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Impressionism comes to life at Art Institute

Wed, Jul 31, 2013

Chicagoans are regularly exposed to images of impressionist art. Certain paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection are as easily identified as the city’s sports teams’ logos. This ubiquity is in part the result of years of regular programming from the AIC, which curates one of the world’s largest and best collections of impressionist and post-impressionist work. Each passing exhibit that features one of these movements as a focal point allows visitors to come to a deeper understanding of their historical significance. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity mines yet another aspect of the impressionist movement, showcasing some of the museum’s most iconic works of art and radically reintroducing visitors to impressionist paintings not just as studies of their time, but also as studies of the movement informing their creation.

Impressonism, Fashion, and Modernity is a “big guns” show. Curated by the Art Institute’s Gloria Groom with help from exhibition curator Susan Stein and stage designer Robert Carsen, pieces include those from the AIC’s permanent collection, and pieces from Paris’ Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Displayed work includes paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Georges Seurat. It also includes an extensive selection of illustrations from fashion magazines and a handful of cartes de visite, smaller-than-postcard sized photographs popular during the late 1800s. The other major components of this show are items of clothing and fashion accessories. These include items of formal and casualwear, hats, gloves, undergarments, and shoes, all displayed near artwork depicting clothing similar or identical to those on display.

Traditionally identified by its emphasis on “modern” subject matter, impressionist artwork typically featured scenes from every day life. It also included portraiture wherein models are seen in repose, at work, or seemingly unaware of their role as the subject. The technique emphasized the effects of natural light, stylized brushstrokes, and the use of vibrantly pigmented paint. Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity stresses another recurring component: contemporary clothing. Fashion articulated the contemporary interests of the time in ways far less superficial than one may initially think. The invention of the department store, the beginnings of mass-produced garments and the rising popularity of fashion magazines and catalogs were shaping the way people not only consumed goods, but also how they interacted with each other.


The aforementioned Cartes de visite, for example, were exchanged like business or trading cards amongst friends and acquaintances. Appearing fashionable in these was as much a status symbol as a participation in the trend. In paintings where models appeared in a state of half-undress, heavier pornographic connotations were implied more than in those depicting actual nudity. A woman painted in the wrong formalwear could betray an artist’s less-than-aristocratic up bringing. Paintings like Degas’s The Millinery Shop (1879), which depicts a hat in the foreground hovering over a milliner in the background, provides commentary on working class aspirations or bourgeois consumerism depending on the interpretation. Insight into the historical context and significance of fashion feel revelatory in each section of this show. From a compositional standpoint, a focus on clothing allowed impressionists the opportunity to play with color and line as well as render natural light in ways other subject matter would not allow. The folds and textures of fabrics were an interesting formal challenge for many of the painters and illustrators of the era.

The work launching Manet’s professional career (Camille, 1866) opens the exhibition. In the painting, Manet’s model turns unconventionally away from the viewer, showing off a flowing green and black-striped satin dress. Nearby, an actual dress similar to the one worn by the anonymous “Camille” stands in a display case. The dress is nearly identical and while impressively made, is not quite as resplendent as the painting’s iridescent fabric or as interesting after learning the painting’s backstory and context. This is a recurring impression throughout the show: the paintings often outshine the clothing. This is not necessarily a bad thing for an exhibition at an art museum, but the most impressive items of clothing are those in 360-degree cases where the conservative lighting feels less gloomy. Items with mirrors behind them or pushed into a corner unfortunately feel less celebrated as works of incredible artistry in their own right.

The show also plays with the gallery spaces in novel ways, adding carpet and round settees to certain rooms for a homey feel. One room focusing on art depicting the outdoors includes AstroTurf, park benches, and recordings of birdsong. In this “garden,” Monet’s unfinished Luncheon on the Grass (1866) hangs with a section originally discarded in an American show. Together the two canvases span more than 21 feet in height by 12 feet in width. To see an impressionist work at such a colossal scale is quite awesome, even for regular AIC-goers familiar with the sizeable Caillebotte painting Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) or Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), also chosen for the show.

Some of the best art in the show come towards its conclusion. The gallery dedicated to men’s fashion is small, but it includes a stunning James Tissot painting from 1868 (The Circle of the Rue Royale). Showing the nuanced differences in men’s clothing of the era, it is like a GQ spread for its time. Tissot renders fabrics and tailoring in impeccable, individualized detail, something also seen in the final gallery space in his attention-snaring paintings The Ball on Shipboard (1874) and The Circus Lover (1985), which hang alongside Caillebotte paintings and near the famed Grande Jatte.

Closing the show is Albert Bartholomé’s painting In the Conservatory (1881). This work depicts the artist’s wife in a purple and white, polka dot dress. Next to it stands the exact dress worn by Madame Bartholomé, preserved by the artist after her untimely death. It sounds like a somber note with which to close an exhibition, but seeing Madame Bartholomé depicted with so much care and verve, partnered with her well-preserved dress, is quite uplifting. Both look as though they could have been made recently.

The fashion and its social context presented in this exhibit is not just “modern,” but a testament to the skill of artists and conservators to witness such a persevering sense of life in the clothing.

Chicago will be the last stop for Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, previously shown in Paris and New York. It runs through September 22. http://www.artic.edu/about/press_room/impressionism-fashion-and-modernity

Barrett Newell
StreetWise Contributor


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