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Friday, August 14, 2015

Alexander Roslin

Parisian dressmaker's shop, ca. 1775
Today, when we think of high fashion, two major cities come to mind, New York and Paris (perhaps also London). There are others, but none so iconic as those two or three. New York is a relative newcomer in this regard, surpassing London in prestige only since WW II. Paris, though, has always been at the top of the list. The Paris fashion shows (men's or women's) evolved during the 19th century. When you use the word "evolved" exact dates are difficult, and perhaps meaningless as well. Actually, their roots go back perhaps as much as a hundred years before that to the ladies of the court of Louis XIV. We have little or no idea who the top designers were at that time and there were no "fashion houses" anything like what we have today. There were however, during most of the 1700s, springing up along the streets of Paris, little dress shops, supported in back by small sweatshops of talented seamstresses (above). Yet everything was pretty small-scale, no sewing machines, often little more than an enterprising married couple who may have slipped away from the tapestry trade to wield their needles and scissors fashioning horrendously expensive dresses for royalty and the ladies of court. Of course no such lady would be caught dead wearing a dress identical to that of another, so each dressmaker was faced with the need to vary somewhat their creations. Hence, the birth of fashion design.
Alexander Roslin - Self-Portrait, 1790, ever so fashionably
attired, painting King Gustavus III of Sweden.
The Lady with the Veil (The Artist's Wife),
1768, dressed ala Bolognaise,
Alexander Roslin
Alexander Roslin was a French portrait artist. Originally born in Sweden in 1718, Roslin studied in Stockholm, but he spent most of his life working in Germany, Italy, Russia, and finally in Paris where he settled in 1752, living and working there until his death in 1793. Roslin was no fashion designer, at least not insofar as we know. He was, instead something of a mirror, painting the painted faces of Parisian nobility (mostly ladies but a few European kings, princes, dukes, and other courtiers). This was during the "pretty" period of Rococo art, thus Roslin could be considered a Rococo portrait artist, influence by Francois Boucher, Hyacinthe Rigaud, and Nicolas de Largillière. Roslin's self-portrait (above) and his Lady with the Veil (left), as well as the triple portrait of John Jennings, Esq. with his Brother and Sister-in-Law (below), from 1769, obviously serves to underline Roslin's portrait skills, but also his skill in handling the old and new fabrics starting to play a major part in French fashions--silks, satins, velvets, linen, heavy embroidery and lace--lots and lots of lace--even for the men.

John Jennings, Esq. with his Brother and Sister-in-Law, 1769, Alexander Roslin.
Menswear was nearly as exotic as ladies fashions.
Needless to say, all the rich fabrics employed in French fashion awareness during the Rococo era were quite costly, even apart from the tremendous amount of skilled labor involved in turning the bolts of cloth, often imported from other countries, into the lovely gowns seen above and in the portrait of Septimanie d'Egmont Pignatelli (below), from 1763. Any artist who could so elegantly convey the costly richness of such material, along with a fair to good likeness of its owner, could pretty much name his own price and have no worries about dressing his fortunate wife in similarly luxurious frocks (above, left). Notice the tremendously detailed details of the dress in the larger frame.

Detail, Septimanie d'Egmont Pignatelli, 1763, Alexander Roslin.
(The shoes are said to have once been worn by Queen Marie Antoinette.)

Fashionable evening attire on the
streets of Paris, summer, 2015. 
To appreciate the work of an 18th-century portrait artists such as Roslin, we need to take a closer look at the most important aspect of such painted imitations of feminine beauty--the dresses. Inasmuch as we talk about now and then, it goes without saying that Paris fashions today are rather minimalist as compared to the silken finery of the mid-1700s as displayed in a couple of this year's fashion ensembles (right). Ladies around 1750 (and especially their husbands) would have considered today's designer ensembles little short of obscene. Even undergarments at the time were more modest. One of Roslin's portraits, an unknown lady from around 1753, is a fairly average representation of his work (below, right). We see a medium blue, dress, probably cotton, suitable for daily wear among the fashionable aristocracy at the time. There's an enticingly low-cut bodice, not much in the way of jewelry, but a plethora of white lace accenting what was called at the time a "stomacher," the highly detailed inset covering the breast down to the waist. They were quite fashionable at the time. Some were bejeweled. Some contained "stays" to slim the waist.

Paris fashion design, ca. 1753. (Notice the fur collar.)
The undergarments art at top-center.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady,
open gown with stomacher,
1753, Alexander Roslin
Even for "everyday" wear, wigs and matching slippers or boots were obligatory as ladies and their escorts "relaxed" amid the royal splendor of the suburban gardens of Versailles or those of the Tuileries in Paris. The illustration below displays the back of the dress. As is often the case today, Roslin's "Unknown Lady" looks better coming than going.

The back of the dress
and the "boots."
Double portrait of Roslin and
his wife, 1767. She was a
talented pastel portrait artist.


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