To you—is it movement or is it action?
Is it contact or just reaction?
And you—revolution or just resistance?
Is it living or just existence?
Yeah, you—it takes a little more persistence
To get up and go the distance
“View of Paris from the Trocadéro”
The Sense of Here and There and the Choices We Make
First of all, this image is quite striking just visually. It is a view from a famous tourist spot on the fringes of Paris looking toward the city proper. At the top, atmospheric perspective has turned the buildings of Paris purple. But visible is the dome of the Hotel des Invalides, the cupola of the Pantheon and the towers of Saint-Sulpice and Notre Dame and Saint Clotilde. The middle ground is mostly indeterminate shapes of various shades of tan. In the foreground things become visually quite odd, with the bulging, almost abstract half-oval of a lawn beginning as a straight line in the near foreground and forming an arc out toward the view of Paris. In the near foreground are two middle age women in ‘respectable’ clothing, black and white. Separated from the two women is a young girl.
Things are more than just visually quite odd. In Morisot paintings it is very rewarding to look closely and dwell on details. And there are some good ones here. And some that we shall see repeated tomorrow and the next day.
The two women are dressed in black and white. This fashion statement identifies them with the artist. Morisot was well known for dressing in all black or all white. In fact, a writer visited her studio as a boy and later recounted the experience: “How she scared me . . . with her ‘strange’ dress, always in black or white, her dark and burning eyes, her angular, thin, pale face, the curt, abrupt, nervous words, and the way she laughed when I asked to see what she hid in ‘her notebook.’”
The middle age women are standing, quite static, in fact leaning, against a fence, with their backs turned to the city of Paris. The woman in white has the view of Paris over her right shoulder. This seemingly pointless detail we will see again tomorrow and the next day.
The young girl is separated from the two women. Unlike the women who are static, leaning against the fence, the young girl is dynamic. She is walking toward the fence. Morisot has taken some care not only to show both of the young girl’s feet, but to make it clear that the feet are not at the same level, that the young girl is in fact walking toward the fence. Morisot even has drawn the girl’s shadow in front of her, as if it’s a visual arrow leading her on.
The young girl is facing toward the city of Paris. The young girl is walking toward the fence, presumably, to get the best view possible of the city.
The middle age women are static, facing away from the city. The young girl is dynamic, facing toward the city, walking toward the city.
But Morisot then did a very cool thing. Look at the color of the young girl’s dress. It is violet. The girl’s dress is the same color as the buildings of Paris in the distance.
Atmospheric perspective has turned the distant view purple. The mid-ground is tans and greens. The foreground is greens and black and white. The only color in the near foreground is the violet of the young girl’s dress.
Morisot has painted the young girl facing the city, walking toward the city and to underscore the point has painted the young girl’s dress the same color as the city.
Just in case the viewer didn’t notice that the women are facing away from Paris while the young girl is facing toward Paris, just in case the viewer didn’t notice the young girl’s feet, just in case the viewer didn’t notice there’s more going on here than meets the eye, Morisot used color to visually link the young girl in the foreground to the city of Paris in the distance.
This painting was not painted just to be looked at. This painting was painted to be looked at and to be thought about.
This image, like almost all Morisot landscapes, is not simply an ‘evocation of place.’ This image, like almost all Morisot landscapes, creates first a sense of here and there. One place, there, alive, thriving, kind of wild, seductive, interesting. The other place, here, familiar, sedate, proper, peaceful, boring. And then, as we shall see in other Morisot landscapes, the figures she identifies with her adult self have accepted the here place, they’ve accepted the familiar, sedate, proper, peaceful, boring place. But there is always another element, a link to another part of Morisot’s self—her sense of her own youth? her reflection of herself as Victorine Meurent?—almost desperately longing for the other place, there, where the hours are alive, thriving, wild, seductive, interesting.
And even if we don’t know the motivation that prompted Morisot to create the image, even if it’s not rooted somewhere in Morisot’s thinking of Meurent, the visual reality of it is still there, still so plain, still waiting for us to project our own desires, our own accepted selves and our own secret selves into the dynamics of the scene and, through the magic of the amazing art, become a little more alive ourselves and come to know ourselves a little better.
This isn’t art. This is fucking great art.
This does more than make my hands shake. This brings tears to my eyes.
I can’t put into words how pissed off it makes me that Morisot, who created images like this, is typically regarded as the talented amateur and Manet is typically regarded as the master.
I can’t put into words how pissed off it makes me that Morisot had a lifelong crush on Manet and looked to him for direction when she on her own could create magical stuff like this.
I can’t put into words how grateful I am that regardless of her endless insecurities and self-doubts Morisot almost always found the inner strength to stand in front of a canvas and remain true to her own sensibilities, create compositions that were true to her own artistic sense-of-self and she never settled for simply ‘making paintings’ that would impress other painters or wow the critics. (Because that, damn it, is what Manet did.)
[exhales] Okay. And this is just the first painting. Tomorrow’s is even better and Wednesday’s is best of all.
Tomorrow: “The Harbour at Lorient”