Sheer Delight 13: A short history of clothes and fabrics in paintings

Jean-Eugène Buland (1852–1926), Alms of a Beggar (1880), oil on canvas, 117 × 89 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last three months I have shown a succession of examples of fine paintings in which the depiction of clothes and fabrics more generally has been notable. In this last article in the series I draw together the milestones from those paintings to build a short visual history between the thirteenth and twentieth centuries.

The starting point is the transition from late mediaeval art to the early Renaissance, when the folds in contemporary loose garments were modelled sculpturally.

Cimabué (1240–1302), Santa Trinita Maestà (1280-90), tempera on panel, 385 x 223 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Cimabué’s Maestà was painted in egg tempera between 1280-90, and shows one popular technique used by the masters of the day for the loose folds in garments: finely patterned gilding was used to develop the 3D appearance of folds in what would otherwise be passages of flat colour. In keeping with the reliance on symbols rather than realism, these patterns and the folds themselves follow formulae rather than physics.

Giotto di Bondone (1266–1337), The Raising of Lazarus (c 1305), fresco, approx 200 x 185 cm, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Wikimedia Commons.

It was Giotto who led the way in representing folds more realistically, in paintings such as The Raising of Lazarus from about 1305. This is one of his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.

In the northern Renaissance, early attention was paid to both the modelling of flesh and more realistic surface textures of fabrics. This was greatly assisted by the development of oil painting techniques, and interest in optical properties of surfaces. When oils were introduced to Italy initial advances by Leonardo da Vinci and others were mainly directed at the depiction of flesh.

Raphael (Rafael Sanzio de Urbino) (1483–1520), Portrait of a Cardinal (1510-11), oil on panel, 79 x 61 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Raphael’s magnificent Portrait of a Cardinal from 1510-11 is notable not only for the lifelike modelling of flesh, but for its attention to the surface textures of the fabrics, something the artist had developed since his early days with his teacher Perugino. Three quite distinct fabrics are shown in the cardinal’s choir dress: the soft matte surface of the biretta (hat), the subtly patterned sheen of his mozzatta (cape), and the luxuriant folds of his white rochet (vestment).

While some painters continued to paint meticulously detailed surface textures, others adopted a more painterly approach.

Paolo Veronese (Caliari) (1528–88), Judith and Holofernes (c 1580), oil on canvas, 195 x 176 cm, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova. Wikimedia Commons.

Veronese’s Judith and Holofernes from about 1580 makes no attempt to conceal the scumbled highlights of its fabrics.

Guido Reni (1575–1642), Hippomenes and Atalanta (1618—19), oil on canvas, 206 x 297 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Some artists came to use swirling fabrics to impart movement. Guido Reni’s Hippomenes and Atalanta (1618—19) shows Atalanta picking up the second of the golden apples during her race against Hippomenes. Swirling strips of fabric trace their recent movements while they both pause momentarily from their course to the right.

In the later years of Rembrandt’s career, he increasingly used a gestural approach to build the impression of different surface textures.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Jewish Bride (c 1667), oil on canvas, 121.5 x 166.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Jewish Bride (c 1667), oil on canvas, 121.5 x 166.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

His mark-making increased, both in the passages in which he left visible marks, and in the surfaces which he marked, right up to his death. It appears in the hands of the elderly, the glint of a knife, but above all in fabrics, as shown in the detail below of The Jewish Bride from about 1667.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Jewish Bride (detail) (c 1667), oil on canvas, 121.5 x 166.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Highlights on the sleeve and jewellery have been applied roughly, although it’s still a matter for speculation as to exactly how he achieved that. Lower down, on the red dress of the bride, the duller top layer of paint has been scraped through to reveal lighter lower layers.

The end result is a painting which creates its visual effects as much by its surface textures, as by form or colour. This may have arisen as Rembrandt extended the techniques which he used in oil sketches and studies to his ‘finished’ paintings. During his lifetime, it led to criticism that his paintings were so coarse, but by the next century this painterly depiction of clothing had become standard, even in portraits.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), Mary Little, Later Lady Carr (c 1763), oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Gainsborough’s portrait of Mary Little, Later Lady Carr (c 1763) is thoroughly painterly in her dress. But his reputation was for painting in thin layers, and for the fine detail in his landscapes, not this Venetian boldness.

Few artists had devoted much attention to the everyday realities of clothing, aspects such as local costume or the frays and tatters of clothing worn by ordinary people.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Majas on a Balcony (1800-12), oil on canvas, 162 x 107 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Interest developed initially in Spain, with Murillo’s faithful paintings of the poor, and Francisco Goya’s fascination with Majas and Majos. These two Majas on a Balcony, painted by Goya in the period 1800-12, became formative for Costumbrism. Its name refers originally to customs rather than costume, but clothes and dress have also become an inseparable part of customs. Despite its origins in visual art, it proved a primarily literary movement.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Anger of Achilles (1819), oil on canvas, 105.3 x 145 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Neoclassicism brought a wane in interest in the surface textures of fabrics. Even close up in The Anger of Achilles (1819), Jacques-Louis David pays little attention to the texture of the plume on Achilles’ helmet, at the left, and the robes appear uniform.

Murillo’s interest in faithful depiction of the clothing of ordinary people resurfaced in the nineteenth century with social realism and the subsequent popularity of Naturalism.

Jean-Eugène Buland (1852–1926), Alms of a Beggar (1880), oil on canvas, 117 × 89 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Jean-Eugène Buland’s masterwork Alms of a Beggar (1880), a young woman dressed immaculately in white is sat outside a church seeking charity. Approaching her, a coin in his right hand, is a man who can only be a beggar himself. His clothes are patched on patches, faded and filthy, and he wears battered old wooden shoes.

At the other extreme, painters were documenting the heights of fashion, and more exotic local costume, among them Georges Jules Victor Clairin.

Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843–1919), Frou-Frou (1882), oil on canvas, 241.3 × 141 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The French Impressionist movement laid less emphasis on figurative painting than landscapes, but its ultimate impact on the depiction of fabrics came in the paintings of those more on its periphery.

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.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), La Carmencita (c 1905), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

But it was probably John Singer Sargent who advanced the art more than any. In this late portrait of the former dancer La Carmencita, painted in about 1905, he adopted the swish of Giovanni Boldini, focussing more on the movement of the fabric rather than its texture or form.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Simplon Pass: The Tease (1911), transparent watercolour, opaque watercolour and wax over graphite pencil on paper, 40 x 52.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

In the summers before the First World War, when Sargent stayed with friends in the Alps, his watercolours reached their most radical. Those friends may have reclined at leisure, but Sargent took those watercolours very seriously and deployed an amazing array of techniques. Among the finest is his Simplon Pass: The Tease from the summer of 1911.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Simplon Pass: The Tease (detail) (1911), transparent watercolour, opaque watercolour and wax over graphite pencil on paper, 40 x 52.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the paint used is transparent watercolour, applied as a wash in small areas, and in highly gestural marks elsewhere. In the upper third of this detail, he has applied white gouache so thickly that it now has fine cracks. The large pale blue area crossing the middle appears to have been rewetted and some of its colour lifted to reduce its intensity, although most applications of paint over existing paint have been made wet on dry. Only the women’s faces have been painted conventionally: the illusion of their voluminous clothing, its folds and patterns, exists only in the mind of the viewer.

Anders Zorn (1860–1920), Dance in Gopsmorkate (1914), oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm, Zornmuseet, Mora, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Anders Zorn returned to the swirling of fabrics to indicate motion, in his marvellous Dance in Gopsmorkate (1914), where his bold brushstrokes capture this dance.

After six adventurous centuries came Cubism and the rest of the twentieth century, sadly still in copyright.


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