The Painter and his Family, circa 1780.
Image courtesy of the Musée Réattu, Arles.
Photo by Michel Bourguet.

Words by Clément Trouche

In the 18th Century, a small French town saw the rise of a very particular and unique chapter in the history of fashion... Traditional influences crossed with the latest trends and fashions adopted from far away culminated in what is known today as the Arlesian Costume. Not only witnessing but also leading this very fashionable movement were the Raspals, a gifted family of artists and artisans.

The Couturiers' Workshop, circa 1780.
Image courtesy of the Musée Réattu, Arles.
Photo by Michel Bourguet.

It was in the 1770s that, through the brushes of Antoine Raspal, a new phenomenon took place in Arles. Already well-known since ancient times, the beauty and character of the Arlesian girls became, from that moment on, the subject of countless records.

Receding in time, even King Francis I of France is said to have exclaimed in the course of a visit to Arles: “Where do these birds-of-paradise come from?”; but it would however take a few centuries before Antoine Raspal presented a series of fascinating portraits of young Arlesian women wearing their traditional costumes. It was at that moment that, thanks to Raspal’s mastery of portraiture, the myth of such beauties took shape and conquered perennity.

Antoine Raspal was the third generation of a family of artists and it was under the protection of some notable painters such as Michel-François Dandré-Bardon, Joseph-Marie Vien, Guillaume Voiriot and Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, that he concluded, in 1759, his studies at the Parisian École de l’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Later on, upon returning to his native Arles, Raspal embraced a painting career being commissioned numerous works of both secular and religious nature. Unsurprisingly, it were however his famous portraits and depictions of daily-life that allowed him to surpass the test of time and influence future generations of artists.

Arlesian with Red Dress, circa 1780.
Image courtesy of the Musée
Grobet Labadié, Marseille.
Photo by David Giancatarina.

For a long time, the mysterious and poorly-documented works of Antoine Raspal were overshadowed by his most celebrated painting «The Couturiers’ Workshop»; a depiction of Atelier du Sauvage, a fashion house in Arles, located at the homonymous Place du Sauvage. Indisputably the most important and prestigious fashion house operating in Arles at that time, Atelier du Sauvage, that happened to be managed by Antoine’s older sisters Catherine and Thérèse Raspal, would receive ladies from the aristocratic and bourgeois elites in quest of the latest fashions...

«The Couturiers’ Workshop», a large miniature painted on a wood panel and representing the life inside Atelier du Sauvage has, since ever, been considered to be the masterpiece of Antoine Raspal. For its richness of detail it is known to all researchers and enthusiasts of fashion and costume history to this day. The simplicity of the depicted scene shows a captivating intimacy: six Arlésiennes at work portrayed near a large window under the incoming daylight. Thérèse, who commands the house, sits in the foreground while raising her arm to indicate an order to one of her workers. On the right is Catherine who also plays an important role in the Raspal family. From Catherine’s relationship with the painter Guillaume Barrême de Châteaufort, with whom she had four children, was born her eldest son, the painter Jacques Réattu, Prix de Rome in 1790.

“Nothing would stop these
Arlésiennes in their quest
for the beautiful clothing that
would become their signature”

The women dressed in Arlesian traditional costume occupy themselves inside a room packed with clothes. Catherine is holding a pink silk petticoat trimmed with gauze ribbons and bows. Attentive to the dialogue between the two sisters, a young apprentice picks up the matching gown from the wall. The outfit worn by Catherine, composed of the most expensive textiles, indicates her role at the heart of the atelier. Her skirt in Indian cotton, embroidered with large flower motifs in wool thread of multiple colours, matches her ‘casaquin’. The casaquin is a piece of clothing that derives from the Arlesian ‘droulet’, a type of coat that covers only the arms and the back with four floating flaps down to the calves.

It were the Raspal sisters who created and diffused the casaquin, giving it a Parisian appearance completed with luxury finishings. Catherine accentuates her figure with a malleable bodice in silk from Lyon and adorns her cleavage with a gauze fichu colourfully embroidered. She also wears a “Cross Maintenon” in gold, silver and diamonds, a headdress “à la chanoinesse” of Indian white muslin and Flanders lace and covers her skirt with an apron made with an indienne printed in Jouy-en-Josas, near Versailles.

Arlesian with Blue Eyes, circa 1780.
Image courtesy of the Musée
Grobet Labadié, Marseille.
Photo by David Giancatarina.

In evidence of the high quality of the clothes Catherine appears wearing in a everyday context, it is easily supposable that she was the link between the clients and the workspace, between the visible and the invisible. In this painting, protecting and framing the scene with a blue screen that blocks the access to the corridor that would lead to the parlour, Antoine Raspal chose to reveal the intimacy of the workspace. This miniature, confronted with recent discoveries, appears as to be the key to understanding the social dynamic of an entire family. By carefully noticing and decoding this snapshot of the Arlesian life in the 18th Century, one can see how important fashion was, as well as its consumption and portrayal. The preciousness in the execution of the garments and their posterior rendering in the paintings, surprises by its likeness and resemblance to reality.

It is unquestionable that the Raspal sisters took a significant part in the origin of a local trend in Arles mingling influences from the Court of Versailles with allusions to the Orient and inspirations from the Mediterranean. Catherine and Thérèse mixed embroidered muslins, Turkish kerchiefs, toile d’Alep and silks from Nîmes and Lyon with printed textiles from India, Switzerland, Alsace and Jouy-en-Josas... Nothing would stop these Arlésiennes in their quest for the beautiful clothing that would become their signature.

The trio of Artist-Artisans generated for a strong decade what can be characterized as the climax of the Arlesian costume of the 18th Century. Archival sources also contribute to prove their success by telling us today the interest Arlesian families had for fashion during the time... Posthumous inventories are often colossal and reflect the dichotomy between the contents of the wardrobe and the modest social condition of the deceased. Sometimes, even often, these would indulge in an overconsumption of clothing, accessories and jewellery - all witnessed by the Raspal family.

The veil on the meaning of the portraits of the Arlésiennes done by Antoine Raspal seems to have been finally lifted. Pivotal to this were the studies of costume historians Odile and Magali Pascal since, until recently, the painter’s works were thought to be renderings of real bourgeois ladies and artisans whose identities had been erased by time. However, in the course of new studies about the work of Raspal, the rediscovery of many of his paintings brought new questions to light.

Madame Privat and her Children, circa 1780.
Image courtesy of the Museon Arlaten, Arles.
Photo by Jean-Luc Maby.

From 1773, apart from his regular Arlesian commissions, Raspal worked on two separate series of portraits. The first series, quite academic and formally rendered, follows the spirit of his portraits of the Arlesian society; examples of those are the portraits of «Madame Privat and her Children» and the pair «Young Lady with Headdress Adorned with Lilacs» and «Man with Red Coat and Silver Waistcoat». The meaning of the second series, which until recently was wrapped in mystery, is now exposed largely thanks to the new interpretation of «The Couturiers’ Workshop» and to its contextualization with relevant canvases found in the past ten years.

This second series, composed by the fourteen portraits of Arlésiennes identified to this day, appears now to be a collection of fashion plates that was at the service of Atelier du Sauvage. The portraits represent anonymous women posing in stereotypical manner and show the models posing similarly over and over again and wearing outfits that look increasingly sophisticated. The same garment can even be occasionally found in different portraits. The most extraordinary thing about these portraits is their keenness to, through a diversity of variations, show us the extraordinary creation skills of Catherine, the manufacturing dexterity of Thérèse and her apprentices, and the talent of Antoine in immortalizing his subjects.

In Arles, the first Sunday after August 15th is marked with a traditional event held at the ancient necropolis of Alyscamps. Without social distinction, all the people of Arles gathered here to dance and parade wearing the latest and most fashionable outfits. The event is perfectly witnessed by Antoine Raspal on his unfinished canvas «The Promenade at Alyscamps». Suspended during the French Revolution, the festivity would later reborn on La Lice. From 1815 and for nearly twenty years this event dazzled all of Provence. Several local fashion records retrace this Arlesian trend and relate the energy employed by young women in showing up every year, their effort to be seen and their desire to launch new trends for the following year. Such phenomenon will forever be remembered as a reminiscence of the lavish period when the famous Atelier du Sauvage held the monopoly of fashion in Arles.

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