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Do the Bustle

Seurat, La Grande Jatte

It feels somewhat fitting to conclude our series of posts about paintings in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity with a painting that hangs in the final gallery of our exhibition—the Art Institute's own A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884.

For those of you who haven't had the chance to visit the exhibition, this painting is placed in context with three dresses (one pictured below for reference) that all highlight the apogee of the bustle. Bustles first appeared in Parisian fashion in the late 1860s and remained in style until the mid-1870s when the prevailing style moved towards a narrower, tighter fishtail shape. But in 1883, bustles returned with a vengeance. And this time around, 'the bigger, the better' was the name of the game. Bustles extended horizontally at nearly ninety-degree angles, creating a shelf-like shape.

Dress, American, 1887,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, side view2

Seurat began working on La Grande Jatte in 1884, just after the bustle returned to fashion. In the painting, he features two women with bustles, most prominently the woman on the far right standing with a male companion (and a monkey!). This woman's dress would have been right on trend. In addition to a voluminous bustle, she also wears a dress with a low waist, high neckline, and tight sleeves, all the more to accent her backside. When Seurat first conceptualized this painting, however, the bustle was significantly smaller. We've learned, through conservation research, that as the painting developed from preparatory drawings to the final work, Seurat increased the bustle's size not once, not twice, but three times, ensuring that this woman stay as on trend as possible. The bigger, the better indeed.

Image Credits:

Georges Seurat. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884-86. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

Dress, 1887. American. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.