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Berthe Morisot and the Problem with Being one of the Boys

A new Berthe Morisot exhibition starting at the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia on October 21 has a strong flavor of rediscovery — or even resurrection — of a once prominent artist.

Nobody could call the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot an outsider. She was said to be descended on her mother’s side from the Rococo master Honoré Fragonard. Camille Corot encouraged her to paint landscapes. Edouard Manet painted her portrait a dozen times — and she married his younger brother Eugène. Her artistic circle included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. When they formed what became known as the Impressionist movement, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a founding member and the only woman to exhibit in the avant-garde group’s first exhibition in 1874, and the second, and so on for the next five shows.

Her emergence as a professional painter was exceptional in her day, where both convention and the State discouraged women from pursuing a career as an artist. Eschewing the racier subjects of most of her male companions such as ladies of the night and café scenes, she focused on the women of her class, on motherhood, fashion, and the bourgeoisie in 19th-century Paris, with exquisite use of incandescent tones and brushstrokes. Her Parisian woman became a symbol of modernity and her work remained popular throughout her lifetime. She often outsold many of her contemporaries, including Degas, Monet, and Sisley.

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Berthe Morisot, In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875. © Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet/Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

But a new Berthe Morisot exhibition, starting in the United States at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in October, then moving to the Dallas Museum of Art, and ending at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, has a strong flavor of rediscovery —or even resurrection — of a once prominent artist. In the words of Nicole Myers, curator of European paintings and sculpture at the Dallas Museum and the show’s co-curator, “in the 20th century, Berthe Morisot got written out and the Impressionist story became exclusively about her male colleagues.”

The most recent retrospective of Morisot’s work in America was in 1987 and, even more surprisingly, the last in Paris was in 1941. The purpose of Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, says Myers, “is to put her back into the canon.” “And it’s long overdue,” adds Cindy Kang, associate curator at the Barnes Foundation. “How many Monet exhibitions have there been during that time?” Kang agrees that Morisot’s reputation has suffered from “not being written about in art histories, and not being as celebrated by critics and historians as her male colleagues.” Part of the problem, both curators point out, is that, for all her popularity while alive, about 80 percent of her work was never put on sale and had not even been seen when she died. Most of it was subsequently sold to private collectors.

A criticism of Morisot’s work could be that the convention of the time limited her subject matter, with emphasis placed on lone, contemplative women. A male image is present in only 3 of the 60 or so works in the exhibition. He is identified only as “Mr. M” (in other words, Morisot’s husband Eugène Manet). And surely no other artist’s child has ever been portrayed more frequently than Morisot’s daughter Julie, depicted from infancy through late adolescence (Seated Young Girl; The Cherry Pickers), alone or with her father.

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Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette,1875–1880. © The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY.

The exhibition has been in preparation since 2015, but will be shown “at a moment that’s very fortuitous,” Myers observes. “There’s suddenly a greater awareness of the difficulties women experience, especially in the workplace.”

The exhibition brings back to the Barnes Foundation for the first time the only work by Berthe Morisot the gallery ever owned. Dr. Albert Barnes, who amassed the collection, bought Young Woman with Straw Hat in 1912 and sold it in 1936. It is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Dallas version of the show will focus on this particular piece.


Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist
– From October 21, 2018 through January 4, 2019

Barnes Foundation
Philadelphia, PA
– From February 24 through May 26, 2019
Dallas Museum of Art
Dallas, TX

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