Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Tea Party and the Dinner Party, Early 1820s

I don't have any dancing observations today, but I went to the Museum of Fine Arts the other evening and spent a long time looking at these two paintings. They were painted by Henry Sargent and were quite well known at the time. The Dinner Party was painted first, in about 1821, and was exhibited with great success, which lead the exhibitor to commission The Tea Party in 1824.

You can read more about the paintings and see close ups on the MFA website. I entertained myself by trying to understand more about the two parties using clues in the paintings, especially the light sources.

The Dinner Party takes place during the day. We can see this because the illumination is coming from the windows. There is no fire in the fireplace, so it is probably summer. The lower shutters are closed, probably to avoid letting in too much light or heat. The upper window on the right is unshuttered and the the upper window on the left has a shutter partially open. We see sixteen men seated at the table. The tablecloth has been removed, and the gentlemen are enjoying "desert" There is a single lighted candle on the table, probably,  as the MFA website suggests, for lighting tobacco for an after dinner smoke. The lamp on the side table, as well as the candles on the chandelier are unlit.

The carpets in both paintings are similar, so both scenes were likely set in the same house. I don't think the rooms line up exactly, and the curtains are different colors, but if we allow for some artistic license, we might decide that the dining room in the first painting is the same as the rear room or maybe the side room in the second.

The Tea Party seems to be taking place on a winter's evening. There is a fire in the fireplace.  We are looking into a parlor, and through an archway into a second room.  The parlor in the tea party has no overhead lighting. There are candle sconces on the walls, and a variety of candles and lamps on the mantle piece. We can see the light that the sconce candles cast up on the ceiling. We can also see the light from the mantelpiece candles being reflected by the mirror onto the opposite wall. 

Sargent uses the light to draw attention to different groupings of people, especially the couple by the fireplace. The lady's decolletage glows, her red shawl catches the eye. The gentleman's white breeches and stockings are brightly lighted. These white nether garments are in distinct contrast to the dark trousers of the men at the dinner party. The men in the dinner party are dressed for daytime; in the tea party they are dressed for evening. All the women are wearing headdresses, mostly turbans, and wearing shawls. It makes sense that a woman who was not dancing might want a warm shawl.

The lights in the far room are much brighter and light is spilling though the archway into the parlor.
There is a black servant, probably the same person, in each painting.

These paintings provide a wonderful glimpse into entertainment styles in early Nineteenth Century Boston.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Tailcoat vs. Tuxedo

The best thing for a man to wear to a Nineteenth Century ball is a tailcoat. Often, a new dancer will say he plans to wear a tux. This is where we all gasp and rush to explain that a tailcoat is the most formal level of dress, but a tuxedo is informal. In other words, a tailcoat is what you wear when you dance with women in ball gowns and a tuxedo is what you wear when you eat supper at your club with the guys.

Also, the tuxedo only develops in the late Nineteenth Century, so it's not even an option for much of the dancing that we recreate.

This is a tailcoat, also called a dress coat:

Tailcoat detail from American Fashions December 1890

This is a tuxedo:

Tuxedo detail from 1920s fashion plate

Here is a fashion plate from 1899 that includes a woman in a ball gown to provide context for the men in tailcoats.

American Fashions August 1899

Pop quiz! Which one of these men is ready to go to a formal ball?

1904 illustration

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Five Requisites for Dancers - 1890

Every so often, I read a dance manual where the writer's personality shines through. Other times, a manual shows just a glimpse of frustration.

The following list is asking for a lot. It's not trivial to agree to be alert, prompt, silent, obedient  and willing to sacrifice. On the other hand, everyone in the room needs to contribute to make a dance go smoothly, and these five things are exactly the things that are needed.

They are also the things that a dance caller needs to ask for. Repeatedly.

Frustration? Maybe a little...




1. Alertness —each dancer being at all times awake to the duties required of him or her.
2. Promptness in taking places for the execution of a figure.
3. Silence and attention during figures.
4. Obedience at all times to the conductor during the management of a dance.
5. Willingness to sacrifice momentary personal pleasure for the good of others.

(Kopp, E. H.,The American prompter and guide to etiquette. Cincinnati : The J. Church Co., 1896 p. 14.)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

An Evening Coat that Makes a Statement - 1921

This woman knows that you want to look sleek in your 1920s party dress. Check out her carefully dressed hair. She also knows that it's fun to make a grand entrance in a huge coat of luxurious brocade and fur.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Before, During, and After a Ball - 1855 to 1860

I love these three stereoscope views. They are from different photographers, but the styles blend beautifully to make a little story.
Before the Ball
A Ball

After the Ball

A Masked Ball 1804

Bal de Société, British Museum

When I first saw this print, I could not figure out what was going on. The women's faces looked creepy, and the whole image seemed odd. I noticed there was a harlequin, so I wondered if it was a masquerade. Then I found a larger version on the Rijksmuseum site where I could zoom in on details.

Bal de Société, Rijksmuseum

Yes, it is a masquerade. Most of the women are wearing masks and fashionable 1804 dresses. The two ladies in front have impressive trains. There is one woman on the left wearing a domino cloak and carrying a black mask. Some men are wearing fashionable clothes, but others are dressed as a Turk, a Harlequin and a courtier with a ruff. One man on the left is wearing a grotesque mask.

Through the arches we can see dancers in a ballroom and musicians in a balcony. The dancers have their left arms raised in graceful positions. Perhaps they are doing  figure with an allemande.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Weasel in a Ballgown

J. J. Grandville

Sometimes one thinks, "I must find an image of a weasel in a ballgown!" While this pretty weasel is not in full ball dress - the apron and cap would not be worn for a ball - I consider this close enough.

You're welcome.