She, Berthe Morisot: impressionist and rococo

Photo of author

By John

That 15 April 1874, in rue de Capucines, in Paris, she was also there to exhibit, Berthe Morisot, in defiance of the rules and prejudices, in defiance of the conventions of the Academy which had rejected her as a woman. She was there with them, with those kids who changed painting and who changed history. Ten days later, an article appeared in the satirical newspaper «Le Charivari», signed by Louis Leroy, contemptuously defined them as «Impressionists». Contemporary art was born.
The sun began to heat the attics of Boulevard des Capucines with the warmth of spring and its light made the streets, the trees, the banks of the Seine ephemeral, without boundaries. It was a good bunch, wonderful and quarrelsome traveling companions, free men who never thought that their place should be within the domestic walls. The previous year, in 1873, they had created the «Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers», and this was how they called themselves and presented themselves to the public. Berthe exhibited 9 works, including the cradle, painted in 1870, when the uproar of the commune inside Paris, and of the war on the border with the Prussians, had attracted most of her companions, Édouard, his brother Eugéne, and the others while she had taken refuge with her sister Edma in the countryside, in Cherbourg.
Her figure bent over her granddaughter’s cradle touched her. Her sister had also taken painting and drawing lessons since she was a young girl from Joseph-Benoit Guichard, an art master and follower of Delacroix, but, after her marriage, she had stopped painting. In that brilliant 1874, after the exhibition, she married Eugéne Manet, Édouard’s brother. She had met Édouard in 1867 at the Louvre, where many painters had gone since the Revolution had made it a public place of paideia, perhaps she had fallen in love with Édouard, perhaps he too had fallen in love with her, certainly their friendship was intimate, very deep, they talked about colour, light, the transparency of water, they were happy, possessed, painting was their life. The slender and very elegant Berthe with large black eyes, perhaps to further assert her independence, never acquired, as was customary, her husband’s surname and continued to sign her works with her maiden name until her death in 1895.
Recognition of Morisot’s talent has grown over time, marked by extraordinary exhibitions and renewed critical appreciation. His star, long eclipsed by his male colleagues, now shines unchallenged. Until March 3, a detailed exhibition at the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris contributes to this journey by demonstrating its importance not only among the Impressionists, but also in the broader history of art and highlights new aspects. The retrospective «Berthe Morisot et l’art du XVIII siècle» brings together 65 paintings, relating them to the works of her predecessors – Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau and others – so as to highlight their the flu. Curated by art historians Marianne Mathieu and Dominique d’Arnoult, with the essential contribution of Claire Gooden, curator of the Museum, the exhibition is based on unpublished documents, letters, newspaper clippings and notes belonging to the artist and her husband Eugène Manet which made it possible to reconstruct the context and chronology of Morisot’s production and which seem to have disavowed the alleged kinship with Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
It is therefore not the lineage, the mechanics of a family tree, that highlights the link with the Age of Enlightenment but the connection that transcends time and style. With his evocative portraits and scenes of everyday life bathed in light, Morisot has overcome the artistic boundaries of his time by fusing modern sensitivity with admiration for the past and translating rocaille lightness into an even brighter and more fringed language; something that her own colleagues recognized, often comparing her to 18th century painters.
Renoir defined her as «the last elegant artist after Fragonard» and, on the occasion of her posthumous retrospective in 1896, Paul Girard reviewed her: «It is the modernized eighteenth century».
Everything revolves around the lightness and the breaking down of the image in the light in which the complicity of scenarios and subjects, especially female, is shared with Watteau and the Fragonard of the boudoirs, the use of pastel finds consonance in the art of Perronneau (but I dare say, also by Rosalba Carriera) and, in his latest works, he even goes so far as to borrow the sensuality of Boucher.