Berthe Morisot, Woman in Grey Reclining, 1879. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Photo: Christian Baraja.
PhiladelphiaThe Barnes Foundation
October 21, 2018 – January 14, 2019
DallasThe Dallas Museum of Art
February 24 – May 26, 2019
June 18 – September 22, 2019
With a flurry of rapid, shimmering brushstrokes, Berthe Morisot conjures a reclining woman from an improbable mass of grays. The background is vigorously hatched, while parts of the canvas remain raw and unprimed. Bolder, more varied grays, at once compose and flutter about their subject—feather-light yet constitutive, matter and light. Morisot’s brushstrokes neither capture nor reveal.1 They create, instead, a precise atmosphere in which a woman, in all her selfhood, can emerge. The longer I looked, the more her gaze became apparent, frank and bemused. A lively salon seemed to spring up to my right. She is about to speak—no, quip! Morisot gives us this with a few daubs of paint which require only those subtle, searching movements of the eye to complete the impression.
Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, a traveling retrospective that recently left the Barnes Foundation, focuses on Morisot’s portraits of women and girls. They are some of the most remarkable portraits ever painted. Looking at them, I felt certain dull spots in my own looking give way, freed from the visual habits of our culture, its fetish of surface. I saw them, so to speak, by my own lights. Looking at Young Woman Dressed for a Ball (1879), for example, I first saw her poise and self-possession. She gazes to her right. The white of her corsage and that of the camellias in the dark, agitated foliage behind her, dim beside her luminosity, which is rendered in muted pinks and palest greens. As I continued to look, the blending of similar tones seemed to shimmer, prompting the eye toward finer discernments: her expression shifted and a tremor of apprehension emerged. This was not a trick of light.2
Approaching Paule Gobillard in a Ball Gown (1879), I smiled at how perfectly sullen she first looked, but as I stood in front of the painting, my eye drawn back and forth to the strange, pale-green brushstrokes that blur across her cheek, I saw she is on the verge of tears. The astonishing thing about Morisot’s portraits is that she has so ordered the mutability of color that she gives us expression as it shifts with our gaze, disclosing affinities between intimacy and shimmer.
Morisot studied with Corot, and in her early work we see how she interpreted his lesson of using a small patch of red to guide the eye and animate his dense woodland landscapes. Morisot uses small patches of white as focal elements to structure the space of these early paintings. In a small painting of a waterfront, a white patch, minutely inflected by a bit of black—yet unmistakably the figure of a woman—establishes scale, distance, and perspective. In another landscape, flecks of white, brisk and precise, delimit rows of hanging laundry, while several larger white strokes hang from a low balcony: the field of laundry verges on enveloping us. In later paintings, these discrete whites become something else altogether. An atmosphere of blended whites and grays invite the eye to co-create its iridescent light. Woman at her Toilette (1875 – 80) emerges from such a field. To her left, there is a mystery in the mirror: a blur, at which we look in vain for her face—for her reflection would have stopped us there and left us with only an image. Instead, we have her bare shoulder, rendered with slower, brighter brushstrokes, drawing us closer as she turns her head away.
Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875–1880. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.
Berthe Morisot was one of the first French Impressionists. Her centrality to the group was, for them, unquestioned. Manet kept three of her paintings in his bedroom, and she modeled for him nearly a dozen times. (In one, she holds a fan in front of her face as if to say, “Enough!”) Manet’s brother, Eugène, married Morisot and gave up his own painting career to support hers. Degas, in the run up to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, said that her name and talent are “just too important to us for us to be able to manage without her.” Yet their praise was tempered by their feeling for her beauty and the pleasures of her salon. None were free enough to take her full measure and recognize how radical her achievement was. Even Paul Valéry, who could write of her great gift “of taking the impression of the workings of the mind to its highest degree,” was constrained, in his assessment, by her gender.
Still, a great poet’s words do fly. Mallarmé, for the catalogue essay for her first retrospective in 1896, wrote: “So many light, iridescent canvases, spontaneous and exact, can await the smile to come…”
- In places, in fact, her skirt and the divan are indistinguishable, and from that curious blue, the faint outline of a foot emerges—a riposte, I suspect, to Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, written some forty years earlier.
- For a different approach to rendering emotion belied by composure, consider Van Dyck’s Portrait of Frans Hals, who had recently lost his son. His anguish is portrayed metonymically by the tortured black curtain behind him.
A.V. Ryan is a sculptor and writer living in Brooklyn.