The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Now – Jan 14, 2019
Material Impressions: Reflections on the work of Berthe Morisot
by Zoë Dostal
Recently, I visited “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” currently on view at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. I had the privilege of a private guided tour by Anne Higonnet, Professor of Art History at Barnard College and Columbia University, whose dissertation on Morisot and subsequent publications stimulated a revival of interest in this understudied artist. Professor Higonnet’s tour of the exhibition emphasized how Morisot’s canvases time and again subvert expectations of gender performance in the tightly constructed spaces of nineteenth-century Paris.
Berthe Morisot, Reclining Woman in Gray, 1879, Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. Private Collection. Image from exhibition catalogue, Cat. 24.
Consider, for example, Reclining Woman in Gray, 1879, in which a woman lies on a couch in a typically suggestive and inviting pose. She wears a low-cut, grey silk dress, but as Professor Higonnet observed, Morisot is “making clothing do what she wants, not what it is meant to do.” The crisscrossing dashes and daubs of grey, blue and white paint that make the dress are frenetically applied to obfuscate the body and deny an objectifying gaze. The longer one looks, the harder it becomes to access the woman as the eye is challenged and defeated at every turn by Morisot’s manipulation of the material.
Young Woman Dressed for the Ball, 1879, Oil on canvas, 71 x 54 cm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Similarly, a painting from the same year, Young Woman Dressed for the Ball, deploys what Professor Higonnet called, “strategies of defense from the gaze.” On the one hand, the young woman fits right in with any young parisienne dressed up for a glittering urban ball at which she will be examined and assessed as an aesthetic and desirable object. Morisot’s brushwork, while summarily capturing the revealing white ballgown, mystifies the body behind the slash of white flowers that cut at a diagonal from the woman’s shoulder to her waist. While presenting her body in a full-frontal position, the parisienne turns her head to the right, breaking the harmony of her pose. Her facial expression does not express coyness, but rather a sternness in her refusal to meet the viewer’s eye. Her impassivity pushes the viewer to look away, uneasy at her troubled demeanor.
Woman at her Toilette, 1875-80, Oil on canvas, 60.3 × 80.4 cm, Art Institute of Chicago
In Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80, Morisot again defies convention in a typical Impressionist trope. A young woman is in an interior space looking in a mirror to prepare herself. We see her only from the back, drawn in by the exposed flesh of her upper back and left shoulder. She has raised her right arm, which forms an elegant arabesque pose, but Morisot prevents the viewer from learning what function she is performing. The action might be revealed by the mirror, but Morisot has left only a flesh-colored blur. Her face is similarly indistinct, all but the faintest hints of profile erased by the brush. In the end, the viewer is left with a puzzle of flesh and material that threatens to dissolve rather than promising to reveal.
In the Country after Lunch, 1881, Oil on canvas, 81 x 100cm. Lawrence Ellison Private Collection. Image from the exhibition catalogue, Cat. 42
Morisot’s 1881 painting In the Country (After Lunch) depicts a woman in a purple dress, sitting at a table and facing the viewer, a lush garden just outside the window behind her. Morisot builds up a series of grids throughout the painting, from the iron bars separating window panes, to the window blinds, the back of the wooden chair, the texture of the table and even a series of marks on the lower right wall. These external grids echo and reinforce the grid of long, vertical purple lines just visible in the woman’s corset. Noticing this detail, the painting no longer depicts a charming countryside afternoon but becomes a commentary on the physical restrictions on women’s bodies and domains – here the interior domesticate space, gridded and claustrophobic, which is referenced in the woman’s constricting garment.
Woman and her Child on Balcony, 1871-72, Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo. Image from exhibition catalogue, Cat. 36.
In one of the first works of the exhibition, Woman and Child on a Balcony, 1871-72, a child looks through the thin iron supports of a black balcony rail onto the vista of Paris. Her mother, leaning on the balustrade, watches her child as she looks. Professor Higonnet argued that in this work, Morisot is expressing a hope for the future. She is imagining a world in which women look and are looked at differently, as equals. This interpretation is supported by the quote from Morisot’s journal that opens the exhibition: “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked for – I know I am worth as much as they are.” Yet, the railings still stand between the girl and the expanse of the vista before her, limiting her movement and her space, even as her mother’s gaze is focused on her, perhaps as a reference to the limiting associations of kinships, the surveillance of a parent figure, or the projection of her hopes and desires.
The exhibition is open in Philadelphia until January 14, 2019 before going to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie.
For more on Professor Higonnet’s work, please see Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women, (Harvard University Press, 1992) and Berthe Morisot. A Biography, (multiple editions 1989-95).
Exhibition catalogue: Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist. New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2018.