In comparing the portrait of Marisot by Manet and the artist’s own self portrait, important differences can be discerned. Manet (not to be confused with Monet) depicts a woman of direct charm and beauty; a woman whose compelling qualities are set off by her costume all in black. There is an underlying eroticism at play here. In Morisot’s self portrait the artist stands upright; her expression is forthright and without guile. Frippery such as costume and their props are deemed unneccesary to reveal truth.
Born into the Haute Bourgeois, Berthe and her sister Edmé were given art lessons as a natural course of instruction for certain young women of the day. What set them apart was the dedication to their art beyond conventions; a determination beyond all odds to utilize it in art, taste and new ways of expression. In 1858 Madame Morisot inspired her daughters to paint. She desired that the girls take art lessons so that they could present a birthday gift to their father. She sent them first to the academic painter Geoffrey Alphonse Chocarne who focused his teachings on drawing, and soon afterward to Joseph Benoît Guichard, a former student of both Ingres and Delacroix. Edmé and Berthe enthusiastically applied themselves to his instruction. Under Guichard’s tutelage, the Morisot sisters began to journey to the Louvre in order to study the old masters first hand.
After three years of studio work under the supervision of Guichard, Berthe decided that she wished to study the plein air motif under master landscapist Corot. Edmé joined her sister with these weekly lessons. As part of Corot’s instruction, the family embarked on summer-long painting trips to picturesque locales. In 1862, they rode mules through the Pyrenees. In order to accommodate these expeditions, the Morisot family organized their holidays around Berthe and Edme’s art work for there was no question that the two would have set off on such an experience unchaperoned.
In this painting, we can infer much: the desire to reach out to the outside world, even though it is the cloistered terrace of the home. The subject’s ribbons are like a yoke, the fetters now broken and free and in the same value as the bars to the right of the composition. The cumbersome dress is held up in a natural way, a subtle protest towards the lack of freedom of movement in dress. In this painting, what at first seems a charming scene, is in fact a manifesto for the emancipation of women.
In a personal breakthrough of subject and style, Morisot defines the Impressionistic method with this revolutionary painting, executed in triumphant plein air. All is conditioned by light and natural effects. The viewer is no longer dispassionate, but one with the atmosphere. There is no horizon line, no mythological “other” to inform the scene but what it is: a modern wet nurse and a child. The honesty of this composition and painterly approach cannot be underestimated.
Morisot produced many paintings of varied scenes. I have selected a few of those which relate to the garden. In her mature work there is a dynamic painterly approach which adresses Morisot’s concern with capturing the ephemeral.
In this remarkable pastel on paper, Morisot treats her subject, pears on pendulous, leafy branches, by dispensing with the subjective; these pears are not a literal representation, nor, indeed an Impressionist reflection. Here, Morisot takes the great conceptual leap of the artist in depicting the idea of pears. In this composition of color and line, Morisot has prefigured the 20th century concern for abstraction in art, and in doing so takes her place in the canon of not only Impressionistic art, but in the revolutionary approaches in thought and the depiction of modern art to follow.
In one of my favorite works by Morisot, the artist is personally direct in this self portrait with her daughter with an economy of line and shade on unprimed canvas. A tour de force of meaning and truth, Morisot deconstructs the process of painting to its most elemental.
The gardens depicted in the paintings by Berthe Morisot always include the family: mothers and children, at times fathers and friends. The immediacy and experience of the natural world is what is celebrated here; the comfort and delight that a garden setting affords to families, and a platform for the artist is what had meaning for Morisot. The ideas found in Berthe Morisot’s paintings are eternal and relevant, and can yet inform us today.