BERTHE MORISOT is missing from most art histories, even though she was a founding mother of Impressionism. Occasionally she's mentioned as the painting sister-in-law of Edouard Manet, or as one of his models.
The retrospective of her work, "Berthe Morisot: Impressionist" opening Sunday at the National Gallery, is the first such exhibition since a year after her death in 1895.
With over a hundred beautiful works, the show is, quite simply, a pleasure. It is like entering a daydream. It stuns like a shaft of sunlight, the dustmotes flying.
It's a glimpse of a moment, lacking the details of a long look. The image of her husband, Eugene Manet, with their young daughter in a garden hideaway, is best seen from a distance, where all the dabs and strokes come together. And does it matter that Morisot, in "Julie With a Doll," painted her daughter with only part of a foot and two sparkling dots for eyes? Not to the modern viewer. It was that disregard for convention that her fellow Impressionists admired, when they labeled her the boldest among them.
Keeping her from her proper place in art history was the fact that she painted "feminine" subjects in what was a man's world. In that world, there were the Impressionists, then, off somewhere to the side, Mary Cassatt and Morisot. It comes as no surprise to learn that when Morisot died, of a lung ailment at age 54, her death certificate listed her as "without any profession."
Looking at her work, the gallery visitor, now well schooled by last year's "The New Painting: Impressionism," will wonder if it's derivative -- recognizing a Manet composition or brushstroke, a Monet haystack, a Renoir girl reading, or a Degas woman at her bath.
"Leave those assumptions at the door when you go into the gallery," says Charles F. Stuckey, curator of modern painting at the National Gallery. Because it's impossible to know exactly who influenced whom.
Morisot, like Cassatt, refused to participate in "women's exhibitions." Instead, she entered her paintings in seven of the eight Impressionist shows in Paris, from 1874 to 1886. When she had a child, she not only continued to paint, her work became stronger; some of her best depicts watching Julie grow.
Mostly, Morisot painted women -- the grand young woman attending the theater, the picture of elegance in her black gown; the genteel woman reading, spread out like a swan in her full skirts on the grass, her parasol and fan like wings to flutter away. Women taking tea, sitting in the Bois de Bologne, arranging flowers, petting a greyhound, playing a pan flute -- the simple pleasures of everyday life, an uncomplicated existence. Small wonder her paintings offer us such respite.
Her landscapes are memorable as well, light, airy reveries such as "Path in the Garden at Mezy." It is an exquisite pastel, pure Impressionism. The show's 60 oil paintings, done with the brushwork of a virtuoso, tend to overshadow it. But it embodies so many of the qualities that make this work special, in the hurried blurs of trees and the blossoms that burst for a shorter moment in time than vision is accustomed to.
Most painters say, "Here -- look at this and this." Morisot gently leads: It is there for the seeing, but only if you wish. She wants you to fill in the blanks in the composition with your own experience. And then, no longer merely an observer, feel the warm light around you.
In the same way in "The Cherry Tree," she bids you look for the cherries Julie will pick from a precarious ladder while a friend reaches up with her basket. Where are they? Another painter would have filled the tree with raucous red fruit. Morisot suggests. BERTHE MORISOT: IMPRESSIONIST --
Opening Sunday; through November 29 in the National Gallery of Art, West Building.