THE FEATURED exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts may not be the ideal introduction to its principal subject, 19th-century French painter Berthe Morisot, but it is true to its title.
"Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle" places the artist in her demimonde, which in retrospect is a golden one.
Berthe Morisot's 1893 painting "Julie Manet and Her Greyhound Laertes" features the artist's daughter.
(Marmottan Monet Museum, Paris/bridgeman Art Library)
Near the beginning of the show -- which, like previous displays in this space, is oriented inexplicably toward the elevators, not the grand staircase -- is an assured picture of a woman painter. It's not a self-portrait, but a depiction of Paule Gobillard, a Morisot artistic cohort who happened to be her niece. Elsewhere are paintings of Julie Manet, Morisot's daughter, who not only grew up to be an artist but also married one, Ernest Rouart. Then there's a striking portrait of Morisot by Edouard Manet, one of the leading impressionists as well as Morisot's brother-in-law. For this crew, blood was almost thicker than oil paint.
Not all of Morisot's intimates were artists. The show includes a portrait of a teenage Julie Manet with the family greyhound, Laertes, a gift from symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme. Later, Mallarme protege Paul Valery married Jeannie Gobillard, another Morisot niece. The web of connections continued for a century after the painter's death of influenza in 1895, at the age of 54. "An Impressionist and Her Circle" is derived from the collection of Denis (Morisot's grandson) and Annie Rouart, which was left to Paris's Marmottan Monet Museum in 1997. (This is the first time these paintings have been seen in the United States.) Although not so well known in this country as American-born contemporary Mary Cassatt, Morisot was an integral member of the impressionists. Her work appeared in seven of the eight exhibitions staged between 1874 and 1886 by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and their peers, and she organized the last one herself. (Edouard Manet, although an inspiration to the movement, did not participate.) In addition to Morisot's brother-in-law's portrait of her, the Rouart collection includes work by Degas, Monet and Renoir, including the last's portrait of Julie Manet.
For viewers who haven't immersed themselves in impressionist history, keeping track of the overlapping surnames can be a challenge. Separating Morisot's work from the lesser canvases of her younger relatives, however, is not so difficult; her style is more robust and spontaneous. In such paintings as 1884's vigorous "Hollyhocks," 1886's kinetic "Children at the Basin" and 1891's ephemeral, yellow-tinted "Reclining Shepherdess," she's moving toward the post-impressionism of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.
This was only one possible course for her, however. Morisot's final painting, "Little Marcelle," left unfinished at her death, is more traditional.
Morisot painted at a time when bourgeois women had far less freedom than their male counterparts, and -- unlike her sister Edma, her first artistic partner -- she continued working after she married (and under her maiden name). This show's curators suggest that she masculinized herself to pursue a public art career. The text accompanying a Morisot self-portrait, for example, argues that "all elements of femininity are reduced" in a rendering that shows her gray hair pulled back and a single blue flower adorning her gold jacket. In addition, although Morisot rarely depicted men other than her husband, she did dare represent the world of manly work in such canvases as the unpopulated "Boats Under Construction."
Yet if Morisot did consciously take a male stance in order to paint, the artistic movement that accepted her was not exactly macho. Impressionism was overwhelmingly oriented toward natural and domestic subjects, rejecting the historical, religious and mythological drama of classical art -- faithfully copied at the Louvre by Morisot and her peers as young art students -- for luminous, soft-edged views of flowers, landscapes and children. It might be argued that, more than Morisot's becoming masculine, Degas, Monet and Renoir embraced the feminine.
One inspiration for this shift was the newly discovered tradition of Japanese printmaking, which mostly depicted natural vistas and everyday life. Although Japanese prints didn't influence Morisot as strongly as they did Cassatt -- duck into the museum's adjacent Arkansas Gallery to see a few Cassatt pieces that demonstrate the contrast -- Morisot was nonetheless entranced by them. There's a Japanese scene hanging on the wall behind the painter's daughter in "Julie Manet and Her Greyhound Laertes."
Such art derived from the Tokugawa period, an era of prosperity and peace.
Some reading between the lines is needed to determine that Morisot's France was considerably more turbulent. Her serene views of Brittany, the Riviera and Paris's Bois de Boulogne were done in the same age that saw the Franco-Prussian War, the rise and fall of the proto-communist Paris Commune and the Dreyfus affair. A catalogue prepared by the Denis and Annie Rouart Foundation, "Berthe Morisot, or Reasoned Audacity," notes that the painter was "of fragile health since the deprivations of the 1870 war," but the wall text doesn't hint at any such adversity.
Despite such omissions, the show succeeds more as social history than as a survey of Morisot's art. The transitions in her style are left indistinct, and certain works require more context. The charm of one watercolor, "White Boat in Nice Harbor," calls for more examples of this style, which suits Morisot's quick hand. Such gaps are inevitable, of course, in an exhibition drawn from what was a single private collection. "An Impressionist and Her Circle" is far from definitive, but it should make viewers want to know more about both the painter and her times.
"BERTHE MORISOT: AN IMPRESSIONIST AND HER CIRCLE" -- Through May 8 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5, Sunday noon to 5. 202-783-5000. www.nmwa.org.