Pioneering Impressionist Berthe Morisot Gets Her First Serious Retrospective in 70 Years in Paris

Berthe Morisot, "La Lecture ou L’Ombrelle verte," 1873
(Courtesy The Cleveland Museum of Art)

It's been a long time in the making. Now, through July 1, the Musée Marmottan Monet is celebrating the work of Berthe Morisot, the major female figure of the Impressionist movement, through a rich collection of paintings, pastels, sketches, furnishings, and personal documents. In the refined atmosphere of a nineteenth-century pavilion, the show tells the story of Morisot's exceptional career — the aesthetic, poetic, and personal trajectory of an independent and privileged woman who was the adored muse of the greatest painters of her time and an accomplished artist herself. She managed to be a grand lady of the bourgeoisie, an attentive mother, and an avant-garde painter — all at a time when women were not even allowed to take classes at Paris's École des Beaux-Arts.

In the 1990s, the Musée Marmottan Monet became the public institution with the largest collection of Morisot works when it received a large bequest from the artist's grandchildren. After showing this exceptional gift fifteen years ago, the museum is now putting on the first large-scale Morisot retrospective since 1941, which also includes personal notebooks, sketches, and paintings on loan from collectors around the world. The exhibition restores Morisot to a central position in art history and in the Impressionist movement, which is all too often limited to Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Manet. In a man's world, Morisot quickly made her mark with an oeuvre that fit into the Impressionist mold but was at the same time eminently free, with her own evanescent style, pastel shades, and languid, even melancholy, compositions, which almost always depicted women.

The retrospective opens with several of Morisot's portraits of women, including Paule Gobillard (another female painter) and Albine Sernicoli, as well as a portrait of Morisot herself by Marcellin Deboutin. In this portrait, Morisot is a middle-aged woman whose piercing gaze looks back at the viewer confidently. It represents a firm and coherent personality — a woman who always delved deeply into pictorial modes of representation and subjects that she cared about, infusing each of her compositions with a palpable personal dimension.

Born into a well-off family that rubbed elbows with such notables as politician Jules Ferry, painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and composer Gioachino Rossini, Morisot first practiced art when her mother enrolled her and her two sisters in drawing classes so that they could make pictures for their father at Christmas time. Berthe and her sister Edma went on to take drawing lessons for ten years. They copied works at the Louvre, practiced plein air painting with Corot during their summer vacation, and tried biblical and mythological themes before focusing on portraits. (Although Impressionist artists painted portraits of Morisot, only her sister Edma depicted her in the act of painting.) After Edma got married and gave up painting, she became Berthe's favorite model. Berthe painted her sister as a chic Parisian woman surrounded by an omnipresent, strange, and diaphanous natural environment, which the artist transcribed through effects of transparency and light, haloing her paintings with a bright, gauzy effect ("Reading") or a darker, almost disturbing veil ("Lilacs at Maurecourt").

The exhibition divides Morisot's work into five sections. After her studies, she continued to paint Parisian women in ball gowns — a practice inspired by Manet (whom she met in 1868 and whose brother Eugène became her husband in 1874). But her interior scenes, which initially emphasized dark colors, developed bit by bit into a mix of pastel colors. While the writer Joris-Karl Huysmans saw this style as a "showy blur of white and pink," others compared Morisot's use of color to that of Watteau and Fragonard. At the same time, her constant attention to light and transparency linked her style to that of Monet and Renoir, and she became the only woman artist featured in Nadar's Impressionist exhibition of 1874. Thereafter she repeatedly participated in and supported Impressionist shows.

In the late 1870s and 1880s, Morisot developed a new focus on family scenes, centered on her daughter Julie, who was born in 1878 and whom Morisot would continue to paint for the rest of her career. Julie was a key figure in a world populated by women (friends, nannies, neighbors), who were always shown in natural settings, with their faces merely suggested alongside a palette of soft greens. The expressivity here is found not in the faces, but in the harmony between bodies and lush nature, or in the free brushstrokes that make a fabric or a color shimmer. Like her fellow Impressionists, Morisot created color through variations of almost opposing shades. Her "Red Corsage" features a crowded and contrasting composition that fills up the entire canvas, revealing nuances of blue, carmine, purple, and white.

Her facial features and settings could be either very defined or merely sketched out. "The Watering Can" shows her daughter Julie's silhouette sketched in a few strokes, almost abstract — a silhouette that Manet copied just before his death. Manet dashed off an even more stylized portrait of the young Julie, a rarely seen painting that the museum includes in this exhibition. Morisot's constant use of transparent effects and her multiple strokes of color make this her most Impressionistic period, but when she made pastel drawings, she captured gestures and eyes very clearly, in a gentle and intimate atmosphere, as seen in "The Piano."

The last sections of the exhibition — decorative painting, landscapes, and Morisot's final works — show the evolution of an artist who was constantly striving. She created different versions of her large-scale paintings, which were for her own house, and they have a very modern quality. For "The Cherry Tree," she worked and reworked shades of a cloudy blue, fluid fabrics, and the thickness of brushstrokes defining a face or a silhouette. In the different versions of "The Shepherdess," the subject was alternately dressed and undressed, and Morisot played with the ideal placement of a body in the middle of layers of color. In this work, nature is stripped of reality, and perspective is expressed through layers of pigment.

Morisot painted landscapes throughout her career, and they finally took a turn toward abstraction, even while maintaining their personal and lived-in quality. Most of her views of the "Port of Nice" are filled with reflections of the water, while her "Hollyhocks" and "Garden in Bougival" introduce off-screen narration by placing an empty chair or balcony in the painting. They could be film stills. All the way through her last paintings, which are imbued with sadness in their colorful interiors (such as "Little Marcelle"), Berthe Morisot's art can be read as the spontaneous and meticulous diary of a woman who experimented eagerly, whose personal art focused on the human figure, and who explored a stylization of natural elements that foreshadows Monet's waterlilies, which were still 20 years away.

To see works by Berthe Morisot, click on the slide show.