A Woman Impressionist the World Never Really Knew
Painter Berthe Morisot was praised by a fellow artist as ``a splendid feminine talent ... who brought honor to our impressionist group.'' Influencial, but often overlooked, Morisot shared world of 19th-century Paris with Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Today and tomorrow the Home Forum examines the work of these three artists and the influence they had on each other. BERTHE MORISOT, the painter of this spacious view of Paris, was very important to the Impressionist movement. Although highly respected by her colleagues, she was never widely popular during her lifetime and has been neglected and undervalued by art historians ever since. Morisot painted this impressionistic canvas before the group had their first exhibition and before it received its name.
This view was probably a favorite spot of hers. Although Morisot traveled widely in Europe during her adulthood - from the time her parents moved to Paris when she was a little girl - all her residences were in this affluent district, once the village of Passy. But even in Morisot's day, it was called the 16th arrondissement. A reminiscence by her younger brother recounts how their father escorted his daughters from their first art lesson climbing up this same Trocad'ero hill.
For all its apparent simplicity, the painting is a complex canvas. The green swath which lends such abstract compositional beauty and firmness is a steep lawn showing a glimpse of red flowers in the gardens tucked under the hill. Wide carriage paths lead to the Pont d'I'ena, a bridge built over the Seine by Napoleon to commemorate one of his victories. The dome of the H^otel des Invalides gleams golden behind the bridge with the cupola of the Pantheon to the right. The squarish towers of Notre Dame are faintly discernable, mistily gray, in the center of the horizon. Even in Morisot's lifetime, this view was radically changed by the erection of the Eiffel Tower in the Champs de Mars which is the open area beyond the bridge.
These features are indicated with absolute tonal clarity and exact, though summary, brushstrokes. Later when the Impressionists became more respected a critic noted about Morisot, ``She eliminates cumbersome epithets and heavy adverbs in her terse sentence. Everything is subject and verb. She has a kind of telegraphic style....''
The two women in the painting were probably posed by the sisters of the artist and the little girl whom we gladly follow into the scene, a niece. The fact that family members were usually her models stems from her 19th-century haut bourgeois environment. It was not considered good form for a woman to paint men, so while she did a couple of paintings of her husband, Eug`ene Manet, they are not portraits but ``family'' subjects showing him with their small daughter, Julie. Women were not permitted to take drawing classes in the government Ecole des Beaux Arts because of the male models.
It was, in fact, extraordinarily strong-minded of Morisot to devote her life to painting professionally. Yet somehow she managed never to step out of the constricted bounds of her upbringing. She was fortunate to have very supportive parents. Her father counted the court painter, Fragonard, in his family tree. It was at her mother's suggestion that she and her sisters first took drawing lessons. Later when she and a painting companion were learning from Camille Corot (who did not take formal pupils), her mother extended a weekly dinner invitation to the famous landscape painter so that her daughters might benefit from his criticism. The young ladies, of course, could not join the informal discussion evenings Corot held with his male followers.
It becomes something of a mystery to discover how, in such circumstances, this ambitious young woman was able to make contact with the young painters who would form the group we now call the Impressionists. My own feeling is that this probably occurred in the Louvre. At the time, painters converged on the museum to study the ``Old Masters'' by copying them. While Morisot would never be there alone and, in her teens would have been chaperoned by her mother unobstrusively knitting in the corner, the atmosphere must have been relatively free and informal.
The painter Fantin-Latour was probably always there, as his copies of famous paintings were part of his livelihood. He is said to have introduced Edouard Manet to Morisot but there is no record of it. We may conjecture that, after a suitable number of ``good mornings'' and favorable comments on her painting, he introduced himself.
Manet, already famous for his intransigence and daring paintings, was of almost the exact social status as Morisot. His father was a magistrate, hers an equally high-placed administrative bureaucrat. The families became good friends. And as Manet was the leader of the young painters who wanted their avant-garde paintings admitted to the all-powerful but rigidly academic Paris Salon, through him, Morisot had access to the conclusions of the heated debates at the group's favorite cafe where she could not set foot because she was a woman.
Although art historians, displaying a bias against women artists, have called Morisot Manet's pupil, her deft, floatingly luminous style was already well-established before their meeting. It was she who interested him in plein-air painting.
At any rate, by the time the group of ``intransigents'' was ready to hold its first exhibition in 1874, Morisot was a part of it - Manet was not. Although she had the privilege of being exhibited regularly at the yearly Salons, she was quite willing to subscribe to the group's rule that its members never again submit paintings to the Salon. This is where Manet balked. Morisot remained steadfast in this. The ridicule which was heaped on the Impressionists by the art critics did not pass her by. Those critics who were disposed to be kind condescended to her ``femininity.''
She was strikingly beautiful, especially as a young woman. This was probably another reason why she was not taken as seriously as she deserved. Edouard Manet contributed to this by painting her many times as a fashionable young lady, not as the fiercely intent artist that she was.
Her personality was enigmatic, as she seems to have been reticent to the point of being sphinx-like but there are many references to her charm. She was usually in the throes of self-doubt deprecating her talent. And she actually destroyed many of her early canvases. There doesn't seem to have been the least bit of self-promotion in her.
But after the sixth Impressionist Exhibition, when public opinion was shifting from ridicule to acceptance, a critic declared, ``No one represents Impressionism with more refined talent or with more authority than Morisot.''
The eighth and last exhibit held in 1886 probably wouldn't have taken place without Morisot and her extraordinarily supportive husband, Eug`ene Manet, Edouard's younger brother, because the group which had struggled together, painted together, and was on the brink of triumphing, was split by dissension.
Renoir, Monet, and Degas remained her special friends. She continued painting in the Impressionist mode. A year after her death in 1895, these three with Stephane Mallarm'e, the poet, mounted a large retrospective exhibition of her paintings.
But, probably, Camille Pissarro, another staunch Impressionist, summed up the matter in his tribute to ``our old comrade Berthe Morisot'' writing to his son Lucien, ``You can hardly conceive how surprised we all were and how moved, too, by the disappearance of this distinguished woman, who had such a splendid feminine talent and who brought honour to our impressionist group which is vanishing - like all things. Poor Mme. Morisot, the public hardly knows her.''