- The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750–1820, and: The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun’s Conference sur l’expression generale et particulière
The centrality of the body in recent studies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culture has had particular relevance to examinations of figural art, whose links with corporeal performance were implicitly assumed, widely discussed and sporadically the orized throughout the period in question. Both of these books offer interdisciplinary considerations of the body as pictorial image and as physical actor; both are also grounded in their respective historical cultures and provide welcome insight into negl ected areas of visual “performance.” Aileen Ribeiro’s Art of Dress illuminates the interaction between the aesthetics and social goals of portraiture and the styling and wearing of clothes. Visualizing social concerns and ideals, the arts of painti ng and dress are in Ribeiro’s study inseparable components of an intricate language of display. In Jennifer Montagu’s Expression of the Passions it is her subject, Charles Le Brun, who emerges as the consummate interdisciplinarian, in his deploymen t of somatic theory to shape an eloquent pictorial body.
The title of Ribeiro’s book is deceptive, for unlike most histories of dress, including her own previous books, this study does not concern dress so much as the way in which the adorned body is recreated in painting to form a distinctively pictorial visio n. Rather than using pictures to illustrate the trends and details of fashion—an approach characteristic of traditional histories of dress and of little use to art historians—Ribeiro brings the values and goals of fashion to her assessments of paintings, thus highlighting the social urgencies embedded within the very aesthetics of pictorial art. In considering dress and painting as partners rather than as mirror images in the construction of the fashionable body, Ribeiro acknowledges her debt to Anne Ho llander’s Seeing Through Clothes (1975), but she also forges a personalized methodology by integrating extensive primary research on dress and painting with her own, material observations.
In the first few chapters Ribeiro considers the development of French and English fashion from 1750 to 1820 and the ways in which clothing gained increased visual expression through paintings and drawings, almost all of them portraits. Following recent ar t historical trends, Ribeiro considers portraiture as a collaboration between artist and subject; while sitters make artistic performances out of their own display, the best artists work in the manner of inspired modistes to capture not so much the appearance as the desired aim of the fashionable body. Ribeiro demonstrates the mutual influence between these two realms; when Boucher depicts Madame de Pompadour at her toilet dusting her face with rouge (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University), [End Page 438] t he blushing face presented in his painting simulates the craft of makeup itself. Fashion designers, for their part, borrowed ideas from artists, as Ribeiro notes in citing William Barker’s Treatise on the Principles of Hair-Dressing, which advocate s “an elegant and natural Plan” based upon “Hogarth’s immortal System of Beauty” (73).
Ribeiro’s use of clothing as a standard for assessing paintings revitalizes art history’s critical aims. In discussing Perroneau’s portrait of Jacques Cazotte (National Gallery, London), for example, she notes how the “perfect matching of wig to face” is brought out subtly in Perroneau’s composition, as “the diagonal side curls echo the lines of the face, captured slightly smiling” (40). More acute yet is her comparison of portraits by Ingres and William Beechey, which feature sitters in similar cutaway j ackets with high, stiff necks; while Beechey perfectly integrates the body of his gentleman with his elegant clothes, Ingres creates an awkward tension between the sitter’s bluntly set, unadorned head and the...