washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Museums and Galleries > Blake Gopnik

Berthe Morisot, Who Manned The Canvas

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page N01

Berthe Morisot, one of the pioneers of impressionism and the first female member of the movement, was a cross-dresser.

I admit that so far I've got only fragmentary evidence for this. "Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle," the show that opened Friday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, gives at best a very fractured image of the artist. All its works come from a single small collection, gathered by the painter's daughter and son-in-law and recently added to the holdings of the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris.

In "Eugene Manet in the Isle of Wight," the artist and her audience look at the world through male eyes. (Photos Bridgeman-giraudon -- Musee Marmottan Monet)

Morisot's breakthrough paintings of the 1870s are barely represented, and there are holes across the rest of her career.

The exhibition also dutifully incorporates a scattering of paintings that have little to do with Morisot herself, including minor works by her daughter, Julie, and other family members that only dilute the impact of the show.

But Morisot's achievements as the drag king of impressionism still manage to shine through. All the best pictures in the exhibition show her trying on the trappings of the male-dominated world of vanguard art, knowing all the while that her viewers would recognize the woman hiding under them.

In the case of one striking self-portrait painted in 1885, when Morisot was 44, I mean that literally. Morisot, a beauty who was one of Manet's favorite models, deliberately portrays herself in the guise of a courtly male painter. She becomes a kind of "chevalier-peintre" of the 18th century, the epoch of her heroes Boucher and Fragonard.

Morisot gives herself a proudly erect, almost military bearing, with her torso in profile but her head turned to look boldly out at us -- her breasts, contained in a tightly tailored bodice, could as easily read as a he-man's puffed-out pigeon chest. (There are early self-portraits by both Ingres and Delacroix where they strike almost exactly this pose.) Her long salt-and-pepper hair is pulled out of sight behind her head, with only the tails of a black bow hinting at the dashing nautical ponytail she's tied it into. Her throat is wrapped in a Beau Brummell silk cravat, with five gold dabs that look almost like military collar pips, while the two flowers slapped on her upper chest evoke martial medals more than real boutonnieres. And her palette, shown at lower left, becomes a frantic swirl of paint that barely hints at the object it really is. It is just a token of the energy that Morisot could claim through her radical impressionist technique -- an energy that her era would have seen as the special property of men.

In this portrait, for a moment at least, Morisot escapes the strictures imposed on women by her haut-bourgeois milieu. (Her father was an important bureaucrat and a patron of the Parisian culturati; his daughter's looming future as a professional artist was described by one of her early teachers as "almost a catastrophe" for her family.) Morisot may not have been allowed to hang out in the cafes where her male colleagues did their crucial networking; she could not have walked with the flaneurs -- the famous gentlemen strollers of the French capital -- as they took in the novelties of modern life along the city's boulevards. But on canvas, at least, she could try on the privilege and persona of the male painter.

There's another picture in which Morisot becomes a man, though in this case she isn't even present in the scene. Morisot's 1875 "Eugene Manet in the Isle of Wight," painted the year after she made a splash as the only woman in the much reviled First Impressionist Exhibition, shows her husband, Eugene -- brother of the famous painter -- looking out a window at a woman and a little girl taking a dockside stroll. Eugene's back is turned to us, so there is a sense that our gaze follows his -- that what he sees is what we see. The painting, that is, shows the contents of the man's view, which means that we, like the artist who painted it, are looking at the woman's world through Eugene Manet's male eyes.

You could take the argument even further: Eugene, as he looks out the open window frame, stands for the typically male viewer of the painting itself, since paintings have always been described as windows that frame a fragment of the world.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that Morisot has deliberately chosen to cancel out the strolling woman's identity by making the window's bottom edge run straight across her face. The man here is the model of an active, empowered looker -- in other words, of the artist. The woman is just a cipher of her sex: We scan up her body to find a skirt, a pair of breasts, a blank and then a fancy hat.

There are other pictures in which Morisot seems to inhabit the world of men. A flashy little 1874 canvas titled "Ships Under Construction," which was included in the impressionists' second exhibition, places its painter in the middle of a dockyard. Knowing the painter's sex -- the name "Berthe" (pronounced "Behrt") is right there in the picture's prominent signature -- the audience in 19th-century Paris would have felt the transgression involved in this woman's venture into the male domain of messy industry, and into the world of radically messy paint that's been used to render it.

It's not just that Morisot is a woman who adopts the occasional "male" subject; it's that her audience would have recognized that this was going on, the way a drag king's act depends on our knowing there's a woman behind the tuxedo and pencil mustache.

We don't even need to spot men or "male" subjects to find transgendering in Morisot's art. You could argue that the simple act of picking up a professional painter's brush was, for a woman in 19th-century France, close to a transvestite act. Using it as Morisot does, to produce some of the most radically aggressive, broken, almost illegible brush strokes of the entire impressionist movement -- described at the time as a "vague and brutal" style -- makes her evidently mannish. "I don't think that there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal," she said, and set out to prove her own equality. By the time of her death in 1895 of influenza, Morisot had been recognized as one of impressionism's most ardent devotees: The comprehensive retrospective mounted in the dead woman's honor was hung by Renoir, Monet, Degas and Mallarme.

Even when Morisot paints a classic "woman's" subject, like two little girls splashing their hands in a goldfish bowl, her radical technique cancels out any notion that she has for once adopted a suitably "feminine" approach to making art. Her daughter Julie's right hand disappears below the water in a wild blur of sloppy paint; the skirt of her playmate's dress dissolves into a handful of random-looking strokes.

As art historian Richard Bretell has pointed out in a study called "Impression: Painting Quickly in France," Morisot outdid all her male colleagues in the race to get a fleeting vision down in paint. She adopted the pace of her era's most fearsome radicals, and that haste was distinctly unbecoming to a lady, whatever use she put it to.

An 1887 portrait of her female friend Paule Gobillard, a fellow art-world virago but with tamer tastes, shows this other woman artist at her easel. The right half of the picture looks ladylike enough, with Gobillard's face and palette more tightly rendered than was usual for Morisot. But by the time you've panned across to Gobillard's right hand, stretched out toward the picture that she's painting, you've got a manly mess that's close to unintelligible. There are two forearms where there should be one, surrounded by a tangle of marks that stand for sheer artistic energy.

Two years ago, in his Mellon lectures at the National Gallery, Johns Hopkins scholar Michael Fried traced at length the way artists' self-portraits have typically shown only the edge of the canvas that they're painting their portrait on, as it gets reflected in the mirror that they're looking in to paint themselves. In the picture of Gobillard, we find just such an edge. Which makes me wonder if in some sense this portrait also functions as another image of Morisot. This time she starts off a pretty, elegant lady. And then, through the act of painting itself, achieves the kind of vigor that only men were said to have.

Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, through May 8. Call 202-783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company