Second Impression: Berthe Morisot at the Barnes Foundation

Berthe Morisot: Woman in Grey Reclining, 1879, oil on canvas. Private collection. Courtesy The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Photo Christian Baraja.

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Young Woman with a Straw Hat (1884), a portrait by painter Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), was one of the thirty-three works that Albert Barnes purchased in 1912, forming the foundation of a collection that came to number three thousand. But Barnes sold the painting in 1936, and Morisot went missing from the history of Impressionism as told by his collection, with its substantial holdings of works by Renoir, Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Manet. The exhibition “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through January 14, 2019, restores one of the founders of Impressionism to the picture. The show includes the deaccessioned Young Woman with a Straw Hat. “We’re more than delighted to welcome it back,” said Thom Collins, executive director of the Barnes, at a press preview on October 17.

“Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” is co-organized by four venues. It debuted at the Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec this summer; after it closes at the Barnes, the show travels to the Dallas Museum of Art, then concludes its run at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris next year. With sixty-eight paintings from forty-eight sources—more than half of them private collections—the exhibition focuses on portraits and figure paintings of women and young girls, the bulk of Morisot’s production.

Why does her popularity lag so far behind that of artists in Impressionism’s boys’ club, who seem to have blockbuster exhibitions every year? It’s not because she was a second-tier artist. She participated in all but one of their eight shows from 1874–86 and was highly touted for her originality. “It’s not that something was launched by the other artists and continued by Morisot,” said Sylvie Patry, chief curator at the Orsay and consulting curator at the Barnes. What was called the New Painting was, Patry added, “invented at the same moment by Morisot and her male colleagues.” Critic Paul Mantz wrote in his review of the third Impressionist exhibition in 1877: “There is only one true Impressionist in the whole revolutionary group—and that is Mlle Berthe Morisot.”

So why do we know Morisot more as a model for ten paintings by her friend Édouard Manet than for works by her own hand? Sexism, of course, played a role. Praise often came in the form of back-handed compliments. While critics of the time called the dashes and dots of pigment applied by other Impressionists “energetic” and “vigorous,” they termed Morisot’s slashing, feathery brushstrokes “charming,” “flirtatious,” and “feminine.” “Nothing could be less feminine than these crazy, gestural, abstract marine paintings and really exaggerated plein-air paintings of figures done in the early 1870s,” Nicole Myers, a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, said in an interview. “Critics didn’t know how to explain her style, so they attributed it to her gender.”

Morisot’s status as a beautiful, elegant member of the haute bourgeoisie also worked against the reception of her work. While Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley lived in near poverty, Morisot toiled in comfort, hosting the others at chic soirées in her home; she didn’t fit the favored historical narrative of avant-garde artist as struggling hero. Since Morisot had no financial pressure to sell her paintings, the overwhelming majority of them remained in possession of her family, away from the public eye. Morisot is better known in Paris than in the United States, thanks to her family’s gift of eighty-one works in 1993 and 1996 to the Musée Marmottan. Yet even in France she has not been featured in a solo exhibition at a national museum since 1941.

Many of Morisot’s paintings are known only in reproductions. But photography dulls the vivacity of her attack, making the flurry of strokes appear flat, stiff, and dry, and it obscures the thin layers of luminous glazes, which are activated when light strikes the canvas. “You think you know Morisot,” Myers said, “but it’s a revelation—even for the curators—to see the works in person rather than in reproduction.”

While Morisot’s affluence contributed to the low visibility of her work, it also proved liberating. She could take greater risks than her colleagues who depended on pleasing patrons. In commissioned portraits, even avant-garde painters had to supply a certain degree of finish and recognizable depiction. In contrast, Morisot’s bravado handling of paint in portraits was, Patry said, “more audacious and more novel.”

Notably, Morisot’s style evolved even as she stuck to portraits of Parisian women. As the semi-chronological installation progresses, one can compare the softened but solidly rendered image of a woman regarding an infant in The Cradle (1872) to the welter of zigzag, broken brushstrokes in Reclining Woman in Gray (1879). In the earlier painting, figure and ground are separate. But in the later portrait, the woman merges with the background, almost dissolving into it.

A number of Impressionist painters used the wooden end of the brush to scratch off paint and underscore stabbing, angular strokes, but Morisot took these experiments further than her peers did. A section of the installation featuring radically sketchy portraits shows how Morisot’s unfinished aesthetic brought Impressionism close to abstraction. Integrating large areas of raw, unprimed canvas into the composition, as in Portrait of Miss L[ambert], 1885, was another daring departure.

Other Impressionists also portrayed fashionable women in domestic settings along with their better-known landscapes. Morisot’s innovation was to combine the motifs, portraying her husband or daughter on a balcony or in a window overlooking outdoor scenes. This hybrid genre merged interior and exterior, fusing the plein-air landscape with portraiture and still-life painting, as in Cottage Interior (1886).

Her late works explore another avenue of expressivity. In her last years, Morisot eschewed the rapid, broken brushstrokes of Impressionism and substituted long, sinuous streaks of paint, similar to those of Edvard Munch. Instead of freezing the flux of the visible world through flickering strokes of silvery, light colors, she represented moody, subjective states of mind with tense blues, hot oranges, and a saturated palette. A juxtaposition of the blur of Woman at Her Toilette (1875–80) with the statuesque stasis of Julie Dreaming (1894) shows how Morisot switched from capturing the motion of light and life to symbolizing introspection and melancholy.

Following her death in 1895, Morisot’s role as an essential experimenter in the Impressionist movement was eclipsed. In 1890 she wrote in her diary: “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked for—I know I am worth as much as they are.” “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” takes a crucial step toward restoring the reputation she deserves.