How do you produce a sure-fire blockbuster exhibition?
Here’s the recipe: You gang up with other museums, bring together 60 masterpieces by popular painters, add an equal number of beautiful dresses and have the whole thing staged by a seasoned set designer.
That’s exactly what the Musee d’Orsay has done.
“Impressionism and Fashion” has been organized jointly with New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show will travel next year. Most of the costumes come from the Musee Galliera and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, France’s leading fashion collections.
The title isn’t quite correct. For sure, the exhibition is dominated by the pillars of Impressionism -- Manet, Monet, Degas and Renoir.
Yet there are also plenty of others who have little or nothing to do with that school -- slick society painters such as Charles Carolus-Duran, James Tissot and Alfred Stevens and even some “pompiers” (firemen) as the French like to call 19th-century academic artists.
The organizers haven’t tried to track down costumes that directly correspond to those on the canvases. They contented themselves with dresses from the same period (1860-85).
The only exception is the polka-dot gown Madame Albert Bartholome is wearing in a portrait painted by her husband. You can admire original and copy side by side.
Robert Carsen, the set designer who staged the show, has created a playful maze of corridors and rooms of various sizes.
In one room, you find rows of gilded chairs, each with the name of a famous contemporary -- including the “grandes horizontales” Cora Pearl and Marie Duplessis, the model of “La Dame aux Camelias.” (In fact, Marie belonged to an earlier period: She died of consumption in 1847.)
The paintings are grouped thematically, according to the surroundings in which the women appear -- in their living rooms, bedrooms, in public or in the country.
The most amusing picture is Henri Gervex’s “Rolla,” a splendid nude resting on her bed after a stormy night while her lover, already fully dressed, is watching her.
Although Gervex was a “pompier” with impeccable credentials, the Salon rejected the painting. The jurors didn’t mind the naked woman; what shocked them was her discarded underwear carelessly strewn across the floor.
Both the paintings and the costumes demonstrate that the crinoline favored by Empress Eugenie gradually disappeared and was replaced by the “cul de Paris,” or bustle.
The gentleman of the time loved his lady dressed in layers of silk and velvet with a wasp waist and a protruding bust and bottom.
Fans, hats, gloves and other accessories complement the costumes.
Men’s fashion, much less varied and mostly somber, plays second fiddle in the exhibition. Manet, Renoir and their fellow artists on Henri Fantin-Latour’s celebrated canvas “A Studio in Les Batignolles” look as if they were coming from a funeral.
“L’Impressionisme et la Mode” is not a show that will broaden your horizon. It’s easy on the eye and easy on the mind. And that’s exactly why it will be a tremendous hit.
The exhibition, which is supported by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior SA, runs through Jan. 20, 2013. It will be at the Metropolitan Museum from Feb. 19 to May 27, and at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 29 to Sept. 22, 2013.
For more information, go to http://www.musee-orsay.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)