Parasol. American. Silk, glass, wood, metal, ivory, linen, ca. 1870. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Brooklyn Museum Collection 2009.300.2664
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Rain or Shine: Umbrellas at The Met

As a shelter against the elements, the umbrella has been an indispensible accessory for thousands of years

The Met collection houses a fascinating range of umbrellas and parasols—as well as images of them—from diverse cultures and periods, such as the unusual American parasol shown at top, and the beautiful Belle Époque parasol from French luxury maker Dupuy, shown below.

Parasol. Dupuy. French. Cotton, wood, metal, porcelain; 1900–1908. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Paul Pennoyer, 1965 2009.300.2535

The first umbrellas functioned as portable canopies, probably assembled from the broad leaves of a tree. Seen in ancient artifacts and sculptures from China, Egypt, Greece, and the Near East, they often indicate divine or royal status and are generally entrusted to attendants to carry.

Goddess and Attendants. India. Terracotta, 1st century B.C.–1st century A.D. Purchase, Florence and Herbert Irving Gift, 1990 1990.281

During Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), beautiful paper umbrellas enjoyed great popularity. They are frequently depicted in colorful woodblock prints, variously sheltering their users from sun, rain, or snow.

“The Actors Nakamura Tomijirō in the Role of Ono no Komachi and Sanogawa Ichimatsu in the Role of Her Servant.” Torii Kiyohiro (Japanese, active ca. 1737–66). Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper; 12 1/8 x 5 3/4 in.; ca. 1756. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Estate of Samuel Isham, 1914 JP842

Parasols (from the French parare, to shield, and sole, sun) and umbrellas (from the Latin umbra, shade) became popular fashionable accessories in the 18th century. The two terms have often been used interchangeably, though the latter is associated more with rain.

The unusual hybrid called en tout cas (in any event) offered dual protection from both sun and rain; the charming example shown below has a duck-headed handle.

En tout cas. American. Silk, wood, metal, synthetic. 1920–29. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the estate of Theodora Wilbour, 1947 2009.300.2363

Britain’s Queen Victoria started a trend for “carriage parasols” in the 1840s, which were used when riding in an open carriage (example below). The fashion remained current for several decades.

Parasol. French. Silk, metal, wood, ivory; 1860–69. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the trustees of Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, 1969 2009.300.2587

Indeed, the chic 19th-century woman in Europe and America was rarely seen in public without a parasol, which safeguarded her complexion and showed off her discriminating taste. Well-dressed ladies carrying parasols were depicted by many notable artists of the day, including Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Georges Seurat.

Spring Morning. James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Oil on canvas, 22 x 16 3/4 in., ca. 1875. Gift of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 2009 2009.359

Find a selection of art-inspired umbrellas at The Met Store.

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