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An Impressionist gets her due. A National Gallery show brings well-deserved luster to painter Berthe Morisot

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 1987


IT is a March morning in 1896. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas are busily hanging nearly 400 oils and watercolors by another major French Impressionist on the red velvet walls of the Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris. The Impressionist they are paying tribute to with a memorial retrospective is Berthe Morisot, one of their own. But while their art would be the subject of hundreds of important exhibitions around the world in the next century, they could not know that this would be the last such tribute to Morisot for nearly 100 years.

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Now the National Gallery of Art has restored the luster of Morisot's place in Impressionism with the first comprehensive American exhibition of her work. This lush retrospective includes ``100 items of the most beautiful works ... that this extraordinary artist made,'' says Charles F. Stuckey, the National Gallery's curator for modern painting. He and William Scott, a painter and an expert on Morisot, shepherded the exhibition and wrote the fascinating 228-page catalog for it.

``We brought [the pictures] together for people to see. ... It seems to me that this would be the easiest way to call a new jury to reverse the horrible ... decision of Morisot's secondary place in the history of art,'' says Mr. Stuckey.

Why has recognition of Morisot's as a major Impressionist languished so long? Stuckey suggests in his catalog that the chief reason was ``sexist attitudes'' on the part of collectors and historians.

But there were other factors, too, he says. Among them was the fact that Morisot's family held on to most of her works as cherished treasures after her death, so that they didn't come before the public or go into art histories.

There were also disputes between the family and French museum authorities. These weren't resolved until recently, so the National Gallery show ``scoops'' the French retrospective scheduled for 1995, the centennial of Morisot's death.

National Gallery director J. Carter Brown adds, ``It's safe to opine that the spirit of the time in which she lived was male-dominated, and I think that Mary Cassatt had some of the same problems at that time.''

The Morisot show has been in the works since 1983, when the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, looking for a way to celebrate the college's 150th anniversary, began developing the exhibition in conjunction with the National Gallery.

Teri Edelstein, director of the Mount Holyoke museum, disagrees with the sexism theory. She thinks the retrospective has been so long in coming ``not because people persecuted her, but because she herself did not put herself forward. ... She devoted herself to her family; she defined herself to a great degree in terms of her relationship to her husband, her brother-in-law, her child....''

Certainly one cannot write about Berthe Morisot, the artist, without writing about the fabric of her family life, which literally became part of her art. Her life in art began early, when her mother decided to give painting lessons to her young daughters. Berthe and her sister, Edma, soaked up the instruction as canvas soaks up paint but quickly grew bored with the neoclassical style of their teacher.