Friday, April 19, 2013

MWA XIII: Manet's Repose

Impressionism and exhibitions about Impressionist artists or themes are always a hit with audiences. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now, there is a sure-fire hit of an exhibition entitled Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, a show which was organized by the Musée d'Orsay and the Art Institute of Chicago. Mannequins wearing gowns and accessories from the 1860s through the 1880s are paired with major paintings by Monet, Renoir, Bazille, Degas, and the like. Academically speaking, there's nothing new in the idea behind this exhibition, that the Impressionists borrowed many of their subjects from fashion magazines and were conscious of modern trends in fashion (the word 'modern' itself comes from 'mode,' meaning fashion-of-the-day). However, this is the first major exhibition that has paired actual clothing with specific paintings, and the three-dimensionality of the gowns and accessories do help bring the paintings to life in a whole new way. It is important to add as well that non-Impressionist painters such as Tissot are present throughout the exhibition, so the show focuses on the Impressionists but certainly isn't just about them, and these painters equally shine as a result. Also, some of the pictures on loan are major hits from Paris and Chicago, and they're simply fantastic to see hanging in the Met's galleries in this new arrangement.

This is a preamble to the picture you see above, our latest Monthly Work of Art. The painting is Edouard Manet's Repose, ca. 1870-71, and I think it is among Manet's best portrait studies. The picture is on display in the exhibition in the section entitled "The White Dress," which captures the resurgence of the informal, white summer dress, popular in the late 1860s. (Indeed, it calls to mind Regency-style high-waisted, classical gowns from the first two decades of the 1800s--think of every Jane Austen-themed movie you've ever seen). The sitter in this work is the painter Berthe Morisot, who married Manet's brother. Morisot herself was a talented Impressionist, and much of her style of painting was influenced by Manet. As for Manet, he is without a doubt one of my favorite painters. His work in the 1860s revolutionized painting as painting, from his sweeping brushstrokes and dark outlines (influenced by Japanese prints), to the flatness of subjects and unusual color palettes that reduced volume and focused on form. In this work, he shows Morisot as a contemplative woman, informally posed, unaware that someone is staring at her. She is subjected to the (male) gaze, but is more interested in her own thoughts, ultimately empowering her more than it might at first seem.

The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their curators write the following about the picture and its history: "Viewers at the 1873 Paris Salon found Morisot's casual pose to be in defiance of good taste and were uneasy with the elements of Manet's radical style: broad, tactile paint-handling, pictorial compression, and the dominant contrast of light and dark tones. Manet called this painting a 'study,' not a portrait, defining his concern for the visual existence of the figure over the revelation of personality. Owned first by prominent French collectors, it was purchased by George W. Vanderbilt in 1898, becoming one of the first paintings by Manet to enter an American collection."

1 comment:

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