It’s no wonder Vogue chose this painting to headline their February 2013 article on Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity—this 1878 work by Jean Béraud is a fashion lover’s dream. And although the men far outnumber the women, it’s the ladies who steal this show. They preen throughout the well-appointed ballroom in magnificent dresses that evoke the designs of the most important couturier of their time, Charles Frederick Worth.
Worth is widely known as the “father of haute couture” and his atelier, the House of Worth, dressed royals, actresses, singers, and other fashionable ladies, some of whom would travel to Paris from all over the world to purchase their entire wardrobes from him. His work was known for its decadence and attention to detail. In fact, he had a special room in his atelier, the “salon de lumière,” that was lit first by candlelight, later by gas lamps, and eventually by electric fixtures, so clients could preview how the fabrics and colors they selected would look under artificial light.
Such thoroughness would definitely have been important to the grandes dames featured in this painting. Because everyone depicted represented actual, recognizable people—aristocrats, politicians, and others from high society. Béraud’s semi-fictional portrayal of this ball was based on an observed experience, and when this painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1878, part of its popular appeal was that these women were recognizable to visitors and reviewers of the Salon. See and be seen is taken to another level.
Image Credit: Jean Béraud. A Ball, 1878. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 1994 15.