An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay that takes the visitor down the extraordinary path of an artist who – in an entirely different way compared to her peers – would become fundamental for the definition of the French avant-gardes of the mid-19th century
If you’re in Paris, don’t miss out on the retrospective on Berthe Morisot at the Musée d’Orsay. The event, scheduled until September 22nd, arrives in Europe after a successful tour in Québec, Philadelphia and Dallas and offers visitors an interesting look at a highly talented painter who was unjustly neglected by art critics.
Berthe was born in 1841 in a remote corner of the French countryside, in Bourges. She came from a wealthy bourgeois family and was a woman, all factors that should have automatically excluded her from painting. However, destiny had a different fate in mind, and talent was nothing new in her family. In fact, on her mother’s side, she descended from the famous rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806). Moreover, her parents were open minded and loved to surround themselves with artists. She was a child when the family moved to Paris, and Berthe and her two sisters received the first rudiments of painting from her parents. Later, due to the fact that the Academy was not open to women, she continued with private lessons with renowned but conformist painters. However, Morisot was looking for a way out of tradition, towards artistic solutions that she did not yet know. Understanding these feelings, a family friend put her in contact with the Barbizon School and Corot.
Thanks to these acquaintances, she began an in-depth study on the representation of landscapes and the effect of real light in the open air. She could have continued like this, remaining a good landscape painter. Or perhaps, like her sister Edma, she could have gotten married and abandoned painting. However, in 1868, she met Manet and her life would never be the same. They began a story of art and love that would change both of their lives. Manet was already an established but controversial artist, his painting The Luncheon on the grass caused a scandal in 1863, and two years later he presented Olympia and the scandal grew. Furthermore, his stain-painting was not loved by critics due to a rather sloppy look. Manet was seduced by this girl, who was not beautiful, rather shy, yet with an intense gaze and great talent. She was fascinated by him, a painter so shockingly modern and almost 10 years older than herself.
She learnt this new style that took her out of the trenches of traditional painting. In fact, she learnt to paint in the rapid manner of the Impressionists, a “stain” painting that aimed at capturing the moment. While she was studying and learning, the master portrayed her 11 times. Perhaps there were strong feelings between them, but he was married. After all, these seemingly non-conformist artists actually had a bourgeois morality. In addition, she was not interested in marriage, well aware that this would prevent her from dedicating herself entirely to art. She did not want the fate of her sister.
There is a famous painting by Berthe, The Cradle, in which she portrays his sister watching her sleeping daughter. This work is often cited as an example of maternal love, but when we look at Edma’s gaze, it appears lost in the void and the veil of the cradle seems a barrier between them, impossible to penetrate. When we speak of Morisot, the family is almost always emphasized, confining her work to feminine painting. Consequently, this also implies inferiority, overshadowing her great talent. With women, society was merciless. In the end, Berthe would have to submit to the bourgeois rules and at 33 she got married. Her husband was not Édouard Manet, who was already married. Instead, she married his brother Eugène. In that same year, she makes another break, deciding to exhibit with the Impressionists against Édouard’s wishes. Although the Impressionists considered him their master, Ếdouard Manet would never want to be part of that group. However, Berthe did not listen to him.
Their lives and their respective artistic careers were irretrievably separated. From that moment on, she would be a permanent presence in Impressionist exhibitions, even in the exhibit held in 1886 in America. Only once was she absent, busy with childbirth. She died in 1895 at the age of 54. The collective memory of this artist would then become clouded. Therefore, this exhibition is a fitting tribute, as well as an opportunity to get to know an admirable artist. Her work shows incredible sensitivity with regard to her choice of subjects and her sophisticated style. In short, Berthe Morisot enchants the eyes, reaching the heart of cynical modern men.
Anna Maria Calabretta