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Object Highlight: Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris

Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris

1950 negative, 1980 print

Platinum-palladium print

Philadelphia Museum of Art

The last piece of art I was able to really enjoy before the March shutdown was this singular image of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had hoped to give a brief presentation about it to some coworkers, but with a last minute job switch, and then COVID, had to table my notes. In preparation for the reopening of the museum in September, let's take a brief look at this photograph.

This piece encapsulates the combined efforts of three iconic mid-century contributors to the arts, couturier Cristobal Balenciaga, model Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, and photographer Irving Penn.

“The Master of us All.”

Cristobal Balenciaga was famously described by Christian Dior as “the master of us all.” Influenced from an early age by design in his native Spain, Balenciaga built a couture house known for its meticulous cuts, fabrics and embroideries. This mantle coat is constructed like a poncho, but with draped, set-in sleeves, leaving the silhouette of the coat to be dictated by the wearer’s body.

“Highest paid, highest praised, high fashion model in the business.”

Time magazine, 1949

Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn is widely regarded as being the first supermodel. Discovered in 1936, she quickly rose to prominence and by 1939 she was already considered a top model. Her training in sculpture and dance influenced her discipline, and she was known to work for long hours in dedication to a shoot.

A Master Printmaker

Irving Penn's studio backdrop, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017.

Irving Penn spent 60+ years working on staff at Vogue, specializing in studio portraits. His body of work encompassed still life, portraiture, and commercial and magazine editorials. He traveled the world throughout his career, often consumed with photographing the average person in the culture in which he found himself immersed. In the early 1970s, Penn constructed his own laboratory and immersed himself in platinum printmaking, pushing the boundaries of the printed photograph. The 2017 retrospective exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed examples of the great variety achievable by this method.

The simplicity of the photograph in question is heightened by Lisa’s pose; she emphasizes the material (wool gabardine, silk taffeta) while adding drama to the cut of the coat. Penn's classic backdrop allows Lisa's body and the coat to exist in perfect harmony; she and the coat have become one in silhouette. As a work, Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris exists as a lovely synthesis of art practices.

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