Sheer Delight 9: Into thin air

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The White Pierrot (1901-02), oil on canvas, 81.2 x 62.2 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

In the previous article, I divided into three the types of depictions of clothing and fabrics from the middle of the nineteenth century:

  • social realism and Naturalism, where the reality of the clothes worn by the poor became dominant;
  • academic, where little has changed for a century or more;
  • modern, including Impressionism and other modern styles.

That article showed examples of the first of those; here I begin with the second before moving quickly on to the third.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Goose Girl (1891), oil on canvas, 152.4 x 73.6 cm, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau is perhaps the best representative of the academic group, and his late painting of this Goose Girl from 1891 is a well-known example of the style which remained popular in the Salon. Her clothing, like the rest of her, is carefully detailed and follows convention.

Édouard Manet (1832–1883), Spring (Jeanne Demarsy) (1881), oil on canvas, 74 x 51.5 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Compare that with Édouard Manet’s portrait of Jeanne Demarsy in Spring from just ten years earlier. This actress, who modelled for both Manet and Renoir, wears a figure-hugging dress with a light floral pattern, which Manet has sketched in gesturally. The trimmings on her hat and white parasol are more obviously painterly, and contrast with the smooth flesh of her face.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Beach at Trouville (1870), oil on canvas, 38 x 46.5 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924), London. Image courtesy of and © The National Gallery.

Claude Monet probably painted his wife (left) and the wife of Eugène Boudin (right) on The Beach at Trouville during his honeymoon there in 1870. Their clothes are sketched in using bold and swift brushstrokes. Even their form is rough and ready, and there’s no indication of their materials. This also marks an interesting period of transition: Madame Boudin wears black and holds a black parasol, similar to those seen in her husband’s beach scenes. Camille Monet wears white and holds a white parasol, attributes of the younger generation.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), La Promenade (Woman with a Parasol, Madame Monet and Her Son) (1875), oil on canvas, 100 × 81 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Camille Monet appears again in fashionable white, with a white parasol, in Monet’s less sketchy La Promenade, or Woman with a Parasol, from 1875. Here he builds folds and more form into her clothes.

Auguste Renoir was the most prolific figurative artist among the French Impressionists, and took a different approach to the depiction of the clothing on his models.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Odalisque (1870), oil on canvas, 69.2 × 122.6 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Renoir’s two paintings accepted for the Salon in 1870 was his Odalisque (1870), for which Lise Tréhot modelled. This was perhaps inspired by Delacroix’s orientalist paintings, and demonstrates careful attention to the fabrics. The dense patterning on her harem pants and her voile wrap show a careful balance between detail and the painterly.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Marie-Thérèse Durand-Ruel Sewing (1882), oil on canvas, 64.8 × 53.8 cm, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

During the summer of 1882, Renoir painted this commissioned portrait of his dealer’s daughter Marie-Thérèse Durand-Ruel Sewing (1882), the eldest of his children. She’s well dressed, but her clothing lacks the fine detail of twelve years earlier, being constructed from visible brushstrokes.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Young Girls Playing Badminton (c 1887), oil on canvas, 54.6 x 65.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1880s, Renoir experimented with a new classically inspired style which cast his figures sharply against their landscape background. Young Girls Playing Badminton from about 1887 is an example in which his working of fabrics has returned to the more traditional, with finely crafted folds. However, this new style didn’t go down well with critics or his dealer Durand-Ruel, and he soon abandoned it.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter, Julie Manet (1894), oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

For his famous double portrait of Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter, Julie Manet, from 1894, Renoir returned to a more painterly style giving few clues about the texture or weight of fabrics.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The White Pierrot (1901-02), oil on canvas, 81.2 x 62.2 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir’s full-figure portrait of his son Jean as The White Pierrot, from 1901-02, has greater attention to textile detail. The multiple folds in the boy’s loose costume are rendered expertly, giving the baggy garment the look of lightweight silk.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Tilla Durieux (Ottilie Godeffroy, 1880–1971) (1914), oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In the early twentieth century, Renoir’s treatment of fabrics started to dissolve some into thin air. In his 1914 portrait of Tilla Durieux, the Austrian actress born as Ottilie Godeffroy in 1880, the glistening gold in her opulent clothing floats free just above her skin.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Danseuse basculant (Danseuse verte) (Swaying Dancer, Dancer in Green) (1877-79), pastel and gouache on paper, 64 x 36 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Although not as prolific a figurative artist, Edgar Degas’ many drawings and paintings of dancers in the ballet gave him ample opportunity to explore the materials and construction of their dress. In his Danseuse basculant (Danseuse verte) (Swaying Dancer, Dancer in Green) (1877-79) he uses an unusual combination of pastel and gouache to depict their nebulous dresses, with flecks of colour seemingly flying through the air.

Next week I’ll start to look at other modern styles that developed at the end of the nineteenth century.


Anne Hollander (2002), Fabric of Vision, Dress and Drapery in Painting, National Gallery and Yale UP. ISBN 1 85709 907 9.