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Her face is known to art lovers around the world. She was the dark-eyed femme fatale in luminous 19th-century frocks who sat for Edouard Manet's most lyrical portraits, but in real life Berthe Morisot was far more than just an alluring model. She was herself an artist, an influential member of that brilliant band of radicals who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of light for light's sake, the Impressionists. Unlike her friends Renoir, Monet and Degas, Morisot has remained in the shadows. When she has been considered at all, it has usually been as a minor female painter in the male constellation of grands maîtres. Nor is Morisot's work easy to track down in museums. Many of her oils and watercolors are tucked away in private collections or owned by her descendants in France.
But after decades of neglect, a major Morisot exhibit is on at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It is a beautiful show, the second-largest exhibit ever of her paintings. The largest was assembled in Paris in 1896, the year after her death, by Monet, Renoir, Degas and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
Morisot's subject matter was usually the bourgeois world around her. Her domestic landscapes reflect women and children at play in gardens and parks, and she secured a sense of idyllic preserve by including familiar objects—a bench, a low railing, lattice work in a garden. But even though the scenes are familiar, they are never banal. Her most haunting works vibrate with a high-strung resonance created by her quick, sure strokes, intense on the canvas.
Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France, into an upper-middle-class family. She studied, as a young woman, with Camille Corot. In 1867, while copying a painting at the Louvre, she met Manet, who became her friend, comrade in the arts and then brother-in-law. She married Eugène Manet in 1874 and spent part of the next summer on the Isle of Wight, where she became the first Impressionist to paint a landscape series. Morisot showed at seven of the eight landmark Impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886, missing the one in 1879, when she fell ill after the birth of her daughter, Julie.
Julie became her mother's favorite model. She makes an early appearance in 1880's Nursing, one of Morisot's most visually poetic works. Against a shimmering forest wall, a wet nurse in white bonnet and gown holds Julie in her arms. A green parasol drifts into the bosky background, and Morisot's straw hat, a visual signature, floats nearby on the grass. Forest of Compiègne (1885) is a landscape hovering at the edge of abstraction. There is no sky, but the air and trees all around are flooded with light so pale it bleaches the bark and casts blond streaks across the forest floor. Morisot's vision was not always serene. An 1885 self-portrait hints at an uneasy spirit, perhaps due to recent deaths in her family. The artist's eyes are troubled, and the strokes of an orange crayon on her lips, nostrils and ears add disturbing depth to the face.
These works are among 104 in the exhibition Berthe Morisot—Impressionist. After its Washington run ends Nov. 29, the show travels to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (Dec. 12-Feb. 21, 1988), and from March 14 to May 9 will be at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Mass., co-organizer of the exhibit with the National Gallery. The fine catalog is by Charles F. Stuckey and William P. Scott.
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