Monday, January 21, 2008

The Landscapes With Figures Of Berthe Morisot #1

“I don’t know who has treated Ophelia worse, Hamlet, Gertrude or literature professors.”

Did Gertrude Murder Ophelia?

Berthe Morisot’s birthday was last week. (b. 1841, 01/14 or 01/15, sources are unclear.) I can’t believe I missed it. I had other things on my mind, but those things seem to have cleared themselves up. I’m making up for missing Morisot’s birthday last week by making this whole week Berthe Morisot week.

Right at the start, let me bluntly say I’m completely unqualified to speak about either art or Morisot. I have no degree of any kind in art or art history. However, this is a topic to which I’ve applied myself a little bit and, at least in a blog way, I believe I have some worthwhile points to make.

I’m going to be talking specifically about three Morisot landscapes. Even with a full week, I barely will have room for everything I want to say about just these three paintings. I suspect I could do an entire blog just about Morisot, posting every day for two years and still not run out of things to say.

(Hmm. Right about now people who know me will be smiling and recognizing this is one of those topics where, if I were talking in real life, they would be putting a hand on my arm and telling me to calm down and pointing out that my hands are shaking...)

I’ve mentioned Morisot once before on the blog, in my post about pastels. I put up a pic of her painting, “On the Lawn.” I’ll be returning to this amazing image—my pick for one of the most powerful images ever created—later in the week.

I opened today’s post with a quote from myself [sigh] about Ophelia because just as fans—damn it—of Ophelia have reduced the complicated reality of her powerful character to a one dimensional, sad caricature, fans—damn it—of Berthe Morisot have essentially ignored her as an artist and reduced her to one or another trivial caricature: the talented amateur; the Manet protégé; the woman impressionist; the bourgeois illustrator; etc. Friends during her life and fans after her death did far more to dehumanize and pigeonhole Morisot—both in her own mind and in the ‘social consensus’ of history—than any enemies (and she really had few if any enemies) could have hoped to do.

A magical and weird thing about art is that an artist often sets out to do one thing and, succeeding or failing, also accomplishes something else, something entirely separate from their original intent. Morisot approached painting with clearly defined and heartfelt goals. She was a wildly smart woman and codified her thinking in frequent letters and journal entries: “It is important to express oneself...provided the feelings are real and are taken from your own experience.” “...The desire for glorification after death seems to me an excessive ambition; mine would be confined to seeking to capture something of the passing moment, oh, only something! The least little thing!

I’ll be returning to the full context of that second quote at the end of the week.

Berthe Morisot certainly accomplished the goals she set for herself. But her skills, passions and commitment to painting led her to create an entirely unique approach to landscapes with figures, far more powerful than anything Claude Monet or her other contemporaries ever managed.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I’m going to look at three paintings. Today I’m going to set up how artists have typically used figures in landscapes and I’m going to set up my extremely speculative belief in Morisot’s relationship to Edouard Manet and more specifically her thinking about Victorine Meurent shaped her self-image as an individual and how that self-image, then, worked itself out through her expressions and creations as an artist.

Indeed, to my eyes and sensibilities Morisot was a far greater artist than her lifelong friends Degas and Renoir. And I regard Morisot as a greater artist even than her lifelong ‘other’ and strange soul mate, Edouard Manet.


It’s certainly possible for a landscape to be a powerful image with no figures at all. Claude Lorrain’s beautiful ink sketch of the Tiber comes to mind. Or the landscapes of George Inness.

Classically, however, figures in a landscape provided the ‘narrative,’ they told the ‘story’ of a painting. So, we have images like Poussin’s “Landscape with the Buriel of Phocon” where the characters are acting out a cartoon-like scene.

In modern times, figures in a landscape are used to provide scale or as ornaments of one kind or another, such as in Claude Monet’s “Poppies”

In Morisot’s landscapes we will see that she embraces modernity and shuns narrative. However, rather than reducing figures to ornaments or structural roles, Morisot incorporates figures visually and conceptually into the very heart and soul of her compositions.


The most speculative element of my posts this week is that Berthe Morisot’s thinking about Victorine Meurent profoundly shaped Morisot’s own self-image and art. I assert this without direct evidence, but base my thinking on a very specific absence of certain evidence and my basic beliefs of human nature.

In terms of absence of evidence, I mean Morisot’s letters and journals. Morisot wrote openly of her contempt for Edouard Manet’s long-suffering wife. And if Morisot was at the same party with Manet or Degas and they flirted with anyone but Morisot, Morisot wrote openly of her displeasure: “M. Degas seems pleased, but guess who he left me for? For Mme Lille and Mme Loubens! I’ll admit I was a bit piqued to see a man I deem very clever abandoning me and offering his witticisms to two fools.

Regardless of their other friendships—indeed, of their marriages!—Morisot and Manet were lifelong soul mates.

But Victorine Meurent had been Manet’s first soul mate.

Physically, Morisot and Meurent had things in common. They both were beautiful, and they both had distinctive, idiosyncratic kinds of beauty. Their faces, their gazes, were described by painters and writers as ‘captivating.’

Artistically, Morisot and Meurent were both skilled painters. Morisot had extensive formal training. Meurent was self-taught and tutored by Manet. Both Morisot and Meurent were talented enough to have their works accepted by the difficult judges of the Paris Salon.

Personality-wise, however, Morisot and Meurent were opposites. Morisot was an upper class woman who embraced the sense of propriety a life of wealth and status delivered to her. Meurent was a working class woman who could openly do all the things Morisot could only dream of doing (or, if Morisot did them, she was forced to do them on the sly, when nobody was looking). Meurent could travel by herself; Meurent could mingle with male artists without a chaperon; Meurent could openly have an affair with Manet...

Berthe Morisot who wrote openly and bluntly about almost all aspects of her life, so far as I know, never once wrote a single comment in a letter or journal about Victorine Meurent, her only real competition for Manet’s deepest affection.

Is that believable?

There has been speculation that Morisot’s descendents—her family who still control her papers—have withheld letters and journals which contain explicit comments about her relationship with Manet. I believe these speculations are true.

Edouard Manet used Victorine Meurent as a model more frequently than he used Morisot. However, Manet painted more portraits of Morisot alone than he did of Meurent. Indeed, Manet devoted so much time and energy to painting Meurent and Morisot that when he would occasionally paint his own wife his friends would make amused asides, “About time,” and mention it in their journals.

Berthe Morisot, a passionate woman, must have thought about Meurent frequently, especially when Meurent, a very independent woman, asserted her independence over even Manet by leaving France and traveling to America.

Morisot must have understood it was only after Meurent left for America that Manet first asked her to pose.

But we have no letters and no journal entries where Morisot records her thoughts about Meurent.

Morisot’s work, however, is a different story. In many of Morisot’s paintings there is a profound sense of duality, outright conflict, between free-spirited youth and stolid age, between what can be seen as the proactive freedom of Meurent and Morisot’s own embrace of an adult, propriety-drive life.

We will see the duality in the three paintings I’m going to talk about this week. It is visible and clear and makes for amazing—magical?—art. My interpretation of this, that is, that Morisot’s thinking about Meurent created a kind of artistic fountainhead for her, is completely speculative, but against the backdrop of Morisot’s life and work, it appears reasonable.


Tomorrow: “View of Paris from the Trocadéro”

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