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Berthe Morisot’s skill as an artist was swiftly recognized by the salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who accepted her work as early as 1864 when she was only 23. She continued to submit and have her work accepted there until 1874, when she made the conscious decision to join the group of renegades – Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Degas and others – and hang her work with them in what would become the first ‘Impressionist’ exhibition.
Rey’s book is not for those who have little previous knowledge of Berthe Morisot (1841–95), or the artistic position, as one of the major Impressionist painters, that she holds. There is little by way of biography. True, an illustrated time-line is to be found at the back, but it is of limited use, as a brief quotation from it will serve to show:
‘1886: stays and works on the island of Jersey. Shows eleven paintings at the eighth impressionist exhibition.
1888: stays at Villa Ratti in Cimez’
What Morisot did in 1887 remains a mystery, along with many other missing years. You will also need to read the entire text from cover to cover to find out more about the Villa Ratti, since there is no overall index.
Not that there’s a great deal of text. The foreword by Sylvie Patry, Curator at the Musee d’Orsay, takes up the first 45 pages, though her words are interspersed with illustrations, and it is probably no longer than a foreword should be. She sketchily covers Morisot’s upbringing; her taking up painting with her sister Edma; their tutelage under the landscape painter Camille Corot (1796–1875); Edma’s relinquishing her interest upon marriage; Berthe’s introduction to Édouard Manet; her encouragement of him to try out painting in the open air; and her marriage to his brother Eugène. But Patry is more concerned to show, quite rightly, through reference to particular works, the impact of Morisot’s strikingly original technique, her brushwork, her palette, and her choice of motif in concentrating upon the ordinary everyday life of her circle of family and friends.
The main section of the book, entitled ‘The beautiful painter’, is by Jean-Dominique Rey, a distinguished art historian. Covering just over 100 pages, it too is so lavishly interspersed with fine examples of Morisot’s work, that it can only really be called a long essay. There is a little more biography, and more detailed analysis of Morisot’s style and technique, with reference to particular works. There is much about the high regard in which she was held by other members of the Impressionist group, most of whom owned one or more of her paintings. But Rey’s main thrust is to attempt to dispel the long-held view that Morisot was simply a pupil of Édouard Manet. His claim, with some substance, is that they worked as equals, she advancing his work as much as vice versa.
Authorities in this field will, I fear, discover little that is new, though they may be interested in the section upon Morisot’s circle, in discovering that Stéphane Mallarmé attributed to her the quality of ‘suggestion’ so much beloved of the Symbolist artists of the time. Or that fellow artist Jacques-Émile Blanche would write:
‘I should like to believe that she perhaps suggested, to Claude Monet or Sisley, that a Parisian view or the landscape around Paris, a garden, a railway bridge, poppies in a pale field of oats [...] were painterly motifs...’
Any doubts about her exalted position amongst the artists of her generation may be dispelled by this extract of a letter from Édouard Manet:
‘My dear Berthe,
I have indeed just received a visit from the dreaded Pissarro who spoke about your next exhibition. The gentlemen don’t seem to be able to agree. Gauguin is playing the great dictator. Sisley, who I also saw, would like to know what Monet should do. As for Renoir, he hasn’t yet returned to Paris.’
There are a number of good things to say about this book. It is beautifully produced, as one would expect from this publisher. There are over 150 high-quality illustrations – paintings, pastels, photos – the majority in full colour: more than enough to enable an assessment of Morisot’s subject-matter, style, and technique. There is a page-numbered list of all the Morisot paintings shown; a useful bibliography; even a list of all the solo exhibitions devoted to the artist from 1892 to 2007.
It is a fine volume and not over-priced for what it is. Admirers and students of Morisot will be delighted to add it to their shelves; experts will somewhat reluctantly feel that they ought to have it; the less experienced would be better advised to begin elsewhere.
Berthe Morisot by Jean-Dominique Rey with foreword by Sylvie Patry is published by Flammarion, 2010. 200 pp., 150 colour and mono illus. ISBN 978-2-08-030168-0
Media credit: Private collection. © Galerie Hopkins-Custot, from Berthe Morisot (Paris: Flammarion 2010)