Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Best Impressionist Painter is not Monet…and other heresies

Who, me?  Dissing Monet??  No, not at all.  It’s just that Berthe Morisot doesn’t get the attention she deserves.  She is my favourite Impressionist painter, and, (dare I say?) the best of the lot.

Berthe Morisot, Self Portrait, 1985

Berthe Morisot, Self Portrait, 1985

The Frick Five’s final question (which is really two questions)  Which artist do you find most overrated?  Which artist do you find most underrated? reminded me of Berthe Morisot.  If you are thinking Berthe who? you’re not alone.  Many people are not aware of her, and her significance in the history of art.

I was fortunate to come across several of her artworks in the Musée Marmottan in Paris.  (Three  fun facts:  I briefly wrote about Mme Morisot  in 2014, the Marmottan is  one of my favourite art museums in Paris, and, coincidentally, it has a huge Monet wing – definitely a topic for another post.)

More recently, she has received some of the attention she deserves. In 2019, The Dallas Museum of Art hosted the international exhibition  Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist, which also toured to the Barnes Foundation, the Musée D’orsay and the Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec.  Everyone from Artnet News to The New Yorker to The Washington Post has been writing about her since 2018.

In her biography of Berthe Morisot, Anne Higonnet, outlines some of the challenges Berthe Morisot faced.  From our viewpoint in the 21st century, it’s startling to realize Madame Morisot (Berthe’s mother) had to chaperone Berthe’s painting visits to the Lourve.

Nineteenth-century bourgeois convention recognized only one suitable path for women – marriage and motherhood.  Anything else was failure.  Single women were ‘excess’ human beings who had not fulfilled their womanly destinies.  A career was supposed to ‘unsex’ a woman, leech away her femininity, and render her abnormal.  In Morisot’s field, such threats acquired a daunting edge.  For genius was deemed a masculine attribute.  No one could imagine a great woman painter.  None had yet existed, and this seemed sufficient proof that none ever would.  (p.51)

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay image

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay image

The challenges and obstacles she faced began well before she even reached the easel and picked up a paintbrush; they were everywhere around her, in the idea that ‘genius’ was a function of masculinity, in the dearth of role models for her to follow, in the … logistics she encountered on a day-to-day basis, in the minds of others and in her own mind. (p.148)

Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875–1880, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago image

Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875–1880, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago image

How Berthe Morisot Broke Barriers to Become the First Female Impressionist  is a succinct article, with good images, from My Modern Met.  All ‘barrier breaking’ aside,  Berthe Morisot is, in my books, a DFP (damned fine painter.)  Note the lush brushwork, and the gorgeous palette – all hallmarks of the Impressionist painters.

Take another look at the compositions, too.  Subtle, but powerful:  in Woman at Her Toilette the line of the mirror anchors the left side of the painting, whilst the highlights off her earring, and then the glass container, draw us in to appreciate the beauty of her shoulder and neck. The right side of the painting is fascinatingly vague, and gives our eye a space to rest, in contrast to the rich details enveloping the woman.

Notice how she uses geometric shapes to give strength and contrast to the domestic scenes she portrays in both The Cradle and Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight. Triangles abound in the former painting;  rectangles compose the latter, below.

Berthe Morisot, In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan, Photo by Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY

Berthe Morisot, In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan, Photo by Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY

I suspect one of Edouard Manet’s portraits of Berthe Morisot is more well-known than any of her paintings.  Edouard Manet was her brother-in-law;  she was married to Eugène Manet.  Although Anne Higonnet dismisses art historical gossip (p.92) she admits that

….he made more portraits of her than anyone else.  (“He has made a portrait of his wife, I think it was about time,”  wrote Cornell Thomas Morisot in March 1869.)  (p.55)

It’s a flattering portrait, there’s no arguing that.  Whether of not they were romantically involved is a topic for speculation.  I am looking forward to reading the new novel, Madder Women,  by Dede Crane which promises tumultuous love affair.  Who can resist?

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, Edouard Manet, 1872

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, Edouard Manet, 1872

One must give credit where credit is due.  Besides all of his prodigious output, Claude Monet left an extensive collection of 19th century Japanese prints in his home in Giverny, as well as a  gorgeous garden for us to experience.  He may not be the best of the Impressionist painters, but he was generous, and remains hugely popular and beloved.  Perhaps as Berthe Morisot receives more attention, her genius will be appreciated and her artwork will be widely enjoyed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family dynamics

Have you thought about the questions from the Frick Five videos?  (See the last post for more info.)  Any definitive responses?  No hard and fast selections made here, either.  But isn’t that part of the enjoyment?

I’m still thinking about my answer to the first question:  What is the one work of art you would want to live with every day?   I can’t commit to a decision….yet.  But thinking about possible choices reminded me of a favourite painting by the artist  John Singer Sargent.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

This is a stunning oil painting.  For starters, it is large: 7 feet by 7 feet square.  It assumes a significant physical presence in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Wikipedia reminded me that The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit  is hung between the original two vases depicted in the painting.

I don’t think of myself as a huge fan of realist painting, but this painting offers far more than a physical representation of a person, or a group.  I have had the opportunity to see it in person, with plenty of time to sit in an uncrowded space, and enjoy it.  (The typical art museum visitor spends, on average, less than 30 seconds looking at a piece of art, according to a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and Art in 2017.)

Consider the composition.  Our attention is immediately captured by the girls. (Psychological studies provide evidence that our eye / attention is instinctively drawn to a human face or figure in visual art.)  This is not a typical arrangement of figures for a family portrait, especially considering it was painted in 1882.   We don’t even see the (presumably) eldest daughter’s face as she is turned away from the viewer and and  is obscured by  shadow. Two of the girls hold more traditional poses, but not together.  One of them is shadowed, and the other is at the edge of the painting. The youngest is plopped on the floor, like her doll.  The child and the doll present as one figure.

John Singer Sargent was a prolific artist , creating thousands of artworks in oil, watercolour and charcoal.  He was born in Italy to American parents, and lived most of his life in Europe, with frequent trips to the USA.  At the beginning of his career, he accepted many portrait commissions in America.

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), John Singer Sargent, 1882

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), John Singer Sargent, 1882

Miss Beatrice Townsend, John Singer Sargent, 1882

Miss Beatrice Townsend, John Singer Sargent, 1882

The Boit family were part of the expatriate  American community in Paris.  In this commissioned portrait, Singer Sargent allows us, the viewers, room for imaginative speculation about the characters of the sisters. He’s given us just enough situational context to create stories about the individual personalities, and  to speculate at possible family dynamics.  Note the abundance of dark tones in the painting.  I wonder if the parents knew, encouraged or approved of this extremely unconventional depiction of their daughters?   The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (originally titled Portraits of Children) was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1919, only four years after Edward Darley Boit died.  Perhaps the sisters weren’t all that fond of it?

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

Structurally, the painting is intriguing.  The girls – and an inanimate object, a vase –  dominate the left two thirds of the composition, with the carpet almost meeting the doorframe at an angle – the same door edge that strongly frames one of the sisters.  Meanwhile, the orange-red triangular shape (a screen?) firmly pins the right side down, whilst partially obscuring the repeated vase shape.  What a playground for the eye!  We can travel from the human figures to the classical vase shapes to the geometry of the carpet, doorway and screen.  My eye is intrigued by the reflection in the upper right third of the painting, and thus another visual trip around the composition begins.

By re-examining one of my favourite paintings, maybe I’m getting closer to a definitive answer to the second Frick Five question.  Maybe.

If you could have your portrait made by any artist, who would that be?