All the world loves Impressionism. Berthe Morisot was the group’s first female member—even if the Pennsylvania-born Mary Cassatt may be the most remembered. For too long, Morisot has been treated as a relatively minor Impressionist, even though her peers Degas, Monet, and Renoir praised her work and added her paintings to their personal collections. Interestingly, however, during the early days of Impressionism critics often treated her work more favorably than that of her male colleagues, whose experiments were more often met with skepticism, if not brickbats. But as the stocks of the other Impressionists rose, hers inexplicably declined. Her sex and her essentially feminine eye, which typically chose women and children as principal subjects, may have worked against a proper appreciation of her achievement. Fortunately, Morisot’s posthumous fame has grown in recent years (an unexpected boon, perhaps, of the male sex going out of fashion). “Berthe Morisot and the Art of the Eighteenth Century” at the Musée Marmottan Monet (MMM) is the third show devoted to the artist in Paris since 2012—one could almost even say the fourth, if the MMM’s 2021 exhibition on Julie Manet, the daughter and frequent subject of Morisot, can be said to count. The MMM is the preeminent institution for admirers and students of Morisot, given that it holds not only so many of her paintings but also the world’s largest archive of her personal documents.
The exhibition, a joint effort with London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, is a double attraction. In addition to featuring dozens of pieces by the titular artist, it displays this work side by side with pictures by the eighteenth-century French rococo masters Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, as well as their contemporaries from the other side of the Channel, such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney. The intent is to show the ways that Morisot’s delicate artistry “harked back to the previous century,” as Renoir himself put it.
The rococo style fell out of favor before the French Revolution due to diatribes such as Diderot’s denouncement of the movement’s “falseness.” Boucher was singled out by Diderot, though he did admit the charm of the painter’s work. Diderot’s disapproval did not stop artists such as Fragonard (and other lesser masters) from continuing the rococo tradition until his death in 1806, but by then the style was on the fringes of popularity. But a revival in its reputation came in 1860 with an exhibition of eighteenth-century paintings and drawings at Paris’s Martinet Gallery, the catalogue of which was written by the critic Philippe Burty, a future early champion of Impressionism. Morisot, born in 1841, was then studying with the painter Joseph Guichard (she later studied with Corot), but it is unknown whether she saw the exhibition. Four years later she formed a living link with the previous century’s art by befriending Léon Riesener (Eugène Delacroix’s cousin and a grandson of Jean-Henri Riesener, the great eighteenth-century cabinetmaker to the royal family). This lineage is far more substantiated than Morisot’s own misinformed belief that she was related to Fragonard, a theory recently revealed to be most likely untrue by research conducted in the MMM’s Morisot archives.
Riesener also provided Morisot the introduction to her closest friend, Adèle d’Affry, Duchess of Castiglione-Colonna, a sculptor, painter, and engraver whose artist’s pseudonym was “Marcello.” Marcello’s 1875 portrait of Morisot is included in the exhibition. It shows her holding a fan, looking either sensual or tired, though it’s not clear which. Fans mattered a great deal to Morisot. In 1872 her brother-in-law Édouard Manet painted her holding one in front of her face; dressed mostly in black and wearing a three-cornered hat, she takes a languid stance, erotic and alluring. The exhibition includes two fans she owned. One of them, her favorite, features a reproduction of Boucher’s The Gallant Shepherd. She holds this same fan as she looks intently to the left in her 1875 self-portrait At the Ball.
More pomp is found in one of the exhibition’s highlights, Watteau’s Pleasures of the Ball (ca. 1715–17), which rarely travels from Dulwich. Watteau and Morisot shared a rare grace in the painting of women, as is beautifully borne out in Pleasures as well as in the Morisot gem Woman at her Toilette (1875–80), normally housed in the Art Institute of Chicago. The woman is seen from the back, giving us a view of Morisot’s exquisite treatment of the subject’s neck and shoulders. A feeling of poetic longing is evoked, just as it is in Watteau’s idyllic scene. Stylistically, the brisk white brushtrokes drifting across the canvas are closer to Velázquez, perhaps via Manet, than anything eighteenth-century. The lyrical treatment can recall Watteau.
For Morisot, François Boucher was an “extraordinary man of all the graces and all the audacities.” She copied him several times. The exhibition presents Boucher’s Apollo Reveals His Divinity to the Shepherdess Isse (1750) alongside Morisot’s copy of a detail of two nymphs against the background’s twisted branches and river reeds. But distinctions arise in comparison to the likes of Fragonard, Boucher, and Watter from the difference in a woman’s perspective and a man’s. In comparing, for example, Morisot’s Young Girl in Repose (1892) to Boucher’s Young Girl Sleeping (ca. 1760), we see in the former a more innocent and familiar treatment of the subject. Morisot’s young girl appears earnest, not at all self-conscious, whereas Boucher’s is knowing and somehow self-conscious even in sleep.
Morisot and her husband sojourned to the Isle of Wight and elsewhere in England in 1875. There she studied Reynolds, Romney, and Gainsborough, the last of whom was still underestimated in France despite his affinities with Watteau. The exhibition points out the influence of Romney’s Mrs Mary Robinson (ca. 1780–81) on Morisot’s Hiver, Dame au Manchon (1880); the pose and bashful gaze of the subject in the former is clearly echoed in the latter. Gainsborough was a revelation to Morisot; she was fascinated by Blue Boy (ca. 1770), whose tints of incandescent blue may have influenced her own in Lucie Léon at the Piano (1892).
Even if one questions the extent of the exhibition’s premise regarding Morisot’s debt to the eighteenth century, one cannot doubt that the influence does indeed exist. Regardless, the show is beautifully presented and will delight lovers of both eighteenth-century art and Berthe Morisot.