I have recently started taking a Creative Writing class. One of the things I learnt is that you often start a story thinking it is about ‘X’ then slowly you discover that it is actually about ‘Y’. I was reminded of this when visiting ‘Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist’ at the Dallas Museum of Art (travelling to Musée d’Orsay, Paris afterwards).
I was expecting to see a show about an Impressionist painter, and since I only discovered Berthe Morisot when I was around forty years old and studying Feminist art history, I expected to find an underlying theme of the position of women in 19th century Paris. But the show took me by surprise. To me, what ‘Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist’ really is about, is intimacy.
I visited the show with my mother, taking the bus from Houston to Dallas. My mother had heard of Berthe Morisot. “Maybe it is a generational thing”, she offered. But when we entered the exhibition on a Thursday evening, when the museum opens late, we were the only ones there. Here was a show by an Impressionist, the best friend of Claude Monet, who was featured in almost all of the reputed Salon exhibitions in her time, and here we were in Dallas, a large city filled with art collectors. But we were entirely alone. No buzz outside the museum, no lines, no soft tapping of feet slowly moving to take in each work. Complete silence.
In the first room, I am drawn to a painting of a woman bent over a cot, looking intently at an angelic little baby with its eyes closed and fluffy strands of hair spread over its tiny head. The baby’s one-piece and the cot are both white, as is the thin cloth carefully draped over it, but within that one shade of white the variety of texture and density is dazzling. There are hints of yellow, grey, umber and peach; a frilly pink band defines the nearly transparent veil and a the baby’s hand is a single, tan brushstroke. Behind the woman, dressed in blue, is another white fabric, this time subtly varied by touches of blue and burnt sienna. Her dark brown hair and the brown of the walls give the scene depth, firmly setting the mother and baby at the centre. The label tells us it this is the artist’s sister Edma, looking at her baby with a mixture of love, apprehension and a hint of melancholy.
It becomes quickly apparent that ‘Woman Impressionist’ doesn’t merely refer to the artist’s own gender, but to the main subject of her work. Wherever you look on the lilac and light blue walls, you see a woman: sometimes from the back, completely absorbed in her toilette, a bare shoulder forming the only solid element in a whirlwind of white brushstrokes, at other times from afar, fully dressed and looking out over the gothic spires of Paris’ churches. There are children in pastel dresses peeking out from orange trees, and women in full Parisienne style lingering on boats that gently rock on turquoise waves.
But the paintings never surrender to sweetness. In a portrait of Morisot’s daughter Julie, a large plant is almost aggressively rendered in zigzag patterns, and the girls’s legs are painted in firm, black outlines.
I am falling, tumbling down into this vibrant dreamscape, these elegant women rendered with an almost frantic energy. The more paintings I view, the more I realise that these women, engrossed in their own lives, seem to be entirely oblivious to my gaze. They are not posing, defiantly placed on picnic blankets or seated on beds in coquette, frontal poses. On the contrary: we are carefully let in to their private world. And in the times of Berthe Morisot, that private world was the home, the balcony and the garden. Women were not allowed to wander the streets of Paris alone. Baudelaire’s famous and often quoted character of ‘the flaneur’ - the passionate stroller wandering 19th century Paris for inspiration - was always a man.
Some paintings hint at these spatial parameters, with women and children literally standing behind a fence. The fence functions not just as a pictorial barrier between foreground and background, but also as a symbolic separation between the spaces that these women were expected to inhabit and the spaces they were not.
But behind these fences I find a depth of emotions, and imagery that, as a mother myself, I am unexpectedly moved by. There have been plenty of artworks depicting domestic scenes, but what shines through in Morisot’s painting is an understanding of the complexities of being a mother: the feelings of tenderness and love but also the melancholy, frustration and boredom. Morisot went to great lengths not to depict herself in the role of housewife, and I understand that. She had a legion of staff to help her clean, cook and look after her children, and it was these women that she painted.
A few paintings depict daughter Julie with Morisot’s husband Eugene Manet (brother of the painter Gustave Manet). They are delicate works suggesting an intimacy between father and daughter that must have been highly unusual at the time. Eugene Manet, so convinced of his wife’s talent that he devoted his life to supporting her, was apparently more than happy to be the subject of her gaze.
A quote on the last wall awakens me and my mother from our Parisien reveries. “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, yet that’s all I would have asked for, because I am of equal worth”. Morisot wrote it in 1890.
But what the museum doesn’t say is this. Being a woman and a mother can be complicated, hard and unfair. But leaving the show with an arm around my mother, I can only think of how special it is.
Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist, Dallas Museum of Art until 26th May, 2019, and Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 18th June - 22nd September, 2019
All photographs my own
With thanks to Laura August