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Sheer Presence

The Veil in Manet’s Paris

2006
Author:

Marni Reva Kessler

Sheer Presence

Examines the cultural and aesthetic significance of the veil in nineteenth-century France

In Sheer Presence, Marni Reva Kessler demonstrates how the ubiquitous veil and its visual representations knot together many of the precepts of Parisian life. Positioning the veil directly at the intersection of feminist, formalist, and social art history, Kessler offers a fresh perspective on period discourses of public health, seduction and sexuality, colonial stereotypes, and, ultimately, an emerging modernity.

Sheer Presence is a very enjoyable book that offers a new way of understanding the cultural significance of the veil. More than just a garment, the veil becomes a metaphor for the phantasmatic construction of femininity as a secretive, illusive, exotic, or forbidden terrain.

Tamar Garb, University College London

Tamar’s instrument of seduction in the Hebrew Bible, Penelope’s shroud in Homer’s Odyssey, accessory of brides as well as widows, and hallmark of the religious and the wealthy, the veil has historically been an intriguing signifier. Initially donned in France for liturgical purposes and later for masked balls and as a sun- and windscreen at the seashore, face-covering veils were adopted for fashionable urban use during the reign of Napoleon III. In Sheer Presence, Marni Reva Kessler demonstrates how this ubiquitous garment and its visual representations knot together many of the precepts of Parisian life.

Considering the period from the beginning of Napoleon III’s rule in 1852 to 1889, when the Paris Universal Exhibition displayed veiled North African Muslims and other indigenous colonial peoples, Kessler deftly connects the increased presence of the veil on the streets and on canvas to Haussmann’s massive renovation of Paris. The fashion of veil wearing, she argues, was imbricated with broader concerns: fears of dust and disease fueled by Haussmannization and class mixing on the city streets, changes in ideals of youth and beauty, attempts to increase popular support for imperialism, and the development of modernist art practices. A veil was protection for the proper woman from the vices associated with the modern city, preserving—at least on the—her femininity and class superiority. Kessler explores these themes with close readings of paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Manet—including Manet’s perplexing portraits of artist Berthe Morisot—as well as photographs, images from the popular press, engravings, lithographs, and academic paintings. She also mines French fashion journals, etiquette books, novels, and medical publications for clues to the veil’s complex meanings during the period.

Positioning the veil directly at the intersection of feminist, formalist, and social art history, Kessler offers a fresh perspective on period discourses of public health, seduction and sexuality, colonial stereotypes, and, ultimately, an emerging modernity.

Sheer Presence

Marni Reva Kessler is assistant professor of art history at the University of Kansas.

Sheer Presence

Sheer Presence is a very enjoyable book that offers a new way of understanding the cultural significance of the veil. More than just a garment, the veil becomes a metaphor for the phantasmatic construction of femininity as a secretive, illusive, exotic, or forbidden terrain.

Tamar Garb, University College London

Kessler’s fascinating study suggests that, both as an object and a symbol, the veil casts light on nineteenth-century conceptions of femininity, public health, aging, vision, imperialism, urbanism and the modernist artistic practices. Kessler uncovers the many levels of significance the veil and its representations held and generated in a rapidly changing city.

Times Literary Supplement

An absorbing study of the ubiquity and popularity of ‘veils’ among bourgeois women in Haussmann’s Paris. Kessler explores the significance of their representation in modernist painting between 1852, when Georges Haussmann came to power, and 1889, the year of the Universal Exhibition.

H-France

Sheer Presence is a suggestive and thoughtful study that taps into the already extensive literature on the visual culture of Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century, but also adds to and extends it.

Early Popular Visual Culture

Kessler incorporates into the overall project some very curious and wonderful anecdotes, which seem to typify the nineteenth century and provide a lively image of the colorful in general. The book successfully engages with the veil as a polymorphous signifier, as both object and symbol, which was deeply enmeshed in the cultural developments of French history.

Invisible Culture

Sheer Presence

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Pathologizing the Second Empire City Dusts—A Key to the Bridge—The Medicalization of Dust— Seeing through the Veil
2. Making Up the Surface The Ideal Bourgeois Visage—Foundations—The Parisienne’s Veil Perplexing the Veil
3. Unmasking Manet’s Morisot, or Veiling Subjectivity The Balcony—Veils, Ribbons, and Furs—Violets, Fans, and Pink Shoes—Effacing—Veiling Her Own Subjectivity, or Morisot’s Self-Portraits
4. The Other Side of the Veil Face-to-Face: Both Sides of the Loom—Cross-Cultural Dressings—Fabricating an Orient—At the Universal Exhibitions, on the Streets, and in the Harem—The Orientalist Trajectory— Visual Cultures

Epilogue

Notes
Bibliography

Index