Berthe Morisot

Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet, from 8 March to 1st July 2012, extended to 29 July

1. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Self-Portrait, 1885
Oil on Canvas – 61 x 50 cm
Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet
Photo : musée Marmottan Monet,
Bridgeman Art

Ten years after the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille and the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, the Musée Marmottan in Paris is presenting an exhibition highlighting the work of Berthe Morisot (ill. 1), the first in the French capital in the last fifty years. What could be more natural for an institution largely devoted to Impressionism and which, besides, owns one of the largest collections of her work ? With almost one hundred fifty paintings, watercolors and drawings, this retrospective attempts to retrace Berthe Morisot’s career from the beginning, around 1860, to her death in 1895. This is therefore a chronological itinerary with extensive thematic sections such as "the muse", "training", "young women", "landscapes" and "large compositions". A beautiful ensemble which nevertheless is hard put to restitute the artist’s originality.

Berthe Morisot was indeed a muse : this very beautiful young woman with her somber charm was one of Edouard Manet’s favorite models until her marriage to his brother Eugène in 1874. Two portraits by Manet presented in the exhibit serve as a reminder and the famous Balcony contributed in large measure to establishing Berthe Morisot’s celebrity, with her easily recognizable features represented by the figure in the foreground. It was probably during one of the times she posed for Manet that Stéphane Mallarmé and she met : he would become one of her dearest friends, later becoming her daughter Julie’s tutor when Eugène passed away. Before them, Pierre Puvis de Chavanne had also fallen prey to the charm of this dark-eyed brunette but failed to persuade her to marry him...

2. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Portrait of Madame Pontillon, artist’s sister, 1869
Oil on Canvas - 54.8 x 46.3 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : Washington, National Gallery of Art

Her contacts with all of these artists came about thanks to her parents, particularly her mother. Born into a bourgeois, but rather open, family, Berthe et her sisters took private drawing classes while growing up : in the 19th century, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was still out of bounds for women. The young girls executed their first copies at the Louvre in 1858 : Calvary and The Meal at Simon’s, after Veronese, reveal Berthe’s undeniable talent. However, it is with Corot, who initiated her into the technique of outdoor painting, that she would develop her taste for light effects as of the 1860’s (View of Tivoli, 1863). This decade, which marked her entrance to the Salon and set the foundation for her art, is unfortunately illustrated here with only one work, the Portrait of Madame Pontillon (ill. 2). We see already Berthe’s audacity and modernity asserted in a free, light and visible touch, the transparency of the matter, the presence of natural light and the clarity of the palette. The extraordinary treatment of the white fabrics, worthy of a Whistler, reflect a rare mastery, impressionist before her time. Two years later, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel purchased four canvases.

We find it important to point out that Berthe Morisot was one of the very first Impressionist painters. On Degas’ invitation, she participated actively in the first exhibition of the "indépendants" at Nadar’s with nine canvases (!) in 1874. Her fellow artists, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, saw her immediately as an equal, an original and talented painter. Fiercely independent both in her life and work, she was determined to be acknowledged as a full-fledged artist : her painting was not a "painting for women" or a leisurely bourgeois pastime, but rather a reason for living.

3. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Portrait of Madame Hubbard, 1874
Oil on Canvas - 50.5 cm x 81 cm
Copenhagen, Musée Ordrupgaardsamlingen

4. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Young Woman in Grey, 1879
Oil on Canvas – 24 x 51 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Christian Baraja, studio SLB

However, unlike Manet, she felt no need for official recognition : her only ambiton was to "achieve" her painting and attain a satisfactory personal result. For this, she was demanding and rarely happy with what she painted. What a mistake : Marine (1871-1875) or the Portrait of Madame Hubbard (ill. 3), which reveal Manet’s influence (whom she admired) are perfectly accomplished works and attest to her independence in the face of the canons of academic painting. The canvas remains visible under the light touch, retains an unfinished character, projects natural poses : Berthe Morisot, much like Manet, did as she pleased (ill. 4). Well, almost. Despite the fact that her financial security (though she was not wealthy) facilitated her independence, her condition as a woman implied restrictions, even if her mother’s, later her husband’s, understanding provided her with a certain freedom of action. Left without her studio, destroyed during the Commune, she had to resign herself to painting in her salon or bedroom, fold up her easel and put away her brushes to comply with the housekeeper or visitors, to the constraints of married life, motherhood and of being a "homemaker". She would nevertheless participate in each of the Impressionist exhibitions, except in 1879, when her daughter Julie was born.

5. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Julie Daydreaming, 1894
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 54 cm
Private Collection
Photo : Dreyfus

6. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Eugène Manet and His Daughter in The Garden at Bougival, 1881
Oil on Canvas - 73 x 92 cm
Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet
Photo : Musée Marmottan Monet / Bridgeman Art

Her condition as a woman probably kept Berthe Morisot from leading the life of an independent artist, free to move about at will and choose her subjects, unhampered by the obligations of being a mother and of domestic life. She could not frequent the cafés, go in and out without a chaperone or pick a model from a brothel. Yet, much as the other Impressionists, she painted what she saw, whatever was around her, the modern world, her personal universe : her daughter Julie at the Violin, 1893 or Julie Daydreaming, 1894 (ill. 5), her husband Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1875, or in The Garden at Bougival (ill. 6), the gardens Hollyhocks, 1894) and other seashores (The Port in Nice, 1882). Like her fellow Impressionists, she wanted to capture the moment, the light in the best and most natural way possible. Like them also, she turned away from academic convention and the tradition of a "beautiful craft".

7. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
The Cherry Tree, 1891
Oil on Canvas - 154 x 80 cm
Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet
Photo : Musée Marmottan Monet / Bridgeman Art

In the 1890’s, she took on larger formats with decorative panels, notably The Cherry Tree and Nude Shepherdess Reclining (ill. 7 and 8). This manner is close to that of Renoir, who had also become a good friend. More flowing, more colorful, her painting evolved towards a more luminous style, a warmer palette full of contrasts, rich with oranges, violets and darker greens. As if Berthe Morisot had thrown all of her energy into her painting. Exhausted, ill, she died prematurely at the age of 54. The following year her friends Degas, Renoir, Monet and Mallarmé paid tribute to her by organizing the first and no doubt the most important retrospective of her work ever presented with three hundred eighty pieces by the artist.

Although never attaining the level of her illustrious masters, Berthe Morisot was undeniably a fine painter and a true artist. Her work, for many years reduced to a pleasant and easy, almost sentimental - now an anachronistic reading of it - art has slowly become acknowledged for what it is : independent, bold, modern. However, the exhibition at the Musée Marmottan leaves us with a slightly bitter taste : the hang aligns the canvases without really enhancing the more original compositions, satisfying itself with a linear chronology or following traditional themes (landscapes, young women...). This lineup of "pretty" paintings is very pleasant to look at. But Berthe Morisot’s painting is not only "pretty" : in fact an adjective rejected by the critics of her time !

8. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Nude Shepherdess Reclining, 1891
Oil on Canvas – 56 x 86 cm
Madrid, Musée Thyssen-Bornemisza
Photo : Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection,
on loan at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

In the late 19th century, the themes she chose were far from conventional, just like the treatment and compositions of her canvases. And if taste has changed, a reason for rejoicing, we found it unfortunate that the current presentation is a return to everything she tried so hard to run away from : facility, "good taste", a certain artistic conformity. A more dynamic museum setting might have better served the theme of the exhibition, a drawback which the catalogue does not make up for either : the only essay (and very brief at that) by Marianne Mathieu, curator of the show, studies the works on paper, which make up only a small part of the exhibition...Berthe Morisot really deserved much more. However, visitors are flocking in numbers to the Musée Marmottan, charmed by Berthe Morisot’s very real talent...

Curators : Marianne Mathieu, Lauanne Neveu, Jacques Taddei

Under the guidance of Marianne Mathieu, Berthe Morisot, Hazan, 2012, 264 p., 35€. ISBN : 9782754106047

Visitor information : Musée Marmottan Monet, 2 rue Louis Boilly, 75016 Paris. Tel : +33 (0)1 44 96 50 33. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. Admission : 10€ (reduced : 5€).

Version française

Sylvie Blin, vendredi 25 mai 2012

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