This is the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris until January 2013 and which will then be at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (February to May) and finally at the Art Institute of Chicago (June to September), its primary organizer. While acknowledging the work of previous scholars who have examined the place of clothing in nineteenth-century culture, the museum directors tell us that this is the first major exhibition to focus on the role of fashion in the paintings of the Impressionists and their contemporaries. The catalogue is a big book (336 large pages) with reproductions of eighty major figure paintings and some sixty additional canvases, pictures of fashion plates, photographs of period costumes and accessories and of shops and the new department stores, caricatures and popular prints, etc., etc.,--the jacket text says there are 478 color illustrations. Recognized experts from the fields of art history, photography, fashion studies, and literature present thirteen essays on topics ranging from "Fashion en Plain Air" and "Fashion and Intimate Portraits" to "Shops versus Department Stores" and "Fashion and the Press"--i.e., some of the essays are quite directly related to painting while others deal with more tangential aspects of the fashion industry. Apparently that is as it should be, for if there is one thing the catalogue makes clear, it is that the entire complex of fashion--from the manufacture of textiles to the new synthetic dyes used to color them to the designers thinking up new styles to the seamstresses making them to the advertising people promoting them to the shop girls selling them to the women wearing them and the painters painting the women wearing them--all of this was of a piece, and it was all one comprehensive and self-conscious enterprise under the emblem of modernity. Not only was fashion important to the Impressionists, it was central to their artistic agenda: "The latest fashion," Manet himself declared, "is absolutely necessary for a painter. It's what matters most" (243). And so Manet accompanied Berthe Morisot on her shopping trips, as Degas did the rounds of the milliners' boutiques with Mary Cassatt, and Renoir made his collection of hats--all these practical activities encouraged by the preoccupations of the best and brightest cultural theorists and critics of the time--Baudelaire, Mallarme, Theophile Gautier, the Goncourts, Zola--all of whom were deeply concerned with the coincidence of costume and character in their society and wrote extensively about it.
Even though, just a year ago, Colin Bailey called attention to Renoir's use of fashion catalogues and magazine advertisements to make sure his models were up to date (in "Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting"; see the review on this website), I for one had never paid much attention to this aspect of the paintings. But from this book we learn that we should, because it modulates our understanding of them. It's not stated so bluntly anywhere in the essays, but an implicit example of a shift in focus might be Monet's wonderful "Women in the Garden" from 1866 (the jacket illustration is a detail of this painting): whereas before one might have viewed it naively as four women wearing magnificent summer dresses, we can now understand that it is at least as much a painting of four great dresses clothing the women (the dresses representing different styles popular in 1866, as illustrated in the fashion plates accompanying the discussion of the painting), a realization that adds another dimension of meaning to the work. Most of the topical discussions are followed in this way by a close analysis of a single painting, thus exemplifying the general with the specific. In addition, there is a nine-page compendium of "Key Dates in Fashion and Commerce, 1851-89," a twenty-page checklist of the exhibition in chronological order, and a couple of pages of fashion plates and exemplary "cartes de visite" with fashion photographs. The volume concludes with a selected bibliography and a comprehensive index. It is obvious that a great deal of thought and meticulous planning went into the design of this exhibition and beautifully produced catalogue, and the result is a greatly stimulating and entertaining exposure to an aspect of Impressionist painting that had previously been underappreciated. The book is filled with information and insights, and I recommended it highly to anyone interested in fashion or painting and society at the end of the nineteenth century.