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Monday, November 12, 2012

Berthe Morisot

I developed a new appreciation for Berthe Morisot recently seeing an exhibition of her work at the Odrupgaard museum outside Copenhagen. I had always dismissed her as a lesser Impressionist. Boy was I wrong. I found her work fresh and confident with wonderfully expressive brushstrokes that reveal an exceptional sensitivity to both formal and psychological concerns.

A beauty, painted repeatedly by her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, Morisot was born into affluence and lived her life as a member of the haute bourgeoisie. Her family supported her decision to become a painter (her sister Edma was one too) and she was accepted and admired by her male peers—Manet had four paintings of hers hanging in his bedroom—exhibiting repeatedly at the Salon de Paris (the annual exhibition of the Ácademie des Beaux-Arts) until 1874, when she joined Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley in the Salon des Refusés held in the studio of photographer Nadar. The one real hardship Morisot experienced was her husband’s premature death, which left her devastated, turning her hair white overnight.

Morisot’s many advantages didn’t blunt her talent, although her circumstances limited her oeuvre to what was considered appropriate subject matter: domestic life, landscapes, portraits and the like. Her composition, palette, light and representation have a remarkable veracity. Morisot is also a master of restraint. Because her work doesn’t shout, you almost overlook what a truly great painter she is. I was struck by how she conveys so much with so little. On display at the museum were two portraits of Morisot’s daughter, Julie, one by her (she painted many), the other by Renoir. Hers depicts the ennui and nascent beauty of a pouty teenager; Renoir’s a flabby orange-tinged simp.

Morisot died at just 54 in 1895. One wonders the direction her work might have taken if she'd made it into the 20th century and lived another 20-30 years, like Monet for instance, a year older than she, who died in 1926.

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