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Cincinnati Art Museum: Special Exhibits

October 29, 2010

I woke up on my free morning with the sun in my eyes and I thought to myself: its going to be a beautiful day.

I promptly decided to go to the museum and stay indoors. I put on my most hipster-intellectual outfit (cigarette pants, ironic boy’s school blazer, converse and a teal newsboy hat) and headed out.

First stop: Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns

I’m, of course, in heaven. This exhibit covers the ideas of modesty and sensuality blended in wedding gowns from the 1740s til the present day. The emphasis on the wedding gown has been evolving since the very beginning: white was not traditional until Queen Victoria and the idea was simply to show off the family’s wealth on the woman that was the focal point of the day. Women simply wore their most expensive dress to show to the congregants that the groom was getting a good bounty from her. This evolved through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth and twenty-first.

Now, dresses are still very like the first dresses in this exhibit. They may be white, now, and of a different silhouette, but the thought is the same. This is to be the most fashionable, expensive dress a woman is to ever wear. It is an act that shows anthropologicaly that our base instincts on marriage have remained unchanged. The idea of showing off what the groom has aquired that day lives on in our Vera Wang and our Monique Lhullier.

The idea of a wedding dress is one that is fraught with contention. Most say that this IS the most important thing that a woman can ever do (as Emily Post put it: the only time it is acceptable for a woman to be in the paper are her birth, marriage and death). Others still take an even more feminist view and eschew the idea of a white, virginal, fancy dress entirely and wear an off-the-rack colored ensemble.

The exhibit is a fascinating look at the ideas of marriage through a symbol: the wedding gown.

And if you don’t give a shit about anthropology, they’re pretty to look at.

I took these pictures before the guard told me I couldn’t.

Next: Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman

Gainsbourough, in my humble opinion, was a genius of portraiture.

I should let you know ahead of time that portraiture is my very favorite type of art.

I’m going to call him Mr. G from her on. Mr. G was a master of capturing light and expression. He was ironic and cheeky at times where it was best to be so. He took women from the demi-monde (most from a class called demi-reps, because their reputation was somewhat diminished on account of their pursuits: acting, dancing or sex.) and made them goddesses. His style is almost impressionistic in an age where photographic detail was admired. Being payed to capture a likeness, Mr. G was scrupulous in his attention to the face. From there, though he liked to paint his sitters in an almost slap-dash way: applying paint in hurried strokes and layering to create a kind of texture that is unseen in English art for another century.

See the above picture of Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliot. She is a very famous courtesan and the subtle imagery in the portrait gives us clues to what she was like (because Mr. G liked to intimately paint, he was obsessed with the sitter’s personality). She turns her head to the side; a gesture indicative at the time of hauteur.  Her limbs are exaggeratedly long, as white, smooth limbs were the height of beauty at the time, and her feet are positioned so that she might leave the frame at any moment; a flight risk.

His use of color is spectacular; the small shots of impressionistic color around the perimeter of all of his paintings perfectly compliment and complete the portrait, yet our eye is not drawn to them. The portrait is a kind of dreamy, alter-reality photograph. A place to live where the borders of our world are hazy and beautiful and a stark contrast with the war, hunger and general filth of the late eighteenth century.


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