Monday, January 14, 2008

Butterfly Kisses

Born on this date in 1841, Berthe Morisot is in many ways the First Lady of the Impressionists. After studying under Camille Corot and exhibiting in the Salon de Paris, Morisot threw caution to the wind and threw in with the ragtag bunch of upstarts joining forces under the leadership of Édouard Manet, who became her friend and second great influence. Manet’s 1872 portrait of Morisot (above) shows the confident, beautiful young woman painter at the beginning of her career, two years before she joined the Impressionist revolt. Although Berthe later married Manet’s brother, Eugene, and developed into a fine artist, she always had to struggle against sexism. Once, when Manet made a criticism of one her paintings and she agreed, he actually took it upon himself to correct it with his own brush. I just can’t imagine him doing the same thing to Renoir.

A common criticism of Morisot’s painting is that she painted only lighter subjects, clearly a code for “not serious” and, therefore, female. Considering the lighthearted subject matter of most Impressionist art, it’s hard to really buy into such criticisms. Morisot’s Chasing Butterflies (above, from 1874) epitomizes the airy, gentle touch and subject matter of much of her work. The difference between the “feminine” one sees here and the “feminine” aspects of Renoir, Degas, or Monet is entirely in the gender of the artist. Perhaps you can make the case for a “masculine” brand of Impressionism in the works of Manet, especially his more scandalous nudes, but that still wouldn’t differentiate the works of Morisot from any number of male Impressionists. I bet you could have easily slipped a work such as Chasing Butterflies into the Renoir Landscapes exhibition recently at the PMA without anyone noticing.

Morisot always placed a greater priority on her roles as wife and mother than on her life as an artist, which held her back to some degree. The Artist's Daughter with a Parakeet (above, from 1890) shows some of the pleasure Morisot took in the family life she fostered, unlike so many of her male contemporaries who buried themselves in their work and, perhaps as a consequence, suffered the woes of a dysfunctional family existence. In this respect, Morisot’s art resembles that of Mary Cassatt, who painted beautifully intimate scenes of motherhood despite never being a mother herself. In many ways I’ve always seen Morisot as the most well-adjusted of the Impressionists, the one who had her life always in balance. Some might say that she was never willing to pay the price to become a great artist. You could say equally that she was never willing to pay the price of being a great artist.

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