Abraham Bosse after Jean de Saint Igny, Plate 4 from The Garden of the French Nobility, 1629. Etching and burin, 5.6 x 3.7 inches. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In French art of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the representation of fashionable garments provided artists with a pretext for visual elaboration: for playing with mediums of oil paint, chalk, pencil, and ink, for getting lost in the pleasure of gestural mark-making. Through these kinds of visual digressions, artists declared their disinterest in what the establishment (the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) believed to be the goal of “high” art: the representation of historical narratives relating ethical exemplars and parables of good government. Thus it was at least in part through fashion that French art arrived at one of the telos of modernism: that art reflect upon the fashioning of its surface.
Some of the greatest works of French art are those in which an artist takes a garment and makes it his own. In these works, clothing serves as a pretext for artistic elaboration, for the creation of a rich surface of visual incident. For example, Édouard Manet’s Young Lady in 1866, in which Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favorite model, wears a pink peignoir, a kind of dressing gown. Yet to call this garment “pink” is to do it a great disservice, because in fact it is many colors, including white, grey, black, and maybe even a little orange and violet, which picks up on the young woman’s accessories of a posy of violets and a peeled orange. It is also, very evidently, a painted surface, made up of Manet’s signature variety of broad, flat strokes, wetter calligraphic squiggles, narrow dashes, and feather-like hatchings. All are applied so as to create, at first glance, an appearance of chaotic randomness, which then resolves into the convincing and entertaining simulacra of the pink fabric, after which Manet takes a bow, a bravura performer to the last. (The gray parrot in the corner perches as an emblem of false humility, as if all Manet does is “parrot” reality, when clearly, he does much more.)
In this painting of 1866, Manet in fact builds on a long tradition of using fashion as a surface upon which the artist digresses from his subject in order to perform himself. In Manet’s case, the self he performed was another fashionable entity, the persona of the carelessly perfect aristocratic dandy. One of the first French artists to get carried away by fashion was Jean de Saint-Igny, who designed some of the very first fashion plates in the history of French art. This plate is from a twenty-plate series, The Garden of the French Nobility, published in 1629. For Saint-Igny, the representation of aristocratic fashion gave him the opportunity to play a game with line, which was the exclusive medium available to the designer of etchings (etching is an intaglio method of print making in which the etcher draws on wax laid over copper, which is then “bitten” with acid). For variety of color, he substitutes a variety of lines: short curved lines for the fluffy locks of hair, spiky lines for the pompoms on the shoes, the lightest of ticks for the lace of the wrist cuffs. And where he cannot represent the texture of fabric, he substitutes hatchings of various density, which covers the surface of the costume with enough visual incident to simulate the variety of that might be produced by texture.
Edouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866, 1866. Oil on canvas, 72 7/8 x 50 5/8 in. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The representation of clothing pulled Manet and Saint-Igny away from the concerns of storytelling. Paper and canvas returned to being textiles, surfaces for pattern and for folding. In the process of translation—translating fabric, buttons, trim into paint or inked line—Manet and Saint-Igny discovered an activity as absorbing as storytelling. What they also discovered was a relationship between art and craft. Within the French hierarchies of artistic production, “artisanal crafts” like dressmaking, frame-making, porcelain, fan-painting, and textile designs were looked down upon as “technical,” rather than “liberal.” Instead of working with his mind, the artisan worked with materials, with gold buttons and lace trim, with pigment and brushes, or with the etcher’s needle-like tool. The making of clothing was most definitely an artisanal trade, which visual artists rediscovered when they allowed themselves to be distracted by garments. For Saint-Igny, it is the thrill of sartorial fixings—ribbons, pompoms, buttons—that brings him back to craft. For Manet, it is textile, the sheen of that iridescent pink fabric, still slightly stiff as if fresh from the loom. Eventually, the graphic and painterly interest that Manet and Saint-Igny offer through their surfaces would become the stuff of abstract art, the intricate hatchings of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings or the visceral swathes of stucco-like pigment in Rauschenberg’s combines. In French art, however, this manner of attention to the expressive potential of surfaces had long been à la mode.