The latest show to mark the centenary this year of Whistler’s death takes a fresh look at the artist’s work by looking at it through fashion. Inspired by Margaret MacDonald of the Centre for Whistler Studies, the Frick, with the help of Aileen Ribeiro, a scholar of the history of dress at the Courtauld Institute in London, has organised the first ever show to examine a major artist through clothing (22 April-13 July). Whistler, the 19th-century portraitist and painter of impressionistic nocturnes, is an ideal subject: he even designed dresses that his sitters wore. Indeed, since all his contemporaries were acutely aware of fashion and its development, the exhibition includes fashion plates and four actual dresses of the time. The subtlety of visual language is thus revealed. Women who would be portrayed as assertive and reasonably independent wore clothing inspired by riding gear, while social climbers dressed to the nines (above, “Harmony in Pink and Gray: Valerie, Lady Meux”, 1881-82), and, seen in comparison to less proud sitters, gain a satirical air. Whistler, nevertheless, was obsessed by just such fancy clothing and revelled in depicting its texture and weight. Sometimes the sitters are turned away from us so Whistler could catch the interesting back of a dress. The show is notable for the reunification of portraits of the same sitter, a useful device which tracks the changes in fashionable silouhettes across his fashionable career.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Whistler, women and fashion'