Starting May 27 until September 25, 2016, the National Gallery of Canada presents, as part of its Masterpiece in Focus program, The White Dress, an exhibition that highlights the evolution of the chemise dress and the drastic transformation in fashion around the turn of the nineteenth century. Complementing the Gallery’s major summer retrospective of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), the Portraitist to Marie Antoinette opening on June 10, The White Dress offers a rich exploration of the trends and artistic movements of the time.
At the heart of this Masterpiece in Focus presentation are two portraits by Vigée Le Brun’s contemporaries – Scottish artist Henry Raeburn and French artist Anne-Louis Girodet. These magnificent works from the national collection – Jacobina Copland (v. 1794–1798), by Raeburn, and Madame Erneste Bioche de Misery (1807), by Girodet – can be seen alongside insightful drawings and illustrations, as well as stunning period dresses on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum and a private collector.
Scandal at the “Cour de France”
With the aid of a simple white dress, the exhibition unveils the world that portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and her sitters navigated at the turn of the 18th century. Although it may seem demure to contemporary eyes, Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris salon in 1783. Royal etiquette required elaborate formal dress. The notorious portrait depicting France’s queen in a simple muslin garment was seen as immodest and had to be removed from view. But more than a breach of decorum, nearly a decade before the French Revolution of 1789, the painting can also be seen as announcing the end of formality, luxury and all that was synonymous with the monarchy.
At the time, court gowns, made of ornately embellished heavy brocades, required structural undergarments – panniers, hooped petticoats, and whalebone stays (an early form of the corset) – for support. It was a style designed to inspire respect for the French monarchy. Marie Antoinette’s preference for the chemise dress was deemed not only a breach of decorum, but an act of treason: court dress was largely a product of the French textile industry – especially the silk looms of Lyon, while the white muslin was a foreign import from India and Britain. The Gallery’s Website presents a time-lapse video of Dr. Anne Bissonnette, Dress Historian at the University of Alberta, preparing one of the 18th-century muslin dresses for the exhibition in the Gallery’s conservation lab.
NGC Associate Curator to the Chief Curator, Erika Dolphin, is the curator of The White Dress: Masterpiece in Focus.
Sunday June 5, from noon to 1 pm in Gallery C218. Included with admission.
Dress Historian Anne Bissonnette and Associate Curator Erika Dolphin offer a tour of the The White Dress. In English, followed by a bilingual question period.
Fashion & Fiction: Chemise Dresses and the World of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 1778–1799
Sunday June 5, from 2 to 3 pm, in the Auditorium. Free event
Lecture on 18th-century fashions of the rich and famous with dress historian and “fashion detective” Anne Bissonnette.
In English. French simultaneous interpretation is available if a request is made to [email protected] before May 30, 2016.
NGCmagazine.ca, the National Gallery of Canada’s online magazine, is a frequently updated source of information on the Canadian art world and events at the National Gallery of Canada. Correspondents from across the country provide engaging and exclusive content on historical and contemporary art in Canada. Read the article “A Scandal in Muslin: Marie Antoinette’s Little White Dress” online now.
Connect with the Gallery
Admission to The White Dress is included with admission to the Gallery’s Collection. Adults: $12; Seniors and full-time students: $10; youth aged 12-19: $6; families (two adults and three youth): $24. Admission is free for children under the age of 12 and for Members. Free admission Thursdays between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Does not include admission to Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842).
From May 21 to September 11, the Gallery is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., except Thursdays, when it is open until 8 p.m. Beginning September 12, the Gallery closes at 5 p.m. and, after October 1, the Gallery is closed on Mondays. Year-round, the Gallery is open on Thursdays until 8 p.m.
For more information: 613.998.8888 or 1.888.541.8888.
About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art. The Gallery also maintains Canada's premier collection of European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, as well as important works of American, Asian and Indigenous Art and renowned international collections of prints, drawings and photographs. In 2015, the National Gallery of Canada established the Canadian Photography Institute, a global multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to the history, evolution and future of photography. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada has played a key role in Canadian culture for well over a century. Among its principal missions is to increase access to excellent works of art for all Canadians. For more information, visit
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