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.
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.
Stuckey notes that, since the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts would not admit women students until half a century later, they had to try another private teacher, Joseph Guichard, who inspired them. Eventually, because they wanted to take lessons in plein-air painting, they met landscape painter Camille Corot, who became a family friend.
By the time Papa Morisot was promoted to chief counsel at the state accounting office, the Morisots' home in Passy, on the outskirts of Paris, had become a gathering place for the art world's avant-garde, with soirees that drew artists like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 'Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Ignace-Henri-Jean-Th'eodore Fantin-Latour, and others.
Berthe Morisot's life proved as vivid as her painting. Stuckey and Scott's catalog at times reads like a novel. It hints that she may have fallen in love early with Puvis de Chavannes. But at the same time she was shaping her own Impressionist style, this beautiful and spirited woman was also modeling for 'Edouard Manet. She appears in some of his celebrated portraits. It was his redheaded brother, Eug`ene Manet, however, whom she later married. After the marriage Manet, as a painter himself, was encouraging and supportive of her talent.
Morisot, one of the founding members of the society of Impressionist artists, had paintings entered in all but one of their eight legendary salon shows. That was the year she gave birth to the Manets' only daughter, Julie. In addition to the portraits, seascapes, and landscapes bringing her growing recogniton, Morisot frequently made her family the subject of her art.
In the midst of this idyllic family life, Morisot was making great strides as an Impressionist painter. Stuckey says, ``She was ... the single boldest of all the Impressionist artists..., who put on view the pictures which took the greatest leaps of imagination and courage, and challenged public taste the most.''
At the time of the salon shows, Le Temps critic Charles Mantz wrote, ``The truth is that there is only one Impressionist in the group at rue le Peleter: it is Berthe Morisot.''
Her reputation as a painter who was a gifted recorder of light in all its shades and a virtuoso colorist deepens if Stuckey's thesis is correct that she also was the inspiration for many of the Impressionist firsts. ``For the first time in the history of art she showed a series of interrelated works, before Monet or Degas began to do so,'' he says. He calls this ``the most pervasive change in modern art,'' noting that Morisot was painting light-spattered haystacks a year before Monet's more famous ones.
As the catalog notes, at Morisot's death her longtime friend Renoir said, ``I had a feeling of being all alone in a desert.'' And Camille Pissarro, writing to his son about her funeral, mourned the passing ``of this distinguished woman, who had such a splendid feminine talent and who brought honor to our Impressonist group, which is vanishing - like all things.''