“The very notion of truth is a culturally given direction, a part of the pervasive nostalgia for an earlier certainty. The very idea of a universal stability, an eternal firmness of principle out there that can be sought for through the world as might an Arthurian knight for the Grail, is, in the morphology of history, a direct outgrowth of the search for lost gods in the first two millennia after the decline of the bicameral mind. What was then an augury for direction of action among the ruins of an archaic mentality is now the search for an innocence of certainty among the mythologies of facts.”
“The Harbour at Lorient”
Searching Through The World Out There
Yesterday’s painting, “The View of Paris,” was organized visually as layers creating depth. “The Harbour at Lorient” is organized visually as reflections. The sky at the top of the painting is reflected in the water at the bottom. The woman to the right is reflected as the ships in the center and left.
How can ships be a reflection of a woman? That’s how art crosses over from art to great art and becomes magical art.
First, a couple of ‘social history’ type points that help clarify some background to this painting.
Lorient is a very old harbour in western France on the Atlantic coast. For many hundreds of years trading ships from all around the world have made port at Lorient.
The middle age woman all in white—the white, of course, identifies her with the artist, as we saw yesterday—is depicted by herself in a public place. She’s not with her husband. She’s not chaperoned by an older woman. She’s not herself chaperoning children. To the sensibilities of Europeans a hundred and fifty years ago, this image of a woman by herself in a public place would have been the first clue that the artist had created a painting with more going on than meets the eye.
And this composition has quite a lot going on, some of which meets the eye and some of which doesn’t meet the eye but must be thought about.
I picked the three paintings that I did and I’m posting them in this order because the paintings and the sequence illustrate both the depth of Morisot’s artistic thinking and also the expanse of her expressive means.
In yesterday’s “View of Paris,” the sense of “here” and “there” pitted the tranquility of tourist suburbia against the bustling work-a-day world of Paris. “The Harbour at Lorient” creates a much more encompassing dichotomy.
In “The Harbour at Lorient” a middle age woman—
[A note about this ‘middle age’ appellation: A hundred and fifty years ago in Europe even wealthy people didn’t expect to live much more than half a century. Manet died at fifty-one. Morisot herself died at fifty-four. Morisot was twenty-eight when she painted this. That was middle age.]
—is seated firmly on a stone pier. “Here” is on dry land in respectable, cumbersome clothing, even protected from the sun by a parasol. “There” is the rest of the world, because to a French man or woman Lorient immediately would have brought to mind the trade routes that touched on every continent of the globe. Lorient is an Atlantic port, not a Mediterranean gateway to Europe or Africa.
So, we have the sky above and the sky below. We have a middle age woman oddly alone in a public place to the right. And we have half a dozen or so merchant ships in the Lorient harbour from God-knows-what exotic ports of call from around the world to the left.
The middle age woman is pointedly not looking at the merchant ships. And it’s worth noting that the ships are positioned over her right shoulder. Yesterday, the woman in white had the view of Paris positioned over her right shoulder. We will see this again tomorrow.
The woman starring forlornly down at the stone pier she’s sitting on is so not looking at the ships but the ships are so her own reflection!
Start with the woman’s head. The woman’s head in the foreground and the ships in the middle distance occupy the same vertical ‘level’ of the composition. Look at the line of the horizon behind the woman’s head. Morisot has carefully painted a kind of ‘stairway’ of structures leading the viewer’s eye from the woman’s head to the left and down directly to the nearest ship.
Consider, too, the shapes of the ship hulls. They are irregular ovals. Compare them to the shape of the woman’s hat and hair. The ship hulls, made small by distance and perspective, visually appear quite similar to the shape of the woman’s hat and hair.
More intriguingly than just level and shapes in perspective, Morisot painted the ship hulls as rich darks, deep brown. The woman’s hat and hair, shadowed by her parasol, are the same darks, also deep brown.
Just in case the viewer didn’t notice the horizon line or the shapes or the colors, Morisot does a very cool thing.
Look at the woman’s hat. Though the woman’s head is shaded by her parasol, Morisot has drawn on the top of the hat a small flower, bright white in the sun. Look at the nearest large ship. The hull is dark, like the woman’s hat, and the dark hull is topped by a small cabin, bright white in the sun. Look at the ship in the center of the channel. The hull is dark, topped by a small working sail bright white in the sun.
That’s how ships can be a reflection of a woman.
In yesterday’s “View of Paris,” the women were static, leaning on a fence. The child was dynamic, walking toward the view of Paris. In “The Harbour at Lorient,” the woman is static, seated on the stone pier. Look at the ship in the center of the channel. It is sailing away. We know the ship is sailing away and not entering the harbour because Morisot has carefully painted the working sail at the ship’s bow, slowly pulling the ship out of the harbour.
Conceptually we have the same elements as yesterday. The “here” and the “there.” The rock solid dry land of Lorient contrasted against the rest of the world. We have the artist’s alter-ego, the adult woman, sitting peacefully “here.” But also we have the other, the second alter-ego—everything a painter paints is an embodiment of something in the painter—that is, the trading ships composed as a reflection of the woman, identified visually with her hat and hair, her head, a kind of painterly metonymy for saying her thoughts.
The woman is “here” in her cumbersome dress, firmly seated on the rock pier. She’s even reaching down to touch the stone as if to test the reality in front of her.
The woman’s thoughts—her dreams, wishes, fantasies—are floating in the reflected sky as the trading ships, sailing away like the ship with its working sail set, making passage for “there,” for everywhere in the world that’s not “here.”
This painting was completed in 1869. Berthe Morisot conceived and executed this fantasia of sailing away just after Victorine Meurent—Morisot’s Doppelganger in the art, mind and heart of Manet, and in Morisot’s own artistic self-image—left France and sailed away to America.
Soon Morisot would pose for Manet’s “The Balcony” and she herself would become the ‘femme fatale’ muse of Manet in the whispers of the Paris art world.
But was she happy?
We know from Morisot’s letters and journals that sometimes in this period she was happy. But from these same sources we also know her happiness was tempered by almost equal amounts of what biographers call ‘crippling self-doubts” and bouts of almost existential depression.
“The Harbour at Lorient” is a bright sunlit afternoon. The woman needs a parasol to protect herself from the sunlight.
Does the woman look happy?
Life is complicated. All normal people are complicated. How much modern art allows us to come to grips with our own inner complexities, to project them onto it the way this painting does?
Regardless of whether or not Morisot’s thinking of Victorine Meurent inspired this composition—could it not have?!—the duality, the conflict, is still visually real. And the structured resolution of the conflict as a beautiful image provides us with a kind of totem for making real our own strange complexities and, perhaps, helps us frame for ourselves a resolution to our own inner conflicts.
That’s art. That’s great art. That’s magical art.
Tomorrow: “On The Lawn”