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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Description Fail







Like a plate of iced cakes, the Metropolitan Museum’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity is pretty and sweet. Paintings and clothing are wonderfully paired throughout. Entering the exhibition one is greeted by a close-up of the green and black striped silk skirt Monet’s mistress, Camille, wears in his portrait of her hanging in the next room. It fills the wall forming a dramatic backdrop at the beginning of the exhibition. 

Near Camille's portrait, a gray silk faille dress and paisley shawl on a model echoes the ones worn by Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert in Monet’s portrait of her. There’s even one rather hideous number with polka dots, stripes, bows and rows of pleats in purple and white on a mannequin next to a painting featuring the very dress. Clearly its owner thought it was the bee’s knees, though to me it looked like something whipped up à la Scarlett O’Hara using material from The Greenbrier.

There was a black jet adorned dress with fitted bodice that I would wear today; it reminded me of some of Alexander McQueen’s pieces. I had one of those New Yorker-cartoon-as-life moments observing the mostly portly crowd oohing and ahing over the row of corsets neatly displayed in a vitrine.


A number of great paintings by Manet, Monet and Courbet are featured in the exhibition along with lesser-known works, which though somewhat overwrought, offer authentic windows into the 19th century French life.

But what I really noticed about the show was the various inaccuracies presented in the wall panels. Beginning with James Tissot’s Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, which describes her as wearing a “peignoir or dressing gown,” an indicator of “how very much at home” the Marquise is in her drawing room. While I agree the garment she is wearing looks fussy and is a vivid (think Pepto-Bismol) pink, it struck me as odd that there would be a portrait of a marquise in such dishabille. (There is a painting by Manet of a woman in a peignoir, but she is a model, not a noblewoman.) On closer inspection, I saw that the marquise’s right hand is gloved. The second glove is tossed carelessly on the mantel. Who wears kid gloves with dressing gowns? The obvious answer is this is not a peignoir, but an evening coat. In fact, there is a photograph near the end of the show of a similar “opera cloak.” But the Met is so sold on this idea they even have a swatch of the pink fabric exhibited next to the portrait with yet another wall panel describing it as a peignoir.

The accompanying description of a second Tissot portrait of the marquise takes the cake, though. This time she is depicted with her family arranged outside by a stone wall. The panel describes what everyone is wearing in great detail and states that her son is standing by his father’s side. Did the person who wrote this even look at the picture? The boy is sitting in a chair!

I didn’t look at every panel, I did notice that the one for Gustave Courbet’s famous pastoral, Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine describes a “top hat” in the boat that to my eye resembles a much more likely straw boater.

This is not the first time I have had issues with the Met’s descriptions. A few years back their Renaissance portrait show contained ones which, though not patently wrong, were still irritatingly opinionated with suppositions made by the curator/author about the sitters that weren’t borne out by the evidence presented in the paintings.

It’s one thing for a small, underfunded museum to make these missteps, but for an institution of the Met’s stature, to do so is unacceptable. I used to take what they wrote as Gospel. Now? Not so much.




1 comment:

  1. From a friend who will remain anonymous:

    "I am so glad you wrote this piece about the didactic panels which aren't. I think this carelessness is because the museum changed its mission from a place of scholarship, connoisseurship, and contemplation to a business enterprise which Is corrupted by bankers and the like and is also tax-exempt. Big implications, but the good news is that many treasures are preserved that would be otherwise forgotten. I could say more..."

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