In 1971, Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” launched a dialogue about gender equality in art history, followed by the Guerilla Girls 1980s poster campaign posing the question “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”
Around the same time, 19th-century French painter Berthe Morisot received a sizeable degree of attention with Anne Higonnet’s book, “Berthe Morisot” and Griselda Pollock’s essay “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity.” Pollock wrote, “I have long been interested in the work of Berthe Morisot… But how are we to study the work of artists who are women so that we can discover and account for the specificity of what they produced as individuals while also recognizing that, as women, they worked from different positions and experiences from those their colleagues who were men?”
Nearly 30 years later, I stand reading wall text at the Dallas Museum’s exhibition, “Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist,” asking in large font “Why is Morisot not as well known today?”
Ahem. Are we still asking this particular question?
True, the average art viewer may know Morisot’s male Impressionist counterparts, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet or even Morisot’s brother-in-law Édouard Manet’s. But after decades of “re-discovering” female artists and a considerable amount of critical attention to this one in particular, apparently this is still — sigh — a question.
Co-organized by the Barnes Foundation, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie in Paris, and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, this is the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in the United States since 1987. It assembles an impressive 70 of Morisot’s paintings in a half a dozen rooms. Galleries are divided into themes such as “Painting Outdoors,” “Femininity, Fashion and the Parisienne,” “Women at Work,” “Threshold Spaces” and “A Studio of One’s Own.”
The show starts fittingly with a charming, albeit academic, portrait of the artist at her easel, by her sister, Edma Morisot. Some forget about the older sister, who also studied art, and with whom Berthe was very close in her early years, writing letters lending insight into their development. Both studied under landscape painter, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who taught the two about painting plein air (outdoors) and is seen as influencing Impressionism’s loose and light filled style.
In addition to painting plein air, Impressionists depicted figures inside theatres, cafes, dance halls, and bars. Because it wasn’t socially acceptable for bourgeois women in the 19th century to venture into public alone (without a chaperone), female painters often turned to domestic scenes and women and children as subjects. Putting aside the sentimentality of the subjects, an appreciation Morisot’s daring and vigorous painting style may emerge.
A relatively early work, “The Cradle” (1872) is in the show. It was included in the seminal Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and Morisot was the first woman to exhibit with the group. It is an intimate image of motherhood, depicting Edma, chin in hand, gently watching over her sleeping infant daughter, Blanche. The white ruffle and cuffs of Edma’s upscale dress reveal exceptional handling of the paint reminiscent of Diego Velázquez’s loosely painted white collars. The translucence of the curtain beyond which we see clearly the sleeping baby is also treated with great finesse. Morisot’s use of a strong diagonal cutting across the composition creates a link between mother and child as well as two separately contained spaces. The line also pre-figures her interest in using physical barriers to organize space.
On the topic of “threshold spaces” the museum chalks up her interest in painting scenes of female subjects on balconies and verandas, to “play with the idea of boundaries,” and working out “highly elaborate lighting schemes.” These limits defined the feminine spaces that bourgeois women inhabited in the nineteenth century as opposed to their male counterparts who moved freely in the world.
Even when subjects venture outdoors, they never seem completely comfortable in their surroundings. “A Summer’s Day” (1879) shows two women out for a leisurely day of boating in the park. But looking closer their poses seem a bit uneasy and the vantage point a bit close. Are we the helmsman of this boat? The women are closed off from nature with a prominent barrier, perilous to cross. Morisot’s painting unifies the scene though. She may be the brushiest of a group of brushy painters. Her zig-zag stroke and energetic impasto enliven the canvas and push back against the tranquility of the scene.
Morisot married Eugène Manet, brother of the more famous painter Edouard Manet, although some say it was Edouard she preferred. Regardless, Eugène took on sister Edma’s role as supporter and appears in a few of Morisot’s paintings.
In “Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden” (1883) father and daughter sit in the sunlit leafy setting. Eugène is crouched down close to the child’s eye level, perhaps sharing a book or drawing he has in his hands. He looks out at the viewer though from beneath the wide brim of his hat. The calm and quite tender portrayal comes alive with a flurry of choppy prisms of light circling around the figures.
In “Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight” (1875) Manet is shown indoors at a favorite family vacation spot. He twists around to look out the window at passers-by strolling along the harbor. Daubs of bright reds and yellows make the blooms on the potted flower in the sill. Post Industrialization, time spent at leisure became increasingly possible for the bourgeoisie and Morisot captures this new fact of modern life frequently. Modernity is not eternal and timeless, but hasty, sketchy and on the move.
“Woman at her Toilette,” included in the 1880 Impressionist exhibition, highlights a woman at her vanity from an unusual perspective, facing away from the viewer but with the upper part of her back exposed. We watch her taking down her hair, yet Morisot’s free manipulation of paint, is what seduces. Whites, silvers and blues bounce about her dress, swirl amidst the picture and blur into the background. This fleeting image or impression, as if the scene might dissolve before our eyes, is where the movement got its name.
Morisot’s involvement with the Impressionist movement was reinforced by her marriage to Eugène. However, the fact that she never officially changed her name is important because it gave her a sense of independence and helped establish her professional identity within her artistic community.
She wrote, “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, for I know I’m worth as much as they.”
Morisot’s struggles to gain equal footing within the Impressionist group are well documented in her notebooks and letters. She never secured consistent gallery representation and sold fewer than 40 paintings in her lifetime. She painted over 800 works of exceptional quality although 85 percent of those paintings remained in her family’s possession after she died in 1895. Her death certificate states that she had “no profession.”
Maybe with this exhibition her work will finally get the attention of the general public. And maybe — and that’s a big maybe — the question will change.
“Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist” is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art though May 26, 2019.
While at the DMA, don’t miss the smaller and complementary exhibition “Women Artists in Europe from Monarchy to Modernism.” This selection of gems by artists including Rosa Bonheur, Lyubov Popova and Käthe Kollwitz and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun provides insight into work by now canonical women artists.