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From Your Attic to Our Exhibition

Preparations for the exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity—an exhibition that explores the way the Impressionists drew from modern fashion in their quest to forge a new visual language for painting—are in full swing. The exhibition opens in fall 2012 at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, moves to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in February of 2013, and closes with a summer 2013 showing at the Art Institute of Chicago. So far we’ve been fortunate to find not only the exact corseted and crinolined silhouettes that we need in order to showcase garments in proximity to the paintings they inspired, but we’ve even found the type of fabrics suggested for some of the more outstanding painted dresses. One example is a blue silk robe de promenade, or walking dress, from 1874, with the same apron skirt and bustle seen in Renoir’s La Parisienne (National Museum Wales, Cardiff), which he showed at the first exhibition of the artists who would be labeled the Impressionists.

Weirdly, though, the exhibition teams here, in New York, and in Paris have been struggling to locate that which would seem to be the easiest of all to uncover—the ballgown. Isn’t this the kind of dress one keeps for their progeny but is never actually worn again? And isn’t a ball dress the kind of garment that gets taken out only on very special occasions so suffers less from modifications? John Singer Sargent, the American artist in Paris, only wanted to paint portraits of women wearing ball dresses, which he felt had an enduring style. So why is it then, that from many public and private collections we’ve approached, we have not been able to find for Chicago an example of those elegant, décolleté off-the shoulder, satin or tulle evening gowns that are the star of many Impressionist paintings, in particular those of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot?

So I extend my quest to the internet. Since everyone has a great great great grandmother and perhaps some of you have attics or basements filled with old relics, any chance you know the whereabouts of the perfect French-made ballgown for our exhibition? ggroom@artic.edu

—Gloria Groom, David and Mary Winton Green Curator, 19th Century European Painting and Sculpture

Image Credits:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. La Parisienne, 1874. National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

Berthe Morisot. Jeune femme en toilette de bal, 1879. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.