The Letter c. 1878 (DETAIL)
Oil on canvas purchased in 1964
National Gallery of Canada
An exhibit of 19th Century paintings just arrived in town. Bryhanna Greenough talks about some real duds.
I’m a historical costume junkie.
I like learning about clothing from different eras – corsets, crinolines, and bustles – looking at images from different eras, and thinking what it must have felt like to wear all that stuff.
Earlier this week, a big white federal government fine-arts transport truck – braving fog, moose and potholes – made it’s way to St. John’s. It was fully equipped with a technician and painting conservator visiting from the National Gallery. As I write this the 18 paintings from the Masterworks of Nineteenth-Century French Realism exhibit are finding their way onto the walls of The Rooms.
The exhibit features paintings by Cezanne, Corot, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Tissot and other artists. And, although the exhibit is promoted as an example of French Realism, the subjects of the masterworks range from still life and landscape to portraits and scenes of daily life in France in the late 1800’s.
The exhibit offers a lot of great examples of 19th Century artwork, but The Letter, painted by the French painter James Joseph Jacques Tissot in 1878, latched onto the costume part of my brain in a way that no representation of flowers or men wrestling with pigs ever could.
Tissot – perhaps because his mother was a milliner – cared enough to get the details right. In the meantime, other painters were busy fudging seam lines, or, like Renoir, dressing their models in clothing from different eras (Quelle scandale!) But in Tissot’s The Letter, you can not only make out the kind of fabric, but you can also get the sense of how and why it hangs just so. You can see the different pleating techniques along the edges of her jacket and skirt and the row of ruffles rolling along the bottom; how the leather gloves show the hand of the glover with rows of stitching.
I have no idea if the woman represented in The Letter ever existed. But guessing by her dress, she may have been born into a line of aristocrats. She’s decked out in silk cut into the fashionable styles of the time. Or, maybe she belonged to a growing class of nouveau riche whose social system was built on consumption, and the display of that consumption. Even if they didn’t have any.
In the scope of fashion history, this woman existed at a point in time halfway between the age of the crinoline and the bustle. The crinoline – like a hoop skirt, except with a frame of steel or whale baleen – had started to shrink in size, and the bustle – used to exaggerate what Fergie calls “my humps” – was only beginning to find itself in loose drapes of fabric piled high upon the backside. This woman is lucky. Up until just recently, crinoline had been getting so large that doorways had been widened to accommodate them. But while the crinolines were shrinking, the bustles were on the rise, and in the decade following this painting, bustles swelled into what was known as the ‘teacup bustle,’ because they jutted out from the rear at a 90 degree angle and could balance a teacup.
So relative to the big-ol’ days of the crinoline and bustle, the woman in The Letter is not dressed in an extreme way. Nevertheless, her clothing would have been pretty awkward by today’s standards. They would seem surprisingly heavy, the way old wool coats from Value Village seem surprisingly heavy. The lengths of thick silk needed to make the voluminous, soft folds and layers of pleats was enormous. Underneath the skirt would have been multiple petticoats. And under those, if you’re curious, were open-crotched drawers – the first widespread example of two-legged dress for women in the West.
Of course, there’s a corset. How else would you instantly compact and displace your flesh, or reduce the waist by inches? The corset in Victorian times was a sign of respectability and morality, yet while it was okay to paint nude figures, it was bad news to show a woman wearing just a corset… It was too real. By the late 19th century, underwear was becoming highly decorative. But don’t look!
Women who dressed in fashions like this woman would have needed a maid to help negotiate the laces, pins, buttons and ties and to help the transition from the clothes you wear in the morning, to the clothes you wear in the day, to the visiting clothes, to the dinner clothes, then maybe the theatre clothes and the ball gowns. Some women changed 7 or 8 times a day.
This woman’s clothing was meant for display and was probably a source of both pleasure – at the satisfaction of belonging to a class which could afford such frivolties – and discomfort for women.
The Letter is just one of the paintings on display as part of the Masterworks of Nineteenth Century French Realism exhibit opening at The Rooms. The exhibit runs September 15 until January 7.