How does inspiration strike? Does it happen unexpectedly, surrounded by nature? When you are lost in a far-off city, or captivated by a new book? For Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, inspiration transpired from visits to museums, exploring galleries hung with masterpieces by renaissance and impressionist painters.
From 17th century Spanish works by Zurbarán and Velzquez to romantic depictions of 19th century Paris by Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, Balenciaga extracted inspiration from countless canvases for his couture creations. Particular themes emerge as quantified by these references, imbuing themselves on the color, structure, fabrication and ornamentation of Balenciaga’s designs throughout his prolific oeuvre.
The Spanish couturier’s creative trajectory was heavily influenced by the makeup of cultures around the world, as much as it was the art, nature and spirit in his home country of Spain. Balenciaga’s draped garments, for example, contain abstract notions in their appearance of defying gravity, suggesting they were somehow cast out of air, bringing to mind the heavy folds of Japanese Kabuki Theater. His color pallet, however, evolved considerably over his career, never without reference to significant periods throughout the history of Spanish painting.
The selection of colors and materials employed by Cristóbal Balenciaga season-to-season resembled the conscious complexity of a painter’s pallet. Early in his career, Balenciaga took significant influence from the widespread use of black in 16th century Spanish mourning paintings, particularly in the work of painter Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. Akin to Mazo’s somber portraits, Balenciaga strived to explore the various visual depths achieved by the darkest known hue. With a painterly eye, the Spanish couturier utilized different methods of fabrication to engineer the perfect value of black. While Balenciaga worked almost exclusively in somber shades throughout the 40s and early 50s, his color pallet gradually brightened into the 1960s with the introduction of bright, bubblegum pink.
Balenciaga sought tremendous inspiration from the work of 18th century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, extracting from Goya’s paintings creative elements of visual contrast relating to color and silhouette. In the latter half of the 1950s, Balenciaga employed bright hues to illuminate transparent black lace dresses, akin to costumes present in Goya’s 1789 painting, ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’. Similarly, the skirts of his couture dresses began taking on asymmetrical hemlines, appearing shorter and more contained in the front to reveal the wearer’s feet, providing an air of lightness and ease suggested by the women’s dress in Goya’s 1791 work, ‘El Pelele’.
Perhaps the most illustrious example of Balenciaga’s painterly references reside in the couture ensembles attributed to the work of 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. While the designer produced a number of gowns that were accurate historical replicas of those found in Velázquez paintings, in 1939, to honor the end of the Spanish Civil War, Balenciaga created the most well known of such examples, the ‘Infant’ dress. The exaggerated profile, wide hipline and broad shoulders of this silk satin gown mimicked the structured silhouette and formality of seventeenth-century court costumes depicted by Velázquez; while the gown’s velvet scrollwork framed the face much like a portrait. Furthermore, a metaphorical echo of Velázquez in Balenciaga’s work was the manner in which the Spanish painter visually portrayed his subjects like goddesses, this idea influenced the couturier considerably throughout his career.
Balenciaga imbued a great deal of importance on the women he dressed through each garment’s method of draping and fabrication. The Spanish couturier persistently explored the inherent possibilities of materials, inventing new shapes and principles for the use of fabric. As opposed to employing a structural frame as a means of stiffening silhouettes, Balenciaga favored thick cloth and heavy fabric to provide weight and volume, often referencing the work of Franciso de Zurbarán for the Spanish painter’s unparalleled depiction of draping. Balenciaga was enchanted by Zurbarán’s esteemed ability to capture light and shadows in the folds that break the smoothness of materials. Borrowing a tremendous amount of inspiration from Zurbarán’s paintings, the Spanish couturier explored highly innovative methods of fabrication and draping throughout the 1950s.
Balenciaga’s entire creative output was characterized by contrasts. From the distinction between light and shadow he borrowed from Zurbarán, to the use of subdued colors offset by bright hues, or muted ensembles juxtaposed with rich brocades and trimmings. The latter effect of heavy ornamental details were also elements extracted from Spanish Renaissance painting, particularly in the work of Pantoja de la Cruz and Alonso Sánchez Coello. While de la Cruz’s ornate 16th century portraits inspired Balenciaga’s heavy use of jewels and embroidery – rendered on some of his most astounding creations – it was Sánchez Coello whose influence was present throughout Balenciaga’s career.
In the artist’s 1555 portrait of Prince Don Carlos of Austria, Sánchez Coello depicts the young royal in a short, fur-lined cape, from which the Spanish couturier was inspired to employ fur as an ornamental edge detail. This particular design element became a signature of Balenciaga’s, and one that he famously utilized in 1960 on a wedding dress for Queen Fabiola of Belgium.
As much as the designer sought inspiration from the nature and creative spirit of Spain, he also made countless overt references to works by Impressionist painters. From dresses with exaggerated hemlines suggesting the wearer is in motion à la a vivacious dance scene by Toulouse-Lautrec, to silhouettes inspired by the subjects in Monet’s ‘Women in the Garden’ painting, or the full bodied, floor-length coat in Manet’s ‘La Femme au Perroquet’, no source of creative stimulus was too overt or concealed for the master of couture, Cristóbal Balenciaga.