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.