December 2012

Leah Triplett


Berthe Morisot and Masculine Modernity

I lazed over the New York Times Book Review on a late Sunday morning last month. Wondering if Philip Roth actually required a copy of iPhone for Dummies in order to work his new device, I was reading a rather harsh treatment of Roberto Calasso's newest book, La Folie Baudelaire, when I saw it. It was a short sentence in which John Simon called Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), an Impressionist painter significant for not only her artistic achievement but for her financing some of the earliest critical exhibitions of Impressionistic work, "a worthy but minor painter." Arguing that Calasso's arrangement of Modernity's Parisian beginnings is more random than not, Simon gently but brazenly invokes a phallocentric understanding of modernity and modern painting in that single sentence. Simon writes that in La Folie Baudelaire, Morisot "figures rather prominently, both as painters' model (as shown in several of the book's illustrations) and as Manet's lover and subsequent sister-in-law." Implying that Morisot, though "worthy," presumably for her talent as a painter, was haphazardly included (both in the text and in illustration) by Calasso for her merits as a model, mistress, and wife, Simon seemingly obscures her work's worth, dismissing it in order to present her as how her visage was made commercial and consumed in the "cradle of modernity."

Morisot has long been overlooked in popular Impressionism (that is, the Impressionism purported in mega-blockbuster institutional exhibitions and in their gift shops on coffee mugs, tote bags, pencils, and posters). The Museum of Modern Art's third exhibition ever, "Painting in Paris," curated by Alfred J. Barr and on view in early 1930, was one of the first of such critical and crowd-drawing exhibitions, but didn't include Morisot (or her contemporary Mary Cassatt, for that matter). Such oversights warranted mention from Paul Valéry (who married Morisot's niece, Jeannie Gobillard in a 1900 joint ceremony with her daughter, Julie Manet, and the painter Ernest Rouart) in "On Morisot," his essay included in the exhibition catalogue accompanying "Berthe Morisot" at the Musée de l'Orangerie in 1941. "Now qualities are being noticed that of all the Impressionists she alone possessed, qualities that are indeed increasingly rare in painting," Valéry wrote that year.

Valéry's text is excerpted in the catalogue from this spring's "Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895" at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, the first retrospective of her work in fifty years. The exhibition barely made waves this side of the Atlantic, but the catalogue offers a wonderfully nuanced look at Morisot's life, as well as a keen examination of her masterful watercolors and drawings. Alongside Valéry's excerpt (which begs to be read within his 1948 Vues) is a short piece, "Berthe Morisot: from wound to light," by Jean-Marie Rouart, a descendant of Morisot, and a weighty essay, "Watercolours, pastels and drawings in the work of Berthe Morisot," by curator Marianne Mathieu. With Valéry's essay probing Morisot's French mid-nineteenth century social context, Rouart's delving into the mysteries of her family and psyche, and Mathieu offering a scholarly assessment of her work within the medium with which she was most prolific, Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895 situates her identity as an artist, as well as her art work, within the early Modern milieu.

Morisot was born bourgeois, upper middle class, in 1841. Her father was in government, and eventually moved his three daughters and son to Passy, in Paris. Berthe and her older sister, Yves, took music lessons, as girls of their station might; by 1857 their mother signed all three sisters up for drawing lessons. Yves hated them and eventually quit, but Berthe and her other older sister, Edma, were hooked. Their teacher, a student of Ingres, says that both will be professional artists and has them both registered as copyists at the Louvre. Eventually Berthe and Edma study with Camille Corot (1796-1875) in his studio. A proto-Impressionistic painter of the Barbizon School, Corot introduces his students to plein-air painting, and by 1865, Monsieur Morisot built a garden studio for his daughters at their Paris home. But Morisot was never pleased with her work. Berthe "destroyed nearly everything she had produced before 1869, making it difficult for us now to follow the stages of her apprenticeship and determine with certainty the possible influence of any of her teachers," writes Mathieu in her essay. I suspect that this dearth of early work has dissuaded curators from mounting retrospectives of her work in the last fifty years.

But I also suspect that the mediums of watercolor and drawing, parlor room activities for ladies throughout the nineteenth century, repealed serious curatorial investigation. Garden paintings by Morisot next to floral paintings by Monet are ascribed a much different weight, completely engendered by masculine-driven understandings of Modernity. Two years ago, in 2010's epic Claude Monet: Late Work, Paul Tucker Hayes beautifully connected Monet's twilight interest in nature and private life to his repugnance with French public life in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. ("That Monet essentially abandoned French subject matter from 1898 onward is therefore surely no coincidence," writes Hayes. "How could he continue to propagate an ideal that was so painfully compromised?") The Morisot garden-studio was destroyed in the Siege of Paris in 1871, the same year that Berthe exhibits in the Salon for the second time. In 1869, Edma Morisot gave up painting entirely after her marriage to a French naval officer. The two events combined, one public, one private, must have scarred Berthe emotionally (and physically; her health was never the same after 1871). But situating the very public Modernity with the very private "femininity" is difficult.

This complexity is something that Rouart vaguely alludes to in his short essay, as he writes that though Morisot's work might remind some of fluffy French eighteenth century painting, melancholy was its source. "The paradox of this work that comes across as spontaneous, cheerful, gentle and harmonious is that it was born of suffering, of a doggedness and despair that would be difficult to imagine were they not attested by so many pages in the notebooks and letters written by this artist who was always dissatisfied with herself," writes Rouart. Those notebooks are still in the Rouart family, but have been lent to the Musée Marmottan Monet. Some of Morisot's writings were published in 1987 as Berthe Morisot: The Correspondence, the same year that Julie Manet's diary was published as Growing Up with the Impressionists. Julie was born in 1878, four years after Morisot married Eugene Manet (brother to Edouard). Julie's father supported her mother's artistic pursuits, as well those of other Impressionists. For instance, after a rather acerbic review of a show of Impressionism at Durand-Ruel in Le Figaro, Morisot's husband wanted to challenge the offending critic to a duel. Morisot died in 1895 of pneumonia, after caring for Julie. She exhibited her work, entertained artists, and financially contributed to Impressionist shows until the end of her life. To my knowledge, neither Julie nor Berthe's writings have been reissued; however, Jean Renoir's memoir, Renoir, My Father, first published in 1962, was rereleased in 2001.

The catalogue for Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895 provides excellent notes for each of the works included in the exhibition, pulling from both Morisot and Manet's writings. The cataloguers seem intensely sensitive to contextualizing Morisot's work and life within greater Impressionistic scholarship in their writing. That's a job largely started by Griselda Pollock in the late 1970s. In 1988 she published Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, which sought to rupture art history's "masculinist discourse, party to the social construction of sexual difference." Written with a lucid urgency, Pollock historicizes Feminist thinking and writing, dismantling Modernity's masculinity as delineated by early curators, such as Alfred Barr at MoMA. To measure Morisot's work as "worthy but minor" against that Barr's metric of Modernity, as Simon seems to in his New York Times article, is to reject her work's meaning as Modern paintings. Morisot treated the space in her paintings like an Impressionist, with quick, loose brushwork and expert attention to illumination. But the space that her paintings depict and occupy must be understood against the biases of Modernism. As Pollock writes, we must therefore reject the notion that women painters were second-rate painters, even ten years into the twenty-first century.