Fashion and the Fine Arts in Carmen de Burgos’ Avant-garde Novel, La mujer fantástica

I’m going to start the new year with a post on my most recent article, “Fashion, Ekphrasis, and the Avant-Garde Novel: Carmen de Burgos’ La mujer fantástica (1924)”, which was published in the open-access journal Ciberletras in December 2017. I was excited to publish this article in that format, as it allowed me to easily include hyperlinks to the images that were so fundamental to my analysis of Burgos’ narrative.  But I still wanted to post a bit about this work here on my blog, where I can include the actual images and also highlight some of my main points for those who may not read the full, 20-page-ish article! I began this article as a conference paper on Burgos’ portrayal of fashion (la moda) in this novel, and I wrote a post about the artist who designed its cover last year. But as I did further research on La mujer fantástica‘s numerous references to painting and the fine arts, I expanded the paper to argue that, in fact, this novel “becomes a paragon of the contradictory, hybrid nature of avant-garde activity in Spain,” given its detailed descriptions of fashion and urbanity, coupled with its playful, if not somewhat “elitist,” references to the fine arts. In particular, I was struck by mentions of 19th-century portraiture and the Second French Empire, a historical and cultural era that seems the antithesis of the Spanish Avant-Garde of the 1910s-20s (a contrast apparent even in the stylistic differences between the cover of the 1924 novel and the 19th-century portraits I will discuss below).

Original cover of “La mujer fantástica” (The Amazing/Fantastic Woman) by Carmen de Burgos (1924), designed by Bon. Image via Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

To frame my discussion of the artists referenced in the novel, I used the concept of ekphrasis , particularly “allusive ekphrasis,” which is a more subtle way of connecting the literary (words) to the visual (images). In the context of Spanish literature, for example, Frederick de Armas has identified a variety of types of ekphrasis that create nuanced literary portraiture and communicate complex meanings. Armas defines “allusive ekphrasis” as an instance in which “the novelist simply refers to a painter, a work of art, or even to a feature that may apply to a work of art. This becomes ekphrasis only in the mind of the reader… who can view the work in his memory and imagination” (22).  This technique, or referential description, I argue, was particularly appealing to Carmen de Burgos, who had expressed disdain for lengthy, unnecessary narrative descriptions and preferred instead the visual cues of theater that prompted the imagination (El arte de ser mujer 129). Moreover, in his recent dissertation, Brian Cole identifies allusive ekphrasis as a common feature of Spanish avant-garde novels, emphasizing that “the reader is expected to have background knowledge of these artists in order to fully understand what the author communicates” (146). Cole’s research focuses exclusively on male writers, but as a contemporary, Burgos certainly fits within the aesthetic and chronological categories he identifies.

In La mujer fantástica, Burgos employs an allusive ekphrasis on the very first page, describing the appearance of three young women as they prepare for an evening out: “Las tres eran bonitas, graciosas; parecían tres damitas del Segundo Imperio, escapadas de un cuadro de Winterhalter” / “All three were pretty, beautiful; they resembled three young women of the Second Empire, as if they had escaped from one of Winterhalter’s portraits” (5). The image of a group of women in a Winterhalter painting likely alludes to one of his most famous works – and one of the few he created of a group of women – that of the Empress Eugenie and her ladies-in-waiting (below):

“Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies-in-Waiting” by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1855). Image via Palais de Compiegne (c) RMN-Grand Palais.

For the informed (educated!) reader, this brief description is heavily weighted with visual imagery and historical/cultural contexts that both clarify and complicate the subsequent representations of women in the novel. The artist to which Burgos makes reference – Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73) – was a German painter known for his portraits of European royalty. He was especially renowned as the painter of the French Courts during the Second French Empire of the mid- to late-nineteenth century (1852-70), a historical fact Burgos recognizes within her ekphrastic language. Moreover, his  legacy is closely associated with his portraits of women and it is intimately connected to fashion ad the diffusion of his era’s most fashionable trends. Two of his most famous paintings are Empress Eugenie and her Ladies-in-Waiting (1855) (above) and the royal portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (or “Sisi”, as she was known) in 1865 (below). Readers familiar with Winterhalter would therefore be privy to a clear image of the appearance of the women described in Burgos’ opening chapter; while readers unfamiliar with the reference would still understand the plot and description, but in a less nuanced manner (in my article I note that this divide recalls Ortega y Gasset’s claim, which has been criticized as elitist, that arte nuevo would divide the public into two groups: those who understand and those who do not).

“Empress Elisabeth of Austria” (“Sisi”) by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1864-65). Image via Wikimedia / Kaiserliches Hofmobiliendepot, Vienna.

While both Elisabeth (“Sisi”) an Eugenia were admired for their beauty and poise, Empress Eugenie – a Spanish countess-turned French Empress upon her marriage to Napoleon III – was revered for her refined sense of fashion a exquisite taste in clothing. At several moments in her novel, Burgos explicitly compares her protagonist (Elena) to the Empress Eugenie and, as I argue, these ekprhastic associations serve as a means of portraying the protagonist’s fascination with fashion trends, make-up, and wardrobe in terms that do not reduce these habits to mere feminine frivolity, but rather position them as modes of artistic expression and female identity formation. Eugenia in particular was an exceptional historical figure, and her death in Madrid in 1920 inspired Burgos to publish a short biography of the Empress this same year: “La Emperatriz Eugenia: su vida”. In this text, Burgos not only highlights her political influence, intelligence, Spanish heritage, but also makes a point to celebrate her style and fashionable taste in a separate chapter, “The empress and fashion”. Here, she links Eugenie to her predecessor, Marie Antoinette – in terms of feminine royal power and aristocratic fashion – a connection that the Empress herself had chosen to highlight through a commissioned Winterhalter portrait in which she models 18th-century dress (below).

“Empress Eugenie in 18th Century Costume” by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1854). Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Relative to my study of the representation of women in the novel, in her research on Empress Elisabeth and the “visual culture of femininity,” Olivia Gruber Florek argues that 19th-century aristocratic portraiture, which has traditionally been cast aside as archaic and unrelated to modernism, is in fact the very point of departure from which multiple meanings and ambiguous modern identities may be conveyed (5). This is particularly the case for women, who were able to exercise some degree of autonomy over their appearance in these works of art by selecting their clothing, hairstyle, and approving final versions of the paintings. Empress Eugenie, for example, frequently wore elaborate dresses designed by Charles Frederick Worth, the English designer who dominated the Parisian fashion scene during the second French Empire and is considered the father of haute couture. Taking into account the historical and cultural markers informing Burgos’ initial novelistic reference to Winterhalter’s paintings (via allusive ekphrasis), as well as the explicit mentions of Empress Eugenia throughout the La mujer fantástica, I suggest that Burgos calls attention to the artistic value of (female) fashion in an historical context. Not only does she foreground its centrality in Winterhalter’s paintings, but she traces a trajectory from the royal empresses immortalized in museums, to modern women who, amidst early 20th-century reverence for French fashion and the art of haute couture, continued to pursue fashion as a means of self-expression and identity formation.

“Empress Eugenie in Court Dress” by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1853). Image via Wikimedia. This was one of the most widely copied and circulated images of Eugenie in the 1850s (Kessler-Aurisch 14-16).

Just as the empresses of the 19th century European empires exercised control over their ideal presentational images through fashion choices, beauty practices, and commissioned portraits that would memorialize their likeness in museums of fine art on a global scale, so too does Burgos’ mujer fantástica curate an “ideal image” to put forth to her world. Elena’s daily toilette routine and dress selection are described as “su arte” in the novel, and this language is consistent with Burgos’s claim in El arte de ser mujer (1920) that fashion is itself an art form on par with music and painting (38).  In the conclusion to my article, I argue that in La mujer fantástica Carmen de Burgos creatively embeds her continued defense of fashion (la moda) through allusive ekphrasis and a markedly avant-garde style that redeems the realist impulses of the nineteenth century by reconsidering their representational pluralities. In the process, she challenges the notion that avant-garde literature necessarily represents an abrupt break from or rejection of the past, validates fashion and make-up as non-traditional, feminine artistic mediums, and establishes a cultural and historical trajectory of women’s “artistic production” through fashion and self-representation.

I’ve tried to summarize some of the main points of my article, but I’ve omitted many examples from the novel and my research in order to make the is post a bit more concise. It’s worth noting that there are MANY instances of allusive ekphrasis in this novel, many of which I discuss in my full article, and once I delved into the details of these references I became quite distracted – and excited – by the additional layers of meaning that they each conveyed in this new literary context. In fact, with the novel’s frequent allusions to painting, portraiture, and sculpture, I state that Burgos essentially “creates a bona fide art museum in narrative form.”

What other early 20th century Spanish novels – especially written by women – feature fashion or the fine arts (especially via ekphrasis) prominently in either characterization or plot development?


Armas, Frederick de. “Simple Magic: Ekphrasis from Antiquity to the Age of Cervantes.” Ekphrasis in the Age of Cervantes. Edited by Frederick A. de Armas, Bucknell UP, 2005, pp. 13-31. (Amazon)

Bender, Rebecca M. “Fashion, Ekphrasis, and the Avant-Garde Novel: Carmen de Burgos’ La mujer fantastica (1924).” Ciberletras 39, Dec. 2017. n.p.

Cole, Brian M. “Ekphrasis and Avant-Garde Prose of 1920s Spain.” Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2015. Theses and Dissertations-Hispanic Studies, UKnowledge. Proquest.

Burgos, Carmen de. El arte de ser mujer. 1922. Biblok, 2014.

—. “La Emperatriz Eugenia. Su vida”. La Novela Corta, año 5, no. 240, 15 Jul.1920, n.p.

—. La mujer fantástica. 1924. Alicante: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2010, <>. Accessed 20 Jan. 2017.

Florek, Olivia Gruber. “The Modern Monarch: Empress Elisabeth and the Visual Culture of Femininity, 1850-1900.” Dissertation, Rutgers University, 2012. Proquest.

Kessler-Aurish, Helga, et al, editors. High Society. The Portraits of Franz Xaver Winterhalter: Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2015.

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Art, Literature, Modernity, Spain, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fashion and the Fine Arts in Carmen de Burgos’ Avant-garde Novel, La mujer fantástica

  1. Pingback: Joaquín Sorolla and Fashion in Madrid’s Museums | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  2. Pingback: Multiple Modernities: New essays on Carmen de Burgos (review) | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  3. Pingback: A New History of Iberian Feminisms (review) | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

  4. Pingback: Meet Dr. Bender! – K-State Spanish

  5. Pingback: New Books, Creative Maps, and Literary Art for 2021… plus my optimistic(!) 2020 re-cap | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s