This article was originally published Sept. 6, 1987.
In 1870, when Berthe Morisot was 29 years old, her brother-in-law Edouard Manet painted a full-length portrait of her, dressed in a shimmering white dress with a voluminous skirt and sprawled languidly on a dark red sofa.
I first encounterd that captivating image, disarmingly titled Repose, many years ago at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, which owns it. First impressions really do count for a lot, I suppose, because that portrait still pops into my mind whenever I hear or read Morisot's name.
Unfortunately for Morisot's reputation as an artist, I haven't been alone in associating her so intimately with Manet. For too long, too many people have considered her an appendage of his career, as model and protege.
Manet did paint Morisot many times, and he did offer her considerable advice about her work, in the manner of a master correcting a pupil, but the truth is that she didn't need his help. She became a distinctive painter on her own, in some ways a more adventuresome artist than her famous brother-in- law.
Morisot (1841-1895) was one of the major figures of the French impressionist circle. But because she lived to a considerable degree in Manet's shadow – and also because she was a woman – she has become the forgotten impressionist, especially in the United States.
Mary Cassatt, a friend and contemporary who was a friend of Degas, suffered in the same way – although, being American, she has become more visible in this country, where her paintings are more common in public collections than Morisot's.
It seems amazing that given the American passion for impressionism, the retrospective exhibition of Morisot's paintings that opens today at the National Gallery of Art here represents the first such comprehensive study of her work in an American museum. It's not that Morisot is obscure, but because of the circumstances of her life, she's probably the only major impressionist who hasn't been studied to death.
This exhibition of more than 100 oils, pastels, watercolors and drawings doesn't prompt a drastic reassessment of her abilities and her contribution to the movement, but it does point up some aspects of her work that have been generally overlooked.
The show was organized by the art museum at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., in association with the National Gallery, to mark the college's 150th anniversary. Neither Morisot nor anyone in her family was affiliated with the college. Mount Holyoke, a women's college, reportedly decided to sponsor the exhibit as a way of generating national publicity for its sesquicentennial. Morisot is not only one of art history's most talented and famous female artists, she hasn't received nearly as much musuem exposure as such artists as Cassatt and Georgia O'Keeffe.
The Morisot show will run here through Nov. 29 and travel to the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, before opening at Mount Holyoke March 14.
Two Philadelphians have prominent roles in the show. Art historian Suzanne G. Lindsay, who curated the Cassatt show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1985, handled the documentary research. Painter William P. Scott, a Morisot aficionado who has made himself into an expert on her life, located many of the paintings lent to the show and contributed a catalogue essay on her style and technique.
The National Gallery says we shouldn't read anything into the fact that the gallery is opening its fall season with a major show for a woman painter (and following it with another major show for another woman painter, O'Keeffe). That is to say, the gallery isn't trying to upstage the new National Museum of Women in the Arts, which opened here just a few months ago. Yet this exhibition certainly demonstrates, as the O'Keeffe retrospective should as well, the irrelevance of such a museum.
Morisot may have been handicapped by her sex and her position in society, but, encouraged by her well-to-do parents, she became a respected painter through determination and talent. (The year after she died, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the poet Stephane Mallarme organized a memorial exhibit. )
She could not attend the state-supported Ecole des Beaux-Arts – women weren't admitted until 1897 – so she studied with private teachers, mainly Camille Corot. She married Eugene Manet, a man with a comfortable income, and never had to sell her work. It's not certain how much she would have been able to sell anyway, for as she moved away from Corot's influence, evident in her paintings of the mid-to-late 1860s, Morisot began to paint in an avant-garde style that perplexed and sometimes offended the art establishment and the public.
That "impressionist" style, characterized by fragmented brushstrokes of raw color, muddled forms and ambiguous space, attempted to approximate the way the eye and the brain team up to record the visual world. Morisot wasn't the only artist doing this, of course, but she was more willing than most of her colleagues – except, perhaps, Monet – to push the dissolution of form to the limits of recognition.
As Morisot became more confident of her individuality, her brushstrokes became increasingly more coarse and animated. We can see in spirited paintings such as The Haystack and The Lake in the Bois de Boulogne that she considered painting as much a physical as an intellectual activity.
On the other hand, she was more than a sensualist. Although her manner of attack seems more appropriate to landscape, she was primarily a figure painter. Her pictures, whether portraits, genre scenes or some combination of both, are almost always emotionally pregnant in some indefinable way. Her mature style, then, combines the psychological gravity of Manet or Degas with the spontaneous, sensual attack characteristic of Monet or Renoir, but expressed in the soothing palette of Corot – tans, greens, violets and blues accented by muted pinks and yellows.
Morisot's restraint with color becomes abundantly evident in a large exhibition such as this one. She doesn't try to dazzle the viewer by flinging rainbows at the canvas. Her color schemes are almost tonalist in the way values correlate; one might describe them as placid or even dull. She uses high-key hues generally as accent, and then only sparingly.
She also relies heavily on white, just as Manet did on black. She uses it both as a primary color – as in the painting called Getting Out of Bed, for example – and also to attenuate the brassiness of more assertive colors. But even when they're used in broad passages, her whites are never pristine; they're always modulated with tinted streaks.
Color is also Morisot's structural keystone. She draws with color, but economically – forms are frequently indistinct, space ambiguous. As the viewer moves back from a picture, however, the incoherent jumble snaps into focus, just as an impressionist picture should.
In Morisot's work, as in Cassatt's, women and children predominate, often in outdoor settings. But while appearances are similar, the viewer perceives the respective paintings quite differently. It's quite evident, for instance, that Morisot is more concerned than Cassatt with pure visual stimuli and less with exposition or decorative effects. There's also an enthusiasm inherent in Morisot's brushwork that's less evident in Cassatt's more dispassionate manner.
But what one notices most about Morisot is her avoidance of sentimentality. Even though she was a mother, Morisot doesn't seem immersed in the mother-and- child theme for its own sake; she's more interested in the formal problems of painting the model.
Given her sex, the time in which she lived and the subject matter, one expects to find a few mushy or cuddly pictures. Yet even when painting her daughter and her young relatives, Morisot maintains a calculated professional objectivity.
Aside from being serious about her own work, Morisot was equally dedicated to the impressionist cause. She exhibited in all but one of the eight impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. She missed only the fourth, in 1879, in large part because she had given birth to her only child, Julie, in November 1878.
After Julie's birth, Morisot began to work more in watercolor. In these small works, her rapid, notational manner of recording the essence of a scene is even more apparent than in the oils. Several of the watercolors shown here are so abbreviated, they are nearly abstract.
Morisot had only one solo exhibition during her life, in 1892, several months after her husband died. She lived only three more years, dying of pulmonary congestion in March 1895, at the age of 54. Her death certificate described her as "without any profession. "
For this retrospective, she has been reincarnated by means of that scintillating Manet portrait from Providence, which the National Gallery borrowed for the occasion and hung outside the exhibition, in the West Building.
Morisot's pose is casual, but her mood is somber; she seems lost in thought, or perhaps she was bored with holding the pose. Morisot, who was every bit as attractive as Manet painted her, is simultaneously regal and coquettish, intimate and distant.