The silky relationship between art and fashion may seem charming but is often a tawdry, corrupting, even whorish affair. The wealthy frequently treat works of art as a social accessory, a way to dress up money and appear powerful. Artists, in turn, become lapdogs. One of the undeniable achievements of modernism was to liberate art from priests, fops, bankers, and ladies who lunch. Nonetheless, in the nineteenth century, a great form of dandyism developed that transformed the relationship between art and fashion into a brilliant dreamworld, one that served as a radical critique of all that was base in modern society—including anything that cheapened art or fashion. Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde are the great literary figures of this world. And Whistler (1834–1903) is its preeminent painter.
In Whistler, Women, and Fashion, which opened recently at the Frick Collection, Susan Grace Galassi and Margaret F. MacDonald have created a show that—by focusing upon Whistler’s treatment of women’s dress—brings this version of paradise to life. At its center are seven full-length portraits of elegant women (an eighth will arrive in June) in the museum’s magical Oval Room. Downstairs is a more academic part of the show, where the curators have organized a selection of Whistler’s drawings, prints, and smaller paintings that bear upon the subject. They have also included several nineteenth-century dresses that resemble those worn by women in the paintings. For all his dreaminess, Whistler had a sharp eye for social manners. He developed important close relationships with many women, as the catalogue recounts, and the different looks and poses he gave them reveal much about the changing roles of women in the late nineteenth century.
In a portrait from the 1870s, for example, Frances Leyland appears as a woman perfected for our contemplation. But Lady Henry Bruce Meux—a controversial parvenu wrapped in a fantastic swath of white—brashly emerges from the darkness with her jewels sparkling. The artist Rosa Corder is clearly an intelligent woman of independent mind. The dress is understated but the hat stylish. Her upturned profile, proud but not snobbish, promises to cut through the stormy seas ahead. The aristocrat Lady Archibald Campbell obviously shuns the strictures of convention. A proponent of Rational Dress, she wears the more functional clothing favored by progressive women. In Whistler’s hands, however, she’s hardly businesslike. Her drawn-back pose, twisted body, and provocative dangling of gloves suggest that she may be about to spit out a stinging piece of wit—if she deems it worth the bother.
Of course, Whistler doesn’t live for us primarily as a social historian. The surface of life serves in his art mainly to beguile rather than to instruct. A dress enchants a figure. While in Venice, Whistler wrote to his mother, “The people with their gay gowns and handkerchiefs—and the many tinted buildings for them to lounge against or pose before, seem to exist especially for one’s pictures.” In contrast to most other bourgeois society painters, who reveled in the realistic depiction of the expensive details of an outfit, Whistler avoided too much precision of that kind. Details could imprison the eye and constrain the flight of the imagination. A dress was more like an emanation or a breath of perfume or, as he suggested in his titles, a phrase of music. In his Harmony in Pink and Grey, one of the two paintings of Lady Meux in the exhibit, the figure’s richly colored lips become part of the larger fantasia of pink; they are a mysterious tuning fork for the visual harmonies. The dramatic poses struck by Whistler’s women—in addition to suggesting something of their character—deepen this air of fancy. The women in the Oval Room, itself a feminine shape, seem full of ineffable promise. Fashion in Whistler could transfigure.