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‘Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism’

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1885 © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris;
Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1885 © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris;

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Impressionism is all about the great outdoors. It’s all fields and waves and flowers and light. That was OK for the blokes of the movement (your Monets, your Renoirs) but it wasn’t so easy for fellow impressionist founder Berthe Morisot.

Just as she was kept away from the boy’s club of traditional French art (she was only able to study the subject because her family was rich enough to pay for a private tutor) she was also kept away from nature. Women back then were meant to stay home, look after the house, lounge languidly on chaise longues and raise some kids. Even when Morisot did make it outside to paint, she had to sneak out at dawn so crowds wouldnt gather to gawp at the sight of a woman making art.

The central aspect of the movement she helped found was kept at arm’s length, so she turned inwards, indoors, inside.

So tender, so clever, so experimental, so special

There are gorgeous ‘plein air’ paintings here – a stunning dawn boat ride, a walk through a haze of green grass – but Morisot’s best work is all behind closed doors. She painted women tense in formal evening wear, exhausted at their dressing table, lost in introspection or caught in moments of private silence. Her’s is the art of female domesticity, of inner lives, of light shining through windows instead of tree canopies. 

This show’s main aim is to explore how the nineteenth century influenced Morisot’s art, how she was caught between tradition and modernity. So her work is shown alongside paintings by Antoine Watteau, Joshua Reynolds and Fragonard. Her reclining woman apes Boucher’s ‘Madame de Pompadour’, her pastel of a young girl hangs next to a pastel by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau. It’s all interesting art historically, but totally unnecessary. Morisot is so rarely exhibited and celebrated that to pad the show out with all these works by older deader men just distracts from the main draw.

And that’s a shame, because Morisot is such a draw. So much of her work here is genuinely beautiful. The brushstrokes in her late 1870s works are almost violent, these massive gestural scratches in lilac and grey, rendering half of each canvas almost abstract. Her ‘Girl on a Divan’ is drenched in watery blues and greens, her portraits of her daughter are filled with love and aching sadness. There’s fashion everywhere, perfect hairstyles, her sister watering some plants in heels, a woman at a ball flashing a painted fan, a ghostly woman at her mirror. And then everyone collapses in a heap on a couch or bed. The weight of modern life just too exhausting to bear. 

Morisot is so tender, so clever, so experimental, so special. Her life may have had more limits on it than her male peers, but she filled with just as much passion, and just as much beauty.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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