Art and Fashion

Last week I lamented the fact that the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York did not have an exhibition while I was there.  But even without actual clothing on display, one can always get a nice dose of fashion at an art museum just by observing the paintings and the people portrayed within.  Fashion historians often closely scrutinize the clothing in paintings, especially those painted before the photograph came along.

I’m always amazed by the skill that many painters show in recreating the details of dress.  Laces in particular would seen to be hard to show, with their quality of being both opaque and see-through.

This Gilbert Stuart portrait of Matilda Stroughton de Jaudenes, painted in 1794 gives an excellent view of her dress and the rich embroideries and laces on it.  She was just married to  a wealthy Spanish diplomat, and the richness of her dress reflects her new status.

This portrait of Euphemia White Van Rensselaer was painted by George P. A. Healy in 1842.  Note how well he captured the texture of the fabrics worn by Euphemia – the velvet trimmed in satin and the moire skirt are quite evident.  Healy even managed to make the feathers on her bonnet look soft.

Often it helps to know the back story of a painting in order not to get a confusing picture of the fashions of an era.  In 1883 John Singer Sargent approached Madame Pierre Gautreau and she eventually allowed him to paint her.  She was well-known in Paris for her daring style and beauty, which Sargent was determined to emphasize.  Although sleeveless dresses were not unheard of at that level of society, to most of the viewers at the 1884 Paris Salon it was scandalous.  It did not help that one of the jeweled straps had dropped off her shoulder, and eventually Sargent had to give in and repaint it in its proper place.

UPDATE:  Here is a photo showing the painting before Sargent made the changes.

In the same room at the Met is probably my very favorite Singer painting, the wedding portrait of Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, 1897.  Originally Mrs. Stokes was to wear a satin evening gown, but one day she arrived at her sitting in the walking outfit shown above.  Sargent loved the look so much that he changed his mind and painted her in it.  It must have seemed so modern for a woman to be shown in her outing clothes.  That’s her new husband standing behind her.  Originally Sargent was going to paint a Great Dane, but when the dog became unavailable, the husband stepped in to finish the composition.

Off topic, but very interesting:  Mrs. Stokes was Edith Minturn, and was the aunt of Edie Sedgwick who was named for her aunt.

I think it is interesting how much more modern Edith Stokes looks than do these two women, painted in 1909 by William McGregor Paxton.  In Tea Leaves, the women somehow look as they are merely a part of the room.  Still, the fashions of the era are nicely captured.

This painting by Winslow Homer, Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts, was painted in 1870.  What is notable about the painting is the lack of coverage the clothing provides for two of the bathers.  When the painting was adapted as an illustration for a popular magazine, the engraver added stockings and the little dog was replaced with the girl’s missing cap.

The painting above is by Claude Monet, Garden at Sainte-Adresse, 1867.  He is one of the artists featured in the exhibition, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.  It started out at the Musee d’Orsey in Paris, and will open at the Met (in a slightly different form) on February 20 and at the Art Institute of Chicago in June.  I just put the companion book on my wishlist at Amazon and an early fall trip to Chicago sure sounds like the thing to do.

And I’ve got one last painting to share:

I fell in love with Ammi Philips’ Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, 1834-1836 not because of her dress, but because of the sweet-faced dog and the frilly pantaloons peeking from beneath the dress.


Filed under Museums, Viewpoint

22 responses to “Art and Fashion

  1. seaside

    Love this post! Fashion and art–two of my favorite subjects. You have such a good eye and your comments are so perceptive. I loved your art choices, in particular the Sargent paintings and the Red Dress. Makes me want to to the Met.


  2. I loved this little Met tour of fashion, Lizzie! I think you did excellently, even without a fashion exhibit going on. (Meh, the last time I was at the Met it was to see that American Woman exhibit and it was so overcrowded…) I am always amazed at the ways in which painters are able to portray texture in paintings.


  3. Thanks so much for taking us on this tour Lizzie! I love seeing how well artists can show the texture of material in their paintings. I’ve never seen the ones you show here and I love the story of how Mr Stokes was included in the painting when the dog wasn’t available!


  4. Christina

    Wonderful post!


  5. Wonderful ( as usual!) not sure where you live but there is the Katherine Hepburn exhibit at the Lincoln Centre, NY public library area. Costumes, etc. I saw it a couple of weeks ago on a fleeting visit to NY. Not crowded at all. Always enjoy your posts 🙂


  6. Thank you so much for sharing the art tour! Beautiful paintings! Years ago when I went to the V&A in London, I bought a little “costume in art” book because it contained full paintings and then closeups of them – very similar to your post. =)


  7. Susan

    Thank you, Lizzie! If you’re still in NY, or next time you visit Mme Gautreau, stand to the side and get a “raking light” on it. Even though a whole book was written about this painting, I have never seen anyone mention that 1884 was a bustle period, but Mme Gautreau’s sleek skirt could be from the 1890s. If you get the right lighting, you can see that the artist has changed the shape of her dress; the area between her right arm, her body, and the round table has been repainted, and the previous shape is still visible because the paint is thicker there! Sometimes this is visible even in reproductions. At least, I can see it!


  8. Super post Lizzie. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful art. I LOVE Mrs Stokes, a thoroughly modern missy. And even better that her husband replaced her dog at the last minute! You couldn’t make it up! The fact that he’s in the background anyway, shows how time was a changin’. Fabulous! 🙂


  9. Fascinating! Thank you, Lizzie. Madame Gautreau is positively luminous. Was it the strap on her right (our left) which Singer originally painted hanging down? Would love to know. One persnickety proofreading point (everybody needs an editor): the Monet painting presumably dates from 1867, not 1967.


  10. Great post. The portrait of Matilda de Jaunes is one of my favorites. You point out that art is a great way to see fashion and that’s something we all need to remember!


  11. Thank you for this well-researched look at some of the Met’s paintings. It was a very enjoyable read. You are so right that viewing paintings is a great way for textile and fashion buffs to get their fix. In my former life as an art historian, I spent countless hours in museums around the world. I always visited the Northern Renaissance paintings galleries and sketched out fashion details, hats and shoes that I wanted to reproduce some day. This also inspired my own personal style to a large extent.


  12. Thank you very much for all these beautiful paintings. it is amazing how much from an era can be captured in a painting – the way they dressed, the way they had worn their hair. Art is a lesson in so many ways. And you have chosen many good ones. Thanks again.


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