Current accounts of the history of painting in western Europe are generally centred on the city of Paris, and what did and didn’t get exhibited at its annual Salon. Beyond the Salon and galleries of Paris was a whole continent of art heading in different directions. This article looks at two movements with particular relevance to the depiction of clothing in paintings: Spanish regionalism in Costumbrism, and extreme fashion with ‘frou-frou’ in France.
Although Costumbrism developed mainly as a literary movement, its origins are most obvious in Goya’s paintings of Majas and Majos, lower-class dandies of Madrid who dressed characteristically in what later developed into the foreigner’s erroneous concept of Spanish national dress.
These are shown well in Goya’s cartoon for a tapestry, Autumn: The Grape Harvest, which he painted in 1786-87. The fashionably dressed couple are being given baskets of grapes that have just been harvested by the peasants behind them.
These two Majas on a Balcony, painted in the period 1800-12, is another work which became formative for the movement local to Madrid.
Later in the nineteenth century, Costumbrism flourished in Spanish painting. Its name refers originally to customs rather than costume, but clothes and dress have become an inseparable part of customs as well.
Francisco Pradilla’s historical painting of Doña Juana “the Mad” from 1877, is significant for its careful depiction of severely plain dress of the period.
Queen Joanna of Castile, or Juana the Mad, brought about the union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, forming the basis of modern Spain. She married Philip the Handsome in 1496, shortly before her seventeenth birthday. He was crowned king of Castile in 1506, and was the first of the Habsburg monarchs in Spain. He died suddenly later that year, and she became mentally ill, refusing to let Philip’s body be buried. Pradilla’s painting shows Juana in the nun’s habit she would have worn when she was eventually secreted into a convent.
Although Marià Fortuny wasn’t formally recognised as a Costumbrist, some of his paintings are good examples, and show great attention to dress and the appearance of fabrics. The Odalisque, which he painted in 1861, is one of his several works showing a nude in harem-like surroundings, and builds on a tradition most notably painted by JAD Ingres. It’s also rich in its range of fabrics, each rendered meticulously.
Fortuny’s Masquerade (1868) is a marvellously loose watercolour showing an open-air masked ball, presumably held in Italy in the autumn, which is arousing the interest or bemusement of two swans. Dress is liberal to say the least, with the woman in the centre baring her breasts while holding a parasol.
The Spanish Wedding (1870) is another of Fortuny’s paintings which is rich in intricate detail, although with painterly passages. The scene is the interior of a sacristy, where a wedding party is going through the administrative procedures of the marriage ceremony. The groom is bent over a table, signing a document, while the bride behind him (holding a fan) is talking to her mother.
The rest of the wedding party waits patiently, but a woman at the back of the small group turns towards a penitent, who stands to the right of the group. He carries an effigy of the soul burning in flames. The wedding party, and a group seated at the right, are shown in richly-patterned dress, as if attending a masked ball.
Later in the century, as fashionable dress in Paris became extreme, some artists revelled in depicting its limits. Among them was Georges Jules Victor Clairin.
Clairin’s Elegant Couple at the Coast recalls fashions from the previous century, the wind revealing the elaborate detail of the woman’s clothing.
Like Fortuny, Clairin developed strong Orientalist interests.
His two paintings of Ouled Naïl women – above his undated An Ouled Naïl Woman and below An Ouled-Naïl Tribal Dancer from 1895 – provide a couple of glimpses of women from this nomadic group from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Exotic they certainly are, with elaborate headwear and richly decorated clothing.
In 1882, Clairin painted Frou-Frou, the lead in a comedy based on a novel written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and published in 1870. Although not a portrait of the actress, this is said to have been inspired by her interpretation of the role of Frou-Frou on stage, and the ultimate fashion statement of the day.