a style of his own.
It is an extraordinary testament to his abilities at blending colours optically and as he died suddenly at 32 years of age we are left to ponder only on what might have been.
The Impressionists sought to capture in their plein air studios the fleeting beauty of a summer’s day and to comment on the passing whims of the latest trends.
Black silk gowns brilliant conveyed the worldly elegance and sensuous élan of the times.
The color black vivified sitters, ranging from the beguiling bohemian Nina de Callias in Manet’s Lady with Fans (Musée d’Orsay, 1873); to the quirkily extravagant artist’s model and budding actress Ellen Andrée in Manet’s The Parisienne (National museum, Stockholm, ca. 1875) and a very refined Madame Charpentier in Renoir’s portrait of 1878 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Being able to own and work in a shop supplying frills and fancies for women was one of the first steps along the road to the emancipation of women.
While dress codes for women dictated a full panoply of outfits, the options for men in the late nineteenth century were simple, limited, and for both the wearer and the artist, not terribly inspiring.
The vogue for cotton piqué dresses adorned with glorious black scrollwork embroidery was all the rage.
The modernisation that took place in Paris under Georges-Eugéne Haussmann (1809-1891) commenced in 1853. While he was forced to resign for his complete extravagance, his vision still dominated the centre of the city.
Grand ballrooms, gilded theatre boxes, inspiring new vistas, venues and places to be seen and seen to be became important as did promenading in Paris, a pavement walker’s paradise.
Everyone of fashion wanted to be seen in the city: on the street, after church, at soirées, and at the theater wearing sumptuous silk day dresses.
In sunny park scenes women sported summer dresses. Parasols adorned images of rainy Paris streets with urban strollers clutching umbrellas.
From hats to corsets scenes of modern life of the 1870s and 1880’s depicted society in an ideal setting living in chic townhouses and occupying gilded opera boxes.
‘Modernism’ is a term the art and design community of our contemporary western world has adopted to describe a diverse range of architectural and interior decorative styles, as well as applied and graphic arts created between approximately 1880 and 1940 on an international scale.
Few works are more evocative of modern life or present a more powerful “portrait” of the newly renovated French capital than Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (Art Institute of Chicago, 1877) in which the anonymity and sterility of the city unfurl beneath a tightly choreographed ensemble of gray silk umbrellas
Ready to wear fashion arose out of the advent of the department store in the middle of the nineteenth century, including the founding of the department store Le Bon Marché, one of the best known in France.
It was established in 1838, although it was not the first in the world.
That honour went to Bainbridge’s of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, which is now called John Lewis.
Popular English television series such as The Paradise and Mr Selfridge provide an ongoing commentary on the life and fashions of this anazubg time, when with the rapid expanding of the bourgeoisie, people’s perceptions became an important aspect of society and culture.
Contemporary artists in Paris met and took up the challenge of adding distinction to their depictions of the modern man with inventive cropping or poses and the novel use of accessories (typified by an assortment of period headwear and canes on view).
In Portraits at the Stock Exchange (Musée d’Orsay, 1878–79) Edgar Degas exploited top hats to animate the scene. He wanted to define its central figure, the banker and collector Ernest May.
Fantin presented the famously controversial Édouard Manet as a fashionable gentleman-flâneur, complete with top hat and silver-tipped walking stick, in his portrait of 1867 (Art Institute of Chicago).
Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) who showed his works at the Impressionist exhibition of 1876, combined aspects of the academic and Impressionist styles in a unique synthesis of style. He was wealthy and so became their patron, purchasing works by Monet, Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, and Berthe Morisot.
He was a consumate ‘drawer’ with a keen sense of natural light and importantly recorded the local tradies with their tops off scraping a timber floor, an image of urban life seldom recorded.
It was rejected by the Academy for its ‘crude realism’ but came to be admired when exhibited by the Impressionists as a ‘painting that is so accurate that it makes it bourgeois”.
In his work At the Café (Musée d’Orsay, on deposit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, 1880), he portrayed his model in different guises; as a rumpled “barfly” and as a melancholy bourgeois gent in Portrait of a Man (Cleveland Museum of Art), both in the same year.
The Impressionists became “terribly popular, terribly familiar and terribly commercialized”. They have today become popular because people from all walks of life, all creeds and all backgrounds can relate to their optimistic view of a life well lived.
Impressionism never really ended, because by defying all the odds, including blindness Claude Monet managed at the end to continue being radical for all of his life, making sure their style remained as it always had been, full of possibilities.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013 – 2015