Impressionist Berthe Morisot Finally Gets Her Day

Recentering an intrepid Impressionist as equal to Monet and Renoir.

From the background to the foreground of Impressionism: Berthe Morisot, "Self-Portrait" (detail), 1885, Musée Marmottan, Paris.

Painter Berthe Morisot (1841-95) was just as intrepid an artist as the other rebels who formed the once-derided, now-lauded Impressionist movement. But, in contrast to the reputation and name recognition of her colleagues, Morisot’s stature in the canon of art history has been downplayed. Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation has an extraordinary Impressionist collection — with 181 paintings by Renoir and works by Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt and Manet — but not a single work by Morisot. A temporary exhibition, “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” (on display through Jan. 14, 2019), fills the void. It’s fitting that Morisot’s Young Woman with a Straw Hat (1884) has reappeared there, since the painting was part of a 1912 purchase of 33 works that formed the genesis of Dr. Albert Barnes’s collection. Although Barnes sold the painting in 1936, erasing her from the permanent collection’s history of Impressionism, the exhibition triumphantly returns one of the founders of Impressionism to a focal point in the picture.

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Morisot, “Reclining Woman in Gray,” 1879, Private collection

At a press preview on Oct. 17, Barnes deputy director Nancy Ireson discussed the aim of the exhibition: “Morisot was at the very heart of the Impressionist movement, but the history of art undermined her role. It’s our pleasure to rewrite that history.” Barnes associate curator Cindy Kang agreed, saying in an interview, “The Barnes has a great Impressionist collection but only of the typical suspects like Monet, Renoir and Degas. It’s important for the Barnes to reinsert Morisot and to enrich and counter the narrative that’s in the permanent collection.”

The international-caliber show is co-organized by four venues. Debuting last summer at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, it was the first Morisot show ever in Canada. After Philadelphia, it travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, then to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Including 68 paintings from 48 lenders (more than half from private, rarely visible collections), the exhibition is not a full retrospective but features Morisot’s favorite genres — portraits and figure paintings of women and young girls.

Morisot is better known in Paris than in the US, thanks to a family gift of 81 works in 1993 and 1996 to the Musée Marmottan. Yet, even in France, she hasn’t had a solo exhibition at a national museum since 1941. Showing her paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, according to Sylvie Patry, chief curator at the Orsay and consulting curator at the Barnes, “will really put Morisot on the map on a different level.”

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Why — with popular shows of works from the Boys’ Club of Impressionism happening virtually every year — is Morisot not as well known? One of the original artists in the first group show in 1874, she participated in all but one of their seven subsequent shows through 1886. In technique, she was also an original — a status this exhibition makes abundantly clear. Her unique aesthetic, integrating figure and setting in a maelstrom of spiky brushstrokes, was formally inventive and gestural, pushing quasi-abstraction to an extreme as in Reclining Woman in Gray (1879). “Her colleagues were painting the same subjects,” said Dallas Museum of Art curator Nicole Myers, “but she’s depicting them in a different way. Her handling of paint is really surprising, pushing the envelope to an extent no one else was daring to do.”

So why do we know Morisot more as a model for her friend (and brother-in-law) Édouard Manet’s painting The Balcony (1868-9) than for her own paintings of balconies? Her social role as a stylish, wealthy member of the haute-bourgeoisie proved an obstacle. It was difficult even for an upper-class woman to be considered a professional artist. In fact, on both Morisot’s marriage and death certificates, she’s listed as “without profession.” As the contemporary critic of Impressionism Théodore Duret wrote in 1906, Morisot “constantly found that her status as a society woman overshadowed her artistry…. She knew she was the equal of any painter and quietly suffered from being treated as an amateur.”

Morisot, “Woman at her Toilette,” 1875-80, Art Institute of Chicago

Sexist critics labeled Morisot’s energetic brushstrokes “elegant,” “refined” and “delicate,” even while they called the dabs of pure colors applied by male Impressionists “lively” and “vigorous.” To modern eyes, such a gendered response is ludicrous, but at the time, even her fellow artist Édouard Manet did not initially regard Berthe and her sister Edma as professionals, saying, “The girls are charming. It is really too bad that they’re not men; still, as women, they can serve the cause of painting by marrying academicians.” In contrast, in 1896 Morisot’s close friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, opposed “the standard way of praising [Morisot’s] talent as denoting femininity.” Morisot, Mallarmé wrote, was one of the brave “dissidents” who “provide on the contrary a lesson in virility.” Treating her as an individual without regard to sexual stereotyping was evidently impossible back then.

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Her affluence also worked against her reputation, contributing to a lack of exposure for her work. Since Morisot didn’t need to to sell paintings, 85% remained in the family. While Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley struggled in poverty — viewed as artist-heroes in the historical narrative — Morisot was hosting lavish dinners in her home and collecting her colleagues’ work. Consequently, the public knows many of her light-infused paintings only as flat reproductions. Unfortunately for her legacy, photographs diminish the push-pull tension of Morisot’s virtuosic brushwork and dull the luminosity of her thinly layered glazes. When seen in person, the blizzard of silvery-white dashes of pigment, applied in feathery brushstrokes, dazzle in a range from opaque to translucent, animating the canvas.

Financial independence offered a singular advantage. Wealth liberated Morisot from the need to conform. In order to sell work to conservative patrons, the accepted Salon ideal at the time was descriptive accuracy and precise detail in depicting mythological or historical subjects. Morisot’s insistence on portraits of modern women, rendered as sketch-like, unfinished figures that almost melt into their backgrounds, flew in the face of polished, conventional technique à la Ingres or Tissot. In both interior and plein-air outdoor scenes, Morisot constructed form with loose strokes of color rather than exact lines. Much more than her peers, she audaciously left parts of her canvas bare and unprimed. Using the wooden end of the brush to scratch off paint was another innovation she took further than her peers. Looking at the depth and breadth of Morisot’s production makes clear she was an innovator, essential to the radical new painting style known as Impressionism.

In one way, she conformed. Restricted from roaming freely in both the city and country, Morisot mostly stuck to smaller-scale canvases of domestic subjects. Her signature motif was rendering women in ball and boudoir scenes — elegantly dressed or performing their toilette. Yet, her treatment within this narrow niche of portraying chic Parisian women never became monotonous. Her style varied from decade to decade as her approach evolved, becoming first freer, more experimental, then more delineated in her last years.

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Morisot, “Cottage Interior,” 1886, Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels

Of course the other Impressionists also portrayed fashionable women in the home and garden, but unique to Morisot were her paintings of paternity, such as portraits of her husband Eugène Manet with their daughter Julie. She also invented a hybrid genre that merges interior and exterior, a motif that was all Morisot’s. In Cottage Interior (1886), the blurry figure of her daughter stands before a window with a harbor scene beyond. The painting fuses plein-air landscape; a figure in an interior; and a still life of brioche, a teacup and a pitcher on a table.

Morisot’s late works became compellingly expressive as she grappled with the sorrow of losing her husband, older sister and dear friend Édouard Manet. In the 1890s, she replaced the bright, broken brushstrokes of Impressionism with undulating, fluid streams of acidic paint that recall Edvard Munch’s Symbolism. She no longer strove to capture ephemeral effects of light in the visible world through pastel hues. Instead she explored interior emotions using a saturated palette. What a difference between the agitated, pale gray and white daubs of Woman at Her Toilette (1875-80) and the solidity and introspective feel of Julie Dreaming (1894).

Morisot, “Julie Dreaming,” 1894, Private collection

The late works shown, most from private collections, will be a revelation — even for those who think they know Morisot’s oeuvre. One other discovery: the exhibition and catalogue also emphasize that Morisot’s style played a crucial role in the reception and acceptance of Impressionism. Initially, critics denounced the movement for its revolutionary departure from mid-19th-century norms of technique. Then a swelling revival of enthusiasm for the 18th-century rococo style caused critics to view Morisot’s bravado paint handling, sensual female subjects and pastel palette with approving eyes. She was rumored to be a distant relation of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Her work was hailed as a continuation of his lush, frivolous paintings of beautiful women, in harmony too with Watteau and Boucher’s intimate, pretty-in-pink portraits of lovely ladies.

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In a strange dichotomy, Morisot’s work was seen as cutting-edge modern but also heir to the tradition of French painting, which provided an entrée for how to discuss it. Critics “didn’t have a way to explain her unbelievable originality and daring,” Nicole Myers said, “but they used the framework of rococo to give words and structure for how to approach the art of a woman.” Morisot herself was sympathetic to rococo masters like Boucher. In 1890-91, she wrote in her diary, “I like either extreme novelty or things of the past.” Although she was a supreme painter of modern femininity, in subject, bright palette and showy brushwork, she channeled aspects of decorative rococo art. Her opalescent-hued work found favor for its charm and vivacity. And if she was an Impressionist, then the other members of the movement could also be accepted as continuing the Grand Tradition of French painting. Instead of upstart outliers, they could be admitted to the canon. When Morisot’s work was exhibited posthumously in 1896, a critic praised it as “the 18th century modernized.”

Morisot, “Self-Portrait,” 1885, Musée Marmottan, Paris

Morisot’s strategy of updating and transforming hedonistic, 18th-century images of women in frivolous pastimes into modern Parisiennes at work and leisure echoes the way she transmuted the established expectation of herself as a bourgeois society woman into a driven, radically original professional artist. Self-Portrait (1885) exemplifies her staunch self-determination. Morisot was a beautiful woman, generally attired in elegant high fashion, but she dresses down in her portrait, wearing a dun-colored smock for actual work and holding palette and brush, implied by a scribbled circle and line. “This is who I am,” she seems to say, making frank eye contact, without a degree of vanity or glamorizing.

Not quite “I am woman. Hear me roar,” but perhaps a foreshadowing of #MeToo. “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” should go far to convince viewers she should no longer be overlooked nor her work underrated.