In  The Dining Room (1880), a painting included in “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” eludes ready explication, in large part because it seems so impossible. As an image, it couldn’t be closer to the mundane: a housemaid tends to some dinnerware. She is shunted to the right of the composition, her back to the viewer. At the bottom left, we see a cropped tabletop featuring an unkempt array of dishes and utensils. Towering over the scene, perched atop a mantle, is a sizable ceramic serving piece. The moment encapsulated—offhand, all but absent of import—recalls the tensile informality of Chardin’s genre paintings, and points to the furtive mises-en-scène of Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. What sets the Morisot apart is its evanescence. Nothing in the painting achieves firm definition; concreteness remains elusive. Shapes are delineated through a scrabbled array of dots, dabs, dashes, and squiggles. Morisot’s brushwork builds form from the inside out: the maid’s skirt is, in painterly terms, a hurricane. The scene gains presence even as it threatens to dissipate. In The Dining Room is a quickening performance.

Berthe Morisot, In the Dining Room, 1880, Oil on canvas, Private collection.

“Performance” is the operative word. Morisot’s pictures move. In their brevity and rhythm, the paintings are unlike those of any Impressionist you could care to name. The work makes that of her peers—Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir, each of whom was a friend of Morisot’s—look classical in repose, rigid and composed. When confronted by the whiplash facture of Woman at Her Toilette (1875–80), Reclining Woman in Gray (1879), or Young Girl with Doll (1884), you begin to wonder if the “Impressionist” tag is altogether appropriate. Forget how the paintings were received at the end of the nineteenth century—at least, outside of her cohorts in the avant-garde. Morisot’s art continues to startle, fairly leaping off the walls. Up until the 1890s, when she fell under the (not altogether happy) influence of Renoir and Munch, Morisot is all edge—sometimes impatient, ever acute, curiously dispassionate, and tenacious in the attempt to reconcile the observed world with the often resistant prerequisites of oil painting. Even the most bucolic tableaux—say, the late afternoon leisure of Reading (1888)—are infused with a staccato sense of doubt. Morisot described painting as a “pitched battle with my canvases.” Her best pictures trill with the drama of their making.

Berthe Morisot, Young Girl with Doll, 1884, Oil on canvas, Private collection.

Born in 1841 to well-off parents, the teenage Morisot, along with older sister Edma, took up painting at their mother’s request—for the sole purpose of crafting birthday gifts for Père Morisot. A passion for the art form was consequently instilled in both sisters. After rifling through a spate of instructors, most notably Corot, Berthe and Edma met with early success—exhibiting works in the 1864 Paris Salon and garnering favorable critical notice. Falling in with the advanced circles of Parisian culture, the sœurs Morisot hobnobbed with notables like Henri Fantin-Latour, Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Edma put down her brushes in 1869 upon marrying Adolphe Pontillon, a naval lieutenant stationed in Lorient. Berthe persevered, notwithstanding the constant—and irksome—hubbub surrounding her eligibility. Edma warned her off marriage, encouraging Berthe to “use all your skill and all your charm to find something more satisfactory to you.” Berthe didn’t need convincing. Flatly dismissing romance—which was, you know, “all very well”—Morisot never wavered in her commitment to painting. This was true even when she did marry in 1874, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, to Eugène Manet, the artist’s brother.

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The Morisot and Manet families had long been close, and it’s been the scuttlebutt of art history that Berthe’s true love was not Eugène but Edouard. The two artists were close, with Manet having what seems, in contemporary terms, an unhealthy preoccupation with his friend’s marriageability. All the same, Manet took seriously Morisot’s skills as a painter, and she, in turn, ardently sought his counsel. Morisot figures prominently in Manet’s oeuvre: she’s the stony figure in the foreground of The Balcony (1868–69), and she was the subject of several portraits. Morisot never reciprocated the favor; however, Eugene can be seen in a trio of paintings, each of which features him ensconced in a garden setting with their small daughter. (For what it’s worth, Eugène is also on view at the periphery of a small landscape from 1875.) However much we may want to read into the Manet-Morisot union through the pictures—Eugene comes across as testy and preoccupied—attention should be focused less on romantic rumor than on Morisot’s portrayals of women, not least herself and Edma. A self-portrait from 1885 depicts a temperament that is bracingly self-possessed and markedly bereft of ego. The Cradle (1872), in which Edma gazes upon her newborn daughter, is an image of motherhood that is rarely touched upon in the visual arts. Few paintings have captured the misgivings of parenthood with as much candor and clarity.

“Woman Impressionist”? Try “Great Painter.”

Women are, in fact, the focus of the Barnes show: not just Morisot herself, but her extended family, fashionable Parisiennes, household help, and sundry models. Is it possible to avoid identity in writing about this show, particularly at this hyper-politicized juncture? The very title of the exhibition—“Woman Impressionist”—raises the question, as does a catalogue that begins enumerating Morisot’s life and achievement by rolling out—mais naturellement!—the Guerrilla Girls. Morisot was markedly aware of prevailing cultural attitudes: her diaries and correspondence are rife with pithy observations on the condescension she encountered as a woman artist. It’s also true that the work was highly regarded by her male peers, and that Morisot’s professional career was enviable. That we are only fitfully aware of her accomplishment here in the twenty-first century can be checked off to many things, sexism included. Still, foisting contemporary mores on bygone figures is a fraught venture, if only because it tends to strong-arm history and short-change complexity. Morisot is too individual a painter and personality to fit into anybody’s ideological straitjacket. “Woman Impressionist”? Try “Great Painter.” Ultimately, that’s what the Barnes show delivers. It should not be missed.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 57
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