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QUEBEC CITY — Berthe Morisot painted women, mostly, and adolescent girls. Her delight in the way blades of light were scattered by their pinafores and ribbons, pounced off furniture and coaxed bright color from flowers could not mask the sense she developed — and kept close, like a secret dispatch — of life’s brutal transience.
It’s easy to overlook how radical Morisot’s apparently nonchalant brushwork was in the late 1870s. Her work’s lack of finish conveys, like no other Impressionist, a sense of evanescence. We do not live long, her paintings attest. We hesitate, like teenagers, in thresholds. We know almost nothing.
I love Berthe Morisot. She is the subject of a retrospective in Quebec City (through Sept. 23) that will travel to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The show presents a generous overview of Morisot’s radiant achievement. It includes her most popular picture, “The Cradle” from the Musée d’Orsay, a gorgeous rendering of her sister Edma watching over her sleeping baby.
But the exhibition is missing my own favorite Morisot — a small painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts showing, once again, Edma, this time from behind, hitching up her housedress as she waters a shrub on an overcast day. The painting is like a modern Jean-Antoine Watteau, and a reminder that Morisot was drawn, by heredity as well as inclination, to 18th-century sensibilities: She was distantly descended from Jean-Honoré Fragonard; she copied works by François Boucher.
What gave Morisot such a powerful feeling for life’s impermanence, and the urge to give it fresh form?
Fated always to be a heroic exemplar of the female artist in a male milieu, Morisot deserves to be recognized for other forms of heroism — and perhaps for her vulnerability, too. Feminist art historians tend to view her development as a kind of sociological case study. The temptation is only increased by the presence of two sisters, Edma and Yves, who function as scientific controls. All three sisters took art lessons as girls. Edma pursued art with the same passion as Berthe but quit after marrying and, perhaps more fatally, moving to the provinces. Only Berthe persisted.
Of course, 19th-century Frenchwomen were afforded nothing like the degree of liberty granted men. Even those from the grand bourgeoisie, like the Morisot sisters, were given stunted, second-rate educations. Those interested in pursuing art encountered continuous condescension. Painting was encouraged not as a serious endeavor, but as an amateur hobby, with small, toothless pictures in pencil and watercolor the expected results.
Morisot struggled against all this. When she married in 1874, the marriage license listed her as “without profession.” Her death certificate said the same thing.
But on both occasions, officialdom fell short of the truth. In fact, Morisot had resolved to make a living from her art by 1871.
She made the decision under a cloud so dark that it is often overlooked, as if it were part of the general atmosphere. Oh, yes, people say, the Franco-Prussian War; the Commune. But imagine if, in a surprise attack, Washington were surrounded next week by foreign forces and all the city’s communications and supply lines were cut off. Imagine that the U.S. Army, which had been expected to come to the rescue, were routed by the same enemy and that, although the city’s external defenses held, the siege went on for months. Residents formed a militia, but hope dwindled, and over time, food became so scarce that people were forced to eat squirrels, pigeons and rats. Imagine all this ending in ignominious defeat, the capture of the president, the disbanding of the army, a new government, then a revolt by radical socialists, whose two-month rule would end only after a week of street-to-street fighting and appalling mayhem.
This — unthinkable as it sounds — is exactly what happened in Paris, the aptly named “capital of the 19th century,” in 1870 and ’71. Morisot was 29 and single and stranded in Paris during the siege.
Painting was her passion. She and Edma met two artists of the next generation, Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. Both men joined the National Guard during the siege. Other militia members were quartered in the studio built by Morisot’s parents, in more peaceful times, for their talented daughters.
Conditions in Paris were harsh. Morisot’s health suffered, and at the end of 1870, she contracted pneumonia. Her studio was destroyed by the Prussian bombardment, which may well have concentrated her mind: Mere months later, as the Paris Commune was getting established, Morisot confessed to Edma that painting was now “the sole purpose” of her existence. Finding buyers for her paintings, she wrote, was now all she cared about.
She had been heading toward this resolution for years. But the circumstances, surely, were telling: It was the sort of decision you make when jolted awake by a sense of life’s terrible fragility.
Morisot began selling works with some regularity from this point on. The going was harder for her than for her male Impressionist contemporaries. But she, Monet, Renoir and Sisley were the only Impressionists whose paintings were purchased by the French state during their lifetimes.
The years passed, but the shadow of death never lifted. Morisot lost her father in 1874 and, over the following decade, her mother, two brothers-in-law, her mother-in-law, a close confidante (the female sculptor Marcello) and the man one feels sure she loved above all others, Manet.
When they met, in 1868, the Morisot and Manet families immediately hit it off. They began attending weekly soirees in each other’s homes. Manet was aroused, in the deepest sense, by Morisot’s presence. He proceeded to paint an array of portraits that amount to one of the greatest records of mutually charged intimacy in the history of art.
They couldn’t wed. Manet was already married. So Morisot married Manet’s brother, Eugène.
Was it a curse for Morisot or a blessing to be on intimate terms with the greatest, most audacious artist of his generation? Brilliant women often get mixed up with brilliant men. It can cost them. On the other hand, Morisot got to see up close what Manet’s audacity had cost him: For more than a decade, as he strove for public acclaim, he was a punching bag for critics and the public alike. By the time he and Morisot met, he was demoralized. As much as an inspiring influence, then, he was a useful cautionary tale.
Morisot needed to find her own way. She did, and in the end you could argue that Manet’s work of the 1870s was as much influenced by Morisot’s as hers was by his.
For all her travails, Morisot was blessed to be surrounded by supportive men — Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé — all of whom believed in her talent. They were men interested, more broadly, in closing the gap between the heaving, exhausted, chauvinistic rhetoric of officially sanctioned art and a more truthful, intimate, everyday vision.
Morisot’s brother Tiburce had warned Berthe against marriage (“get free of your perpetual hesitations . . . just do it for yourself”) and against Eugène Manet in particular (“an incalculable laziness and absolute lack of energy for the task at hand.”)
But Eugène, it turned out, was a good husband. He posed for several fine paintings, including “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight),” which shows him twisting around on an indoor chair to gaze out past drawn, gauzy curtains, flower pots and a fence to a woman and child promenading beside a harbor. It’s all conveyed with unfussy panache. The composition is flat, like a poster, the colors luminous. The brushwork — breezy, brisk — anticipates Matisse’s views through hotel windows in Nice. The picture’s psychological charge (vacillation, longing, the pressure to be happy on vacation!) feels shifting, enigmatic, modern.
Most of Morisot’s other great pictures — “The Sisters,” “The Mirror,” “Winter,” “Young Girl With Greyhound” and the magnificent “In the Country After Lunch” (painted a year before Manet’s “Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” which it so uncannily anticipates) — are of girls and young women. Girls spoke, perhaps, to Morisot’s sense of always being on the cusp of something — her savoring of threshold states.
Morisot had a daughter, Julie, in 1878. The birth took a toll on her health, causing her to miss the fourth Impressionist salon. (She participated in all seven of the others.) As Julie grew, Morisot painted her repeatedly — holding a doll, playing in the garden with Eugène, practicing her violin, reading, staring out of the window in a red apron.
In the 1880s, Morisot experimented with unprimed canvasses and a lack of finish that looks radical even today — closer at times to Joan Mitchell than Paul Cézanne. Her artistic ambition, she wrote, was “to capture something that passes; oh, just something! the least of things.”
“They’re weightless,” said my 11-year-old daughter, who saw the show with me. Exactly right. An unbearable lightness, an evanescence, comes off Morisot’s best work, like a fleeting perfume, or a schoolyard chant: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”
In 1895, Julie became ill. While caring for her, Morisot contracted pulmonary congestion. “My little Julie, I love you as I die,” she wrote in a farewell note. “I will love you when I’m dead; please don’t cry. . . . I would have liked to survive till your wedding. . . . Work and be good as you have always been; you haven’t made me sad once in your little life.”
Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist Through Sept. 23 at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, 179 Grande Allée Ouest, Quebec City. mnbaq.org. Her work is also featured in “Women Artists in Paris 1850-1900,” a traveling exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts through Sept. 3.
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald. Follow