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Skirting Reality

POSTED BY , ON July 17, 2013, Comments Off

Woman with a Fan

 

White dresses were de rigueur for fashionable Parisian women during the summer, and they were a favorite of Impressionist painters as well, many of whom depicted not only the popular white muslin dresses but flowering lace curtains or diaphanous drapery in the same painting, reveling in the play of light on white. White fabrics challenged painters and their palettes with their transparency and undertones of different colors, and they occur frequently in Impressionist painting.

But the real star in this painting—Édouard Manet’s sketch of Jeanne Duval, who was his friend Charles Baudelaire’s former mistress—is the absurdly billowing skirt Duval wears. The skirt, which takes up nearly half of this painting, is really a caricature of a woman under the influence of a crinoline, a cage worn under a skirt to help keep its form. Some of the earliest forms of the crinoline in France were stiffened petticoats meant to keep the skirt in shape, but by the 1860s the crinoline had “evolved” into a steel cage that was fastened around a woman’s waist, giving a skirt the appearance of a bell. Crinolines were widely ridiculed—as Manet is doing here—and grew, in cartoons and prints, to hideous proportions (Check out our related installation Fashionable French Farce in Galleries 223A and 225A, featuring Honoré Daumier’s and Felicien Rops’s take on couture, including women parachuting through the skies with crinolines and parasols.)

The reign of the steel-cage crinoline was quite brief, and by the time Manet made this painting, crinolines had started to change from the dome shape he represented here to a version that was gathered in the front and sides, leaving the roundedness of a skirt to the area of the derriere. This, of course, was the beginning of the bustle, famously celebrated in the rhythmic lines and swoops of George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte–1884.

Historians agree that Jeanne Duval—or any fashionable woman in Paris—would not have actually worn a skirt or crinoline so large. Rather, Manet took liberties in his representation of Jeanne, emphasizing and exaggerating the marks of modern femininity. While not quite a parody, Lady with Fan brings to the fore the artifice of being a woman in this era—corseted, caged, powdered, gloved, and, most of all, dressed.

 

Credit: Édouard Manet. Lady with Fan, 1862. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 368.B.

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