Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Frippery: James Tissot and 19th Century Art & Fashion

Paris Street, Rainy Day by Caillebotte, 1877
Recently I had the very great pleasure of visiting the Impression, Fashion, and Modernity exhibit at Chicago's Art Institute. The exhibit, focusing on the interplay of fashion and 19th century French artists, was the most lush and visually stunning museum event I have ever attended. From the moment I walked into the galleries, I was confronted with seven-feet-tall paintings that I had seen a hundred times, but only as small graphics in books or on the web. No reproduction can do justice to the poetic play of light and color in Impressionist paintings.

In the Conservatory by Bartholome, 1881
Mrs. Bartholome's dress
And the exhibit didn't just feature paintings. Throughout the galleries, I was also treated to the sight of clothes, hats, shoes, and all the other accoutrements of ladies' and men's fashion from the nineteenth century. One particular glass structure, like a long glass box, featured three beautiful bustled gowns. I stood for more minutes than my husband could tolerate studying the fine detail of design and stitching that resulted in layers, pleats, and ruffles galore. Some paintings had a partner, an exhibit platform next to the art that displayed either the very dress worn in the 19th century painting or a dress from the period that looked similar.

The exhibit focused largely on French Impressionist artists and featured one of my favorite artists, James Tissot. He was not an Impressionist and yet befriended many artists who were. The son of a draper and milliner, Tissot's paintings, like many 19th century French artists, reflect a preoccupation with fashion. The most striking aspect of many of his most famous work is the detailed and beautiful depiction of the elaborate women's fashions of the period.

Whether because of the political situation in Paris or simply to find new artistic prospects, Tissot left Paris and headed to London in 1871. He set up a home and studio in St. John's Wood, an area of London that was popular with artists at the time. He began painting portraits and created some of the most vibrant representations of late 19th century fashion and life of any artist of his time.

The Ball on Shipboard by Tissot, 1874.
The painting to the right, called The Ball on Shipboard, was painted in 1874, and highlights the elaborate fashions of the late Victorian era as well as the importance of appearance and the acquisition of fashionable clothing, depending on your social class or the class you aspired to.

The bustle is prominent, as are ruffles and dainty hats with ribbons and flowers. The two ladies in matching black and white frocks at the top of the stairs—sisters or best friends?—are particularly striking. But it's also hard to ignore the stripes, again black and white, of the woman in the lower left of the painting, looking our way yet not quite meeting our eye.

The Shop Girl by Tissot, 1883-5
One of my favorite Tissot paintings at the exhibit, nearly five feet tall and mesmerizing to look at, was The Shop Girl, painted in 1883-1885. It does not feature a woman of wealth who can afford the latest fashions from Paris. At the center of the painting is the kind of girl who served those women, helping them select the right ribbons or gloves, perhaps, to accent their beautiful gowns. She wears a simple yet lovely black dress and has a smile on her face, either welcoming the viewer or ushering you on your way. You choose. The world is bustling around her as a gentlemen peeks in the shop window and her co-worker reaches for a box from a high shelf, and yet she holds the viewer's eye and clearly captured Tissot's too, as he portrayed her so strikingly.

Are you fascinated by 19th century fashion, as artists like Tissot were? Do you have a favorite fashion trend during the Victorian era? It was a time of great change in all aspects of society, and fashion was no exception.

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