Sunday, September 1, 2013

Berthe Morisot and Friends

Berthe Morisot Reclining, by Eduoard Manet.  1873.
The history of art contains several wonderful feminine achievements. But overall in terms of painting and music, for example, men dominate the scene, especially the further back you go in time. So, it is of interest to me when I come across a maverick woman who was able to break through the various cultural challenges for her time and gain notoriety alongside her male colleagues.

Such is the case with Berthe Morisot, an impressionist painter whose work I have admired for years, though certainly not with the same awe as with Renoir, Monet, and Manet. I knew comparatively little about her, however. But recently completing Sue Roe's group biography The Private Lives of the Impressionists expanded my knowledge of all the French Impressionists and about Morisot in particular.

The early impressionist movement was an extraordinary time in the history of art. Roe captures how Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Cezanne all came to know one another, paint together, often sharing the same studio. The book covers their friendships, disagreements, their lovers, and the dynamics of struggling artists at that time in France. This small group was introduced to Degas through Manet, who knew all of them personally and hovered on the periphery of their movement without ever actually exhibiting with any of them. Manet was a giant compared to the others in the early days. His scandalous paintings (Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass) and his well-accepted portraits meant that he enjoyed a wider audience and was more profitable than any of the others during his lifetime. He was more or less the influential hub by which the group was formed.

Berthe frequently used her sister as a model. This shows her formal pre-impressionistic style, which dominated European art at the time. 1870.
I already knew that Monet and Renoir often sat side by side and painted the same scene from their different perspectives. I knew about the talent and influence and tragic early death of Bazille, killed during the Franco-Prussian War. But it was news to me about Pissarro's special relationship with Cezanne. The latter was chronically disillusioned while the former was extremely supportive. Indeed, Cezanne might not have stuck with painting at all had Pissarro, among others in the small group, offered plentiful encouragement.

Roe's book informed me that Renoir placed his lover, Aline, in his great Luncheon of the Boating Party. She is the one holding the dog in the detail Jennifer snapped when we saw the work in DC. Renoir placed his friend and peer Caillebotte in the background as well.  I ask you to consider all these great painters. Consider that they all knew each other, traveled together, painted each other and the same subjects. Surely this was an exceptional and unprecedented moment in the history of art, all this greatness bound together as friends, colleagues, and pioneers of an art form.

Chrysanthemums or Overturned Basket. 1885.
The book makes it clear that impressionism ultimately was "discovered" and accepted as a serious art form only after it exhibited in New York in the 1880's. All eight of the historic exhibitions in Paris were more or less financial and critical flops. Despite this, others joined the group in coming years, including Caillebotte and a talented American woman, Mary Cassatt, who moved to Paris and was part of the group for a couple of years. Both of these painters were instrumental in keeping the annual exhibitions going despite what was, at best, mixed results.

In reading Roe, however, it was Berthe Morisot that stood out to me somewhat more than the others. Probably because I knew so little about her. She was a beautiful, pale yet dark, single woman, who studied art and met Manet along the way. Manet introduced her to Degas, who appreciated her young talent and, in turn, she was brought into the general impressionist group. But Manet had a special attraction for Morisot, though it was never consummated in any form other than the fact that he painted a multitude of portraits of her over a brief span of years. She became Manet's favorite model in addition to being a budding painter in her own right.

Roe describes some of these posed portraits: "He posed her sideways, cross-legged on on a studio chair, and holding close to her face a black Spanish fan, spread wide, the spokes suggestively covering everything but her mouth. As she lifted her arm, the transparent, gauzy black fabric of her sleeve fell to her elbow, revealing bare, white flesh. She wore pink shoes, her right foot pointed to reveal her ankle almost to the calf. In the portrait, Manet emphasized her pink shoes, to draw attention to her exposed lower leg and naked forearm. The portrait is teasing and seductive, fraught with subliminal desire. When he finished it, he painted her again, standing this time, one hand clasped to her throat (as if holding together, or about to undo, the collar of her robe), one foot, still in pink, provocatively exposed.

"Manet was fascinated by the eloquence of a tellingly placed foot. The background of Berthe Morisot with a Fan (1872) is blood-red, painted in bold, wet streaks, and the position of the figure, off center, draws attention to this visceral swathe of color. All the indisputable eroticism of Manet's aesthetic is distiller into these portraits. In Berthe Morisot with a Pink Shoe (1872), she stares at the painter...In his paintings of Berthe, Manet was exploring something new, searching, in this nuanced connection between painter and model...In Berthe Morisot Reclining (1873), painted a few months later, the element of seduction is unmistakeable. Her dark eyes seem to follow the viewer round the room, and her reclining pose is indisputably provocative." (page 103)

I became better acquainted with Morisot back in 2007 when I saw Manet's reclining portrait of her at an exhibition in Atlanta. The painting captivated me and I revisited it a couple of times before leaving the museum. I began researching Manet a bit more and, in turn, learned about Morisot, though I did not realize until Roe's group biography that she posed so many times for Manet. Of course, I had heard of her before. I was aware that she was a minor impressionist and that In the Garden at Maurecourt was her most famous work. But, seeing her posed the way Manet presents her, her dark eyes staring at me, objectifying me as if the painting is watching me (Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring have a similar effect), stayed with me long after I left the exhibition. In a way that day in 2007 is directly connected with my recent reading of Roe's book. In that sense it is as if time has not passed at all.

Morisot was courted by and eventually married Eugene Manet, the painter's brother. One interesting discovery I made about their relationship that was not mentioned in the Roe book came instead from a review of the 300-plus paintings in my Art Authority iPad App. It seems that, just as Morisot posed for Manet the painter, Morisot painted his brother several times both before their marriage and after they had a daughter together. This was an interesting compliment to the things I learned in Roe's group biography. I chose several Morisot paintings from the App for this post.

Eugene Manet on the Isla of Wight. 1875.
Eugene Manet and His Daughter at Bougival.  1881.
Eugene Manet and Hist Daughter in the Garden. 1883.
She exhibited at every French impressionist exhibition but the first. Roe portrays her as a powerful force among her male counterparts, often organizing the exhibitions and serving on various informal committees within the group. She and Mary Cassett were treated as full equals by the male painters. Her work is dominated by portraits of mothers with children, though there are certainly other fine examples of a broad range of subjects, landscapes and still-lifes. Among the group, she was closest to Renoir and Degas. Of course, she became closer to Manet than anyone but for his brother, her husband, who she painted.
Self-Portrait. 1885. 

This striking doodle of a painting, Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Her Daughter.  1885.
Woman Wearing Gloves (The Parisian).  1885.
Understandably, her productivity diminished for several years after the birth of her daughter, but she never completely stopped painting. She participated in all the aesthetic discussions and debates inside the dynamic impressionist group and with its many critics. She certainly contributed as much as anyone to the ultimate acceptance and triumph of impressionism in the art world. I no longer consider her a "minor" impressionist, though she is not as brilliant as Renoir, of course, or Monet or Manet.

It is interesting to note that Morisot painted In the Garden in 1884, a time when the impressionists were fragmenting and on-going exhibitions were becoming iffy. The movement was entering its second generation of artists. Roe's chronology gives you some perspective, the painting is mentioned on page 258 of the 270 pages of history. Morisot painted this work later in her life, after she had already made many exhibitions of art and after she had already influenced the movement. Sittings for Manet's work were past experiences for her by the time she created it. But, she remained committed to the movement and connected to the group.

Young Woman and Child, Avenue du Bois. 1894, one of Morisot's last works.

The Cherry Picker. 1891.  This one is in pastels.  Morisot did a fine oil painting of this same scene but I prefer this version.  It has a Van Gogh quality about it to me.

Laerte the Greyhound.  1894, another very late work.
Edouard Manet dies within the telling of Roe's book, which offers this marvelous insight in to Morisot. "In the two and half years since Manet's death in 1883, Berthe had been struggling to come to terms with her grief. She distracted herself by organizing children's parties for Julie in her smart new home in the rue Villejust, where she also gave dinners for painters and writers including Mallarme, Degas, Renoir and Monet. With Eugene, she tended Edouard Manet's grave; they bought a plot beside it so that eventually Eugene might be buried alongside his brother.  When Edouard Manet died, something died in her too; she told Edma she was devastated; his charm had been such that she had somehow imagined him immortal. She remained loyal to the cause of the impressionists, and by 1886 was one of three remaining members of the original group. While they exhibited in Paris for the last time as a group, Durand-Ruel, in New York, was exhibiting six of her works. Her works (in Gallery C) included In the Garden, one of the gentle, sunlit portrayals of her garden at Bougival, its long grass and lush foliage evoked in here distinctive, loosely applied diagonal brush strokes, and Marine View, a souvenir of the scene of her betrothal to Eugene Manet." (page 258)

In the Garden at Maurecourt. 1884.
In the Garden is an amazing work. The woman and the child are relaxed in the shade close to the edge of an open space. There are two empty chairs across a lawn as well as a rather large basket perhaps. They are alone in a secluded spot. Dark dense foliage lies beyond them. The woman is looking back at you, the viewer. She is watching you just as Manet so often painted Berthe watching you. I think the woman's gaze is Berthe's, though of course that is pure uneducated speculation. It is a romantic notion. And this painting inspires me to ponder in reposed splendor. It calms me and welcomes me in. Berthe's gaze says whatever you want it to say. But you cannot deny that she has something to tell you when you view this wonderful piece of timeless art. Can you hear her as your eyes meet hers?

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