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Capturing Modern Life

Introduction: Painting Modern Life

In his definitive essay on modern life, published in 1863, Charles Baudelaire described the way in which Constantin Guys captured the essence of modernity in his drawings and watercolours: " M[onsieur] G[uys] retains a remarkable excellence which is all his own [....] he has sought the transient fleeting beauty of present-day life, distinguishing the character of what, with the reader's kind permission, we have called modernity." For Baudelaire, fashion became one of the defining characteristics of modernity as it encapsulated the dichotomy between absolute and ephemeral beauty: "Beauty consists of an eternal, invariable element [....] and of a relative circumstantial element which will be [....] the age, the fashions, its morals and emotions."

From the mid-nineteenth century fashion represented some of the major innovations in modern life: technological advances in a mechanised garment industry and the accessibility of fashionable dress to the lower classes through the circulation of paper patterns and cheap fabrics and dyes. The self-conscious awareness of modernity outlined in Baudelaire's essay demonstrated a need for new visual methods of social interaction. One of the most effective methods of articulating a social language in visual terms was through the medium of dress. Dress was given a social significance in linguistic terms. In the words of the dress historian Aileen Ribeiro: "a complex language linking dress and identity evolved during the later nineteenth century." In this way, the concerns of modern society were communicated by dress.

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