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Back in Black

NM 2068

Black wasn’t always cool. For centuries, the color was associated with mourning, worn by widows, and wouldn’t have been found in the closets of the young and trendy. Nobody was walking around saying “Gray is the new black” because black wasn’t a stock color in the palette of a stylish wardrobe—until the 1860s in Paris. Manet’s luscious painting The Parisienne is a testament to the moment when black became en vogue. His Parisienne is a new kind of woman, fashionable, assertive, up-to-the-minute—all signaled by her black day dress.

Because black is a deep color requiring highly saturated (and thus expensive) fabric, it was originally worn primarily by wealthier women. But advances in textile production began making the material more available and thus de rigueur for chic Parisian women. This first heyday of black as a fashion statement lasted from about the 1860s through the early 1870s, when women who were actually in mourning for loved ones lost in the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870–71 reclaimed the color.

It was difficult to dye fabric black, and it was difficult for painters to represent it because they had to find a way to record gradations of color in what is technically the absence of color. Manet rose to the challenge by composing the Parisienne’s dress with colors other than black. Violet, purple, blue, and white are all laid in slashing strokes, giving texture and energy to his portrait.  With her direct and almost confrontational gaze, hands at the ready, and pulsating background, Manet’s Parisienne means business.

Image Credit: Édouard Manet. The Parisienne, 1875. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, bequest 1917 of bank director S. Hult, managing director Kristoffer Hult, director Ernest Thiel, director Arthur Thiel, director Casper Tamm, NM 2068.