SUMMARY: Long neglected, French Impressionist Berthe Morisot finally is getting recognition in a touring retrospective, now in Washington. The exhibition traces the painter’s development as an Impressionist and includes less successful experiments with the dissolution of form. An innate sadness permeates much of her work, which Is outstanding for its exploration of light, color and movement.
Your life must be charming at this moment,” wrote Edna Morisot to her sister Berthe in 1869, “to talk with M. Degas while watching him draw, to laugh with Manet, to philosophize with Puvis.”
Neglected by most 20th century Impressionist historians, Berthe Morisot was a founding member of the movement. Critics of her time called her the most dedicated of them all. The first major American retrospective of her work, “Berthe Morisot, Impressionist,” on view at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, gives this artist long overdue recognition. She emerges as a quintessential painter’s painter, an unexpected genius with the brush.
Beautiful as well as talented, Morisot attracted Manet’s attention first as a fascinating woman and a model. Some of his most ravishing portraits dwell lovingly on her piquant features, sultry expression and dusky curls. (One of the best of these, “Repose,” hangs near the show’s entrance.)
Within a few years, however, she won the respect of Manet and other artists for her ability to capture an animated scene in quicksilver brushwork. Her paintings aroused such admiration that more famous male colleagues — Monet and Renoir as well as Manet — began copying her motifs and her subtle color harmonies.
Her subjects are seldom ambitious. She painted her two sisters and their children, outings in the park, vacation land and seascapes, innumerable studies of her daughter, Julie, bom when the artist was 37. Her compositions tend to be simple and straightforward, with little of Manet’s trickiness or Degas’s startling cropping.
What makes her work outstanding is its brilliant painterly exploration of the relationships between color, light and movement. By deftly interweaving complementary hues and accenting them with white and black, Morisot endows her oils and watercolors with vibrant life. In her 1875 studies of the Isle of Wight harbor, for example, one can almost feel the breeze that ripples the sun-dappled water and flaps the ships’ red flags.
Her delicacy of touch is particularly evident in her use of white. (According to Julie, her mother always wore either white or black.) In paintings such as “The Bath (Girl Arranging Her Hair)” and “Getting Out of Bed,” Morisot’s whites are so full of color — violets and creams, pale greens, blues and pinks — that they suffuse both figure and background with scintillating light.
“She grinds flower petals onto her palette, in order to spread them later on her canvas with airy, witty touches,” wrote one enthusiastic critic.
Always a genius with watercolor—and there are many charming examples in the show — Berthe Morisot adapted her watercolor technique to oils as she grew older. She barely sketched her figures with loose hatchings of the brush, leaving large areas of canvas bare, as in the large work “Julie with a Doll,” a wonderfully airy painting long regarded as unfinished.
“Only Manet and the Japanese can indicate a mouth, eyes, a nose, with a single stroke of the brash so accurate that the rest of the face models itself,” she enviously noted. Startled by her daringly abstract canvases in the 1881 Impressionist exhibit, critic Charles Ephrassi complained, “One step further and it will be impossible to distinguish or understand anything at all.”
The show is not all masterpieces, certainly. Many of her experiments with the dissolution of form through ambient light go too far for coherent structure. And clearly Morisot’s uphill struggle to achieve a professional career took its toll of her energies and confidence.
Both before and after her marriage to Eugene Manet (Edouard’s brother), she lived in a protective family circle that provided her with subjects and support. But her life as an artist was circumscribed by restrictive conventions of French middle-class life and by family responsibilities. As. a whole, the exhibition moves from the crisp, easy brilliance of the artist’s 20s and 30s toward melancholy, languid compositions at the end of her life.
The dreamy young women she so often painted seem caged by their comfortable surroundings, lethargic victims of their own propriety. And many pictures of her beloved Julie suggest a conflict between maternal care and Morisot’s longing to escape stifling domesticity. The carefree child merges with vibrant nature; the mother remains immobile, adventuring only with her eyes.
One feels Morisot’s innate sadness most in a remarkable pastel self- portrait. One of the most compellingly honest self-portraits to come out of the Impressionist era, it shows the artist in her mid-40s, already gray, gazing wide-eyed at her own aging face. “I am approaching the end of my life,” she lamented to her sister Edna several years later, “and yet I am still a mere beginner.”
It was the discovery of this self-portrait in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago that triggered exhibition curator Charles Stuckey’s interest in the artist. Jointly sponsored by the National Gallery and Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, the exhibition owes much to his and co-curator William Scott’s keen appreciation of the very qualities of Morisot’s work that have caused less sensitive critics to overlook it. Many of the late paintings Stuckey prizes most in the show — “Forest of Compiegne,” for example — have languished in storerooms or attics because people thought them too sketchy.
Stuckey has even come to love the moody late portraits, done in 1894, shortly before Morisot died March 2, 1895, of pulmonary congestion. These strange paintings, with their simple harsh colors, exaggerated arabesques and intense emotional expression, presage the expressionist works of Edvard Munch.
Following Renoir’s lead, Morisot, a few years earlier, had been studying the works of French Rococo masters and doing preparatory drawings in red chalk. There is something a little saccharine about her first efforts in this more considered style, however. Her series of young girls picking cherries is unpleasantly artificial.
The expressive later portraits are still carefully drawn, but Morisot has returned to the source of her genius, her ability to recapture the initial feeling aroused by a subject. The adolescent longings of her daughter are painfully and powerfully evoked in “Julie Daydreaming” for example.
The galleries one wants to go back to, though, are those that hold the brilliant canvases of Berthe Morisot’s early maturity. “Hide and Seek,” from the collection of Mrs. John Hay Whitney, for example, is one of the great early Impressionist pictures. Painted in 1873 when she was still under the influence of Manet (she gave him the painting), it combines decisive drawing with an uncanny evocation of an evanescent moment through brushwork and color.
She avoids any trace of sentimentality in this seemingly casual little painting of a mother and child at play. Both stand still. Their game around the little cherry tree that splits the composition is suggested only by the slight forward bend of the mother. The whites of her dress echo the whites of the cloudy sky; the undulations of her umbrella find counterparts in the undulations of the fields beyond.
The softness of the landscape recalls the pastoral scenes of Corot, one of Morisot’s early private tutors, but it is far less mannered. Clearly the houses and fields in the distance were directly observed.
The marvel here is that Morisot has knit figures and landscape into an indissoluble, irresistible harmony. She has achieved the ultimate Impressionist aim, to draw the viewer into an ambience of light and color so compelling that one shares the sensual delights of the day with the subjects of the painting, rather than observing them from the outside.
“Berthe Morisot, Impressionist,” closes at the National Gallery on Nov. 29. The’ show will then travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and in the spring to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, Mass.
Jane Addams Allen 1986
volume 34 no 1 September – October 2019 pp 18-19
(1935-2004, Co-founder of New Art Examiner, the visual-arts critic for the Washington Times from its inception in 1982 through 1989. She received such accolades as the 1980 National Endowment for the Arts Critics Award and the Manufacturers Hanover/Art World Award for Excellence in Art Criticism.)