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An artist in her own light

Special to The Times

Berthe MORISOT was one of the first French Impressionist painters, the only woman to exhibit at their initial show in Paris in 1874. Her name and talent, said Edgar Degas, who helped organize the rebellious exhibition, “are just too important to us for us to be able to manage without her.” Yet, ever since, she has remained in the background of Impressionism, overshadowed by her renowned male counterparts, including Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

In the United States, she has been overshadowed as well by Mary Cassatt, the American painter living in Paris during that era. When Americans talk about women and Impressionism, the name that usually comes to mind first is Mary Cassatt, not Berthe Morisot.

Traveling exhibitions of Morisot’s work are not common. But one has opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Called “Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle,” the show includes 45 works by Morisot and 30 by her Impressionist friends and family. They are the heart of a collection that her grandson and his wife bequeathed to the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris in 1996. After closing here May 8, the exhibition will go on to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee.

The canvases of Morisot do not overpower a viewer with great drama. She liked to paint her family, her friends and the gardens in the Bois de Boulogne near her Paris home. French poet Paul Valery, who was married to her niece, once wrote that “the peculiarity of Berthe Morisot ... was to live her painting and to paint her life.... She would take up the brush, leave it aside, take it up again, in the same way as a thought will come to us, vanish, and return.... I am tempted to say that her work as a whole is like the diary of a woman who uses color and line as her means of expression.” That diary was intimate and small-scale, and the works in the exhibition reflect that mood.

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Like several other Impressionist painters, Morisot, born in Bourges in central France on Jan. 14, 1841, came from a relatively prosperous bourgeois family. Her father was a ranking government official who would rise to a responsible position in Paris by the time she was 11. Her mother wanted her daughters to be cultured and enlisted tutors for them in piano playing and drawing. Berthe and her older sister, Edma, proved so talented that they graduated to private classes with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, one of the pioneer Barbizon painters. Berthe even had two paintings accepted for exhibition at the 1864 Paris Salon, the annual show of new paintings selected by the French Academy of Fine Arts.

As a young painter, she met the artist Edouard Manet, who was so taken with her beauty and intellect that he used her as a model for 11 of his canvases. Although they spent many hours discussing the art of painting, he never depicted her as an artist. The exhibition includes Manet’s “Portrait of Berthe Morisot Reclining,” painted in 1873, and it reveals an intense and seductive young woman of 32 years with dark, piercing eyes.

Despite their closeness, there evidently was no romantic involvement. “It was an affair of the mind,” says Jordana Pomeroy, curator of the exhibition. Morisot, in fact, would marry Manet’s younger brother, Eugene, in 1874, a few months after the first exhibition of Impressionists.

The couple honeymooned on the British Isle of Wight in the English Channel. Marriage did not end her career as a painter as it did for her sister, Edma. Berthe did not even put aside her brushes during the honeymoon. Her honeymoon canvases included “Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight” -- an intricate painting that shows Eugene, bearded and sporting a straw hat, seated sideways by a window while gazing outside at women strolling along a tranquil harbor for fishing boats. The painting describes an interior and an outdoor scene at the same time. The canvas measures only 15 by 18 inches but, says Pomeroy, “It is a huge work -- though it happens to be physically small.”

Morisot took part in all eight of the Impressionist exhibitions except the one in 1878, when she gave birth to her only child, Julie. She even organized the final one in 1886. It took time for critics and the public to appreciate the Impressionists. One critic, mocking a typical Impressionist painting, wrote in 1876, “You look at it and say, Fancy that, a bale of hay! But it is not that at all, it is a woman. It looks as though it was painted by artists suffering the effects of hashish.”

Morisot was among the most revolutionary of the Impressionists. Some of her colors were so light as to make her paintings look like pastels. Her strokes, though not thick, were broad, and she often omitted detail that she regarded as unimportant. “In the Apple Tree,” painted in 1890, for example, shows two girls at play but leaves out detail of their features. Despite the early disdain for the Impressionists, Morisot had fervent admirers. “Since the 18th century, since Fragonard,” wrote a critic in 1880, “no one has spread lighter hues with a more spiritual boldness.”

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‘I’m worth as much as they’

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The exhibition includes a revealing self-portrait painted in 1885 when she was 44. She is no longer the seductive, young beauty depicted by Manet. She is stolid, determined, graying, almost plain and holds an easel in her hand. You can imagine this woman saying what she wrote in her notebook five years later, “I don’t think that 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’m worth as much as they.”

Yet she seemed to have less of a drive to exhibit and sell than her male colleagues. In 1881, she painted “Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden at Bougival,” a delightful portrait of her husband and Julie at play with some kind of miniature toy town on a board. Morisot decided that this portrait of her family was too intimate to exhibit. Eugene finally succeeded in changing her mind, and she showed it at the seventh Impressionist exhibition in 1882. Since then, it has become one of her most popular paintings.

Another popular canvas in the current exhibition is “The Cherry Tree,” painted in 1891. This painting of two young ladies picking cherries has unusual lushness and flair, resembling the dramatic paintings of her good friend Renoir. That is not too surprising, for Renoir would spend a good deal of time with her during her last years. Renoir’s 1894 portrait of Julie is included in the exhibition.

Renoir, Degas and the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme would meet regularly at Morisot’s home. According to Valery, Tante Berthe, as she was known in the family, “could be unaffectedly and dangerously silent.” Renoir, Degas and Mallarme would argue “while she looked on.” From time to time, however, she would utter “a rare word” that “would bear witness to the secret workings of her thought.” That would be enough, said Valery, for this “trio ... of masters” to feel “the sway of this intent and reserved personality.”

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After a lingering deterioration of health, Eugene died in 1892. Three years later, Julie caught the flu. While caring for her daughter, Morisot was infected and died on March 2, 1895, at age 54. After her death, Degas, Renoir and Claude Monet helped organize a massive retrospective of more than 350 of her works. Mallarme wrote the introduction to the catalog. No later exhibition of Morisot has matched that one.


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