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THE MILLINERY SHOP by Edgar Degas (French,1834-1917): 100 x 110.7 centimeters, 1879-1876. Collection: The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.
Making An Impression

Paris Fashion Exhibition Arrives in the U.S.




In his seminal pro-Impressionist essay “Le Peintre de La Vie Modern” (“The Painter of Modern Life”), published in 1863, Baudelaire defined modernity as “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable.”

In 1896, the magazine L’Artiste noted that there were only two ways a woman could become a Parisienne: by birth or by dress. Now there is a third: by visiting the blockbuster exhibition “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (February 26–May 27) or the Art Institute of Chicago (June 26–September 22). In addition to an array of approximately ninety paintings by the Impressionists and their contemporaries—many of them iconic—the exhibition includes photographs, fashion plates, advertisements, cartes de visite, and exquisite surviving garments and accessories, primarily from the 1860s to the 1880s. It is enough to make anyone declare: “Vive la France!”

Though we may think of the Impressionists as being hazy on details, they captured the details of dress with remarkable precision, if not the photographic verisimilitude of so-called peintres-couturiers (fashion portraitists) like Alfred Stevens or James Tissot. Fashion was not a frivolous distraction, but central to literary and artistic investigations of modernity. “The latest fashion, you see, is absolutely necessary for a painter,” Édouard Manet asserted. “It’s what matters most.”

While visitors to the exhibition may struggle at first to see what is so “modern” about corsets, crinolines and top hats, they will quickly become immersed in its lavish reconstruction of the volatile social and artistic milieu of nineteenth-century Paris. “I’m not a fashion historian and I didn’t want it to be an exhibition of fashion history,” says Gloria Groom, curator of nineteenth-century European painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, who organized the exhibition. “I wanted to look at this period in a variety of ways—photography, architecture, literature, the press—and pull all these things together to give us a clear idea of the context in which Impressionist paintings were made.”






Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Recent publications include Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, 2011) and Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 - 1915 (Prestel, 2010). She is a frequent contributor to Ornament.



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