A new ex­hi­bi­tion of Berthe Morisot’s great­est works re-es­tab­lishes her sta­tus as a lead­ing Im­pres­sion­ist painter, but it un­wisely mis­casts her as a fem­i­nist icon – a far-too re­duc­tion­ist take on so com­plex and fas­ci­nat­ing an artist

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - VISUAL ART - WORDS BY LARA MAR­LOWE in Philadel­phia

There is noth­ing new about cre­ative women be­ing slighted by male­dom­i­nated in­sti­tu­tions. But, in re­cent decades, there de­vel­oped a ten­dency to ex­ag­ger­ate the achieve­ments of fe­male painters and writ­ers, as over­com­pen­sa­tion for the dis­crim­i­na­tion they en­dured. Such to­kenism be­comes a dis­ser­vice when it im­plies that a woman like Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), who de­serves fame in her own right, is recog­nised be­cause she was a woman.

“Berthe Morisot: Woman Im­pres­sion­ist” is at the Barnes Foun­da­tion in Philadel­phia un­til Jan­uary 14th. It will then move to the Dal­las Mu­seum of Art from Fe­bru­ary 24th un­til May 26th, and to the Musée d’Or­say in Paris from June 18th un­til Septem­ber 22nd.

If one wanted to find fault with an oth­er­wise splen­did ex­hi­bi­tion, it would be over the ten­dency to mis­cast Morisot as a fem­i­nist icon. Morisot was a lead­ing Im­pres­sion­ist, full stop. She con­trib­uted 10 paint­ings to the group’s first ex­hi­bi­tion in 1874 and missed only one of their shows, after her daugh­ter Julie’s birth in 1879. “Her can­vasses are the only ones painted by a woman that one could not de­stroy with­out leav­ing a blank, a hia­tus in the his­tory of art,” the Ir­ish au­thor Ge­orge Moore wrote after Morisot’s death.

Morisot was, like Monet and Renoir, a quin­tes­sen­tial Im­pres­sion­ist who painted every­day life, of­ten out of doors. She was ob­sessed with the play of light and colours, worked in rapid, sketch-like brush­strokes and of­ten left can­vasses un­fin­ished. She en­joyed com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess in her life­time. And if her fame flagged at times, the same can be said of her con­tem­po­raries.

Though Morisot faced greater ob­sta­cles than her male col­leagues, that a well-ed­u­cated daugh­ter of a wealthy fam­ily achieved suc­cess as a painter in the late 19th cen­tury was less ex­tra­or­di­nary than the fact that such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment in art sprang from the con­form­ist Parisian “grande bour­geoisie”.

The cu­ra­tors of the ex­hi­bi­tion state their fem­i­nist theme at the out­set. “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked for – I know I am worth as much as they are,” says a quote from Morisot’s di­ary, in large print on the in­tro­duc­tory panel.

Artis­tic am­bi­tions

Morisot’s par­ents in­dulged her artis­tic am­bi­tions, pay­ing for les­sons with the best teach­ers, in­clud­ing the Bar­bizon painter Jean-Bap­tis­teCamille Corot, and build­ing an artists’ stu­dio for Berthe and her sis­ter Edma in the gar­den of the fam­ily home in the fash­ion­able Paris dis­trict of Passy.

The year after Morisot’s death, her friends De­gas, Monet and Renoir worked with her daugh­ter to or­gan­ise a ret­ro­spec­tive of nearly 400 of her works. She was not a vic­tim of sex­ism.

But like many male artists, Morisot was plagued by self-doubt and a quest for per­fec­tion. “I have never seen you choose some­thing that is within your reach,” her mother Marie-Cornélie wrote to Morisot in 1867. As a young woman, Morisot de­stroyed many of her own paint­ings. “She was a suf­fer­ing, wounded soul that no com­pli­ment nor de­gree of suc­cess could re­as­sure,” her great grand­son, the aca­demi­cian Jean-Marie Rouart, wrote in the cat­a­logue to the Musée Mar­mot­tan’s 2012 ex­hi­bi­tion.

Morisot’s palette was per­ma­nently in­flu­enced by Corot’s shim­mery, sil­very laven­derblues and greens. Corot thought Edma the more gifted of the sis­ters. Edma’s 1865 por­trait of Berthe at her easel proves she had great po­ten­tial. To Berthe’s cha­grin, Edma re­nounced paint­ing to marry a naval of­fi­cer in 1869.

The Cra­dle, Morisot’s best known paint­ing, shows Edma gaz­ing at her new­born daugh­ter in 1872. The cu­ra­tors of the ex­hi­bi­tion sug­gest the look on Edma’s face “hints at a more nu­anced view of moth­er­hood.” Yet Berthe later wrote to Edma of her de­s­pair at fail­ing to be­come preg­nant fol­low­ing her own mar­riage. She even­tu­ally be­came a de­voted mother.

Morisot painted her daugh­ter count­less times, for ex­am­ple as a child con­tem­plat­ing her doll in Cot­tage In­te­rior, dur­ing a fam­ily hol­i­day in the Chan­nel Is­lands, and at age 16 in Julie Dream­ing.

While car­ing for Julie, Morisot con­tracted in­fluenza, which de­te­ri­o­rated into fa­tal pneu­mo­nia. “You never caused me pain in your lit­tle life,” Morisot wrote to Julie on her deathbed. “You have looks and money. Use them well.” Morisot asked the poet Stéphane Mal­larmé to be her or­phaned daugh­ter’s guardian, and her friends De­gas, Monet and Renoir to be Julie’s ad­vis­ers.

Per­haps out of fear of di­min­ish­ing Morisot’s im­por­tance, the ex­hi­bi­tion barely al­ludes to her role as a muse to Édouard Manet. He played a fun­da­men­tal role in Berthe’s life, paint­ing her 14 times and in­tro­duc­ing her to the painters of the Im­pres­sion­ist move­ment. Two of Manet’s paint­ings of Berthe, The Bal­cony and Berthe Morisot with a Bou­quet of Vi­o­lets are world fa­mous.

Morisot’s sad tem­per­a­ment may have been the re­sult of frus­trated love for the mar­ried Édouard Manet. “His face is de­cid­edly charm­ing and pleases me im­mensely,” Berthe wrote to Edma after meet­ing Édouard at the sa­lon in 1869. She was con­sumed by jeal­ousy when Manet painted his stu­dent Eva Gon­za­les. (That por­trait al­ter­nates be­tween Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery and the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don.)

There are hints, but not proof, of a love af­fair be­tween Édouard and Berthe. “One must burn love let­ters,” Morisot told her friend Louise Riesener.

Manet praised Morisot’s paint­ing of The Har­bor at Lori­ent so ef­fu­sively that Morisot gave it to him. After his death, she pur­chased Berthe Morisot with a Bou­quet of Vi­o­lets at auc­tion. In her di­ary, Julie wrote that on the day it was painted “my Un­cle Édouard told Ma­man she should marry Papa and talked to her about it for a long time.”

Sin, suf­fer­ing, atone­ment

Berthe was 32, an old maid by the stan­dards of the time, when she mar­ried Édouard’s younger brother, Eugène. Édouard was a wit­ness at their wed­ding. They chose him as god­fa­ther to their daugh­ter. “I have sinned, I have suf­fered, I have atoned for it,” Morisot wrote after both brothers died. The three are buried to­gether in the Manet fam­ily crypt in Passy.

Eugène promised to make Morisot “the most adored and pam­pered woman on earth.” An am­a­teur painter and nov­el­ist, Eugène aban­doned his ca­reer to de­vote him­self to his wife. He or­gan­ised her ex­hi­bi­tions and helped raise their daugh­ter. Eugène was also the only man Morisot painted. In Eng­land (Eugène Manet on

the Isle of Wight), painted dur­ing their hon­ey­moon, re­versed tra­di­tional roles, with Eugène, a man, star­ing out the win­dow of their rental cot­tage. Later paint­ings by Morisot show Eugène play­ing with Julie. Quite alien

As Sylvie Pa­try of the Musée d’Or­say, co-cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion, points out, the fem­i­nist move­ment started in France around 1880. “The ideas of ‘sis­ter­hood’ and or­gan­ised col­lec­tive strug­gle seem to have been quite alien to Morisot,” Pa­try writes. Morisot wrote “no pro­fes­sion” on her mar­riage cer­tifi­cate. The same men­tion ap­pears on her death cer­tifi­cate. Yet she con­tin­ued to sign paint­ings with her maiden name.

If they were not so ex­quis­ite, one might la­bel Morisot’s most suc­cess­ful paint­ings as “frou-frou”. They in­clude Woman at her

Toi­lette and Re­clin­ing Woman in Grey. The critic Charles Ephrussi (who ap­pears at length in Ed­mund de Waal’s The Hare with Am­ber

Eyes), praised Morisot’s paint­ings of women in evening dress, say­ing, “She crushes on her palette the pe­tals of flow­ers, to spread them hap­haz­ardly on her can­vas in witty brush­strokes, full of the breath of life . . . they end up pro­duc­ing some­thing del­i­cate, lively and charm­ing, which one guesses at more than one sees it.”

In her youth, Morisot de­lighted De­gas at Manet’s mother’s weekly sa­lon with her pink silk shoes. She prided her­self on her slim fig­ure, to the point of anorexia. She was rav­ish­ing in a ruf­fled black evening gown and gloves, as pho­tographed by Charles Reut­linger.

By con­trast, Morisot’s 1885 self-por­trait is guile­less. At the age of 44, Morisot looks calmly at the viewer, hold­ing her palette and brushes. She wears a black scarf knot­ted ca­su­ally around the neck, and her grey­ing hair is pulled back into a sim­ple pony­tail. Mal­larmé said the flow­ers on her jacket were like mil­i­tary dec­o­ra­tions.

This is Morisot griev­ing for Édouard Manet, who died in 1883. She is ma­tronly and pre­ma­turely age­ing, with a large, sag­ging bo­som. “The face has lost its grace, the oval is less per­fect,” writes Morisot’s French biog­ra­pher, Do­minique Bona. But love and a taste for work “are not lost with the years,” Morisot wrote to her friend, the US painter Mary Cassatt. “It helps us to ac­cept the wrin­kles and white hair.”


Clock­wise from far left: The Cra­dle (1872), fea­tur­ing Morisot’s sis­ter Edma gaz­ing at her new­born daugh­ter; Cot­tage In­te­rior (1886), fea­tur­ing Morisot’s daugh­ter Julie as a child; Julie Dream­ing (1894), fea­tur­ing her daugh­ter aged 16; Woman at Her Toi­lette (1875-80).

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