Exhibit of the week
Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist
Dallas Museum of Art, through May 26
It is taking far too long for Berthe Morisot to garner the recognition she deserves, said Rick Brettell in The Dallas Morning News. Though the well-to-do Parisian (1841–1895) seems to have been regarded by Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Manet (her brother-in-law) as a valued peer, her impressionist canvases were dismissed by fin-de-siècle critics as the work of a hobbyist. But look again at the surfaces of her paintings: In that company of legends, “she is among the boldest.” Her mostly domestic scenes are rendered in “a veritable blaze of rapidly applied gestural strokes,” creating a thrilling contrast with her subjects’ placidity. Fortunately, the traveling exhibition now showing in Dallas presents “a series of absolute masterpieces.” If this doesn’t secure Morisot’s place in the canon, nothing will.
The show’s subtitle, “Woman Impressionist,” sounds like another slight, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. But the label fits in a way, because Morisot is “a visual poet of womanhood like perhaps no other painter before or since.” Unlike the women painted by the male impressionists, hers “radiate selfhood, defying objectification.” Whether they’re impeccably attired bourgeois peers or seminude studio models, you don’t simply look at them, “you adduce what it’s like to be them.” Morisot “achieves this effect with intricate and fast brushwork that yields porous, tactile surfaces that absorb the eye and stir sensations of touch.” You can’t help but wish she had been more celebrated in her time, so that subsequent artists might have built a tradition by expanding on her example. Shortly before her untimely death, at 54, she was still growing. A “knockout” portrait of her 16-year-old daughter, finished months earlier, showed “a new emotional audacity.”
Always, though, her work had “a powerful feeling for life’s impermanence,” said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. That may be because she committed herself to making a living from her art shortly after the 1870–71 Siege of Paris, in which the French army was routed, Prussian bombing reduced her studio to rubble, and Parisians ate rats and squirrels to survive. In her greatest pictures, the evanescence of life is always subtext, “like a fleeting perfume or a schoolyard chant: ‘Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!’” That doesn’t make her portraits of women and girls grim, but it might change how you see them. “Fated always to be a heroic exemplar of the female artist in a male milieu, Morisot deserves to be recognized for other forms of heroism—and perhaps for her vulnerability too.” ■