“The noble soul has reverence for itself” — Nietzsche
“You must be anvil or hammer” — Goethe
“In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about” — George Orwell
“On The Lawn”
Growing Up Here and There
The conceptual elements of this amazing pastel painting are so powerful that Morisot eschews any general visual organization scheme and creates an image that is simply a foreground set against a background. This blunt visualization lets the conceptual elements dominate the viewing experience and provide their own organizing principle. And the organizing principle here is time: The moment, the moment before and the moment after.
What had happened in the moment before the image we see? What will happen in the moment after the image we see? The painting tells us—shows us—all we need to know to answer both questions.
Starting in the present, the moment, the image depicted, let’s look at the ‘simple’ foreground and background.
The foreground is a patch of sunlight on tall, soft grass. The colors are bright in value, low in chroma, simple ochres. A middle age woman is playing with a very young boy in her lap. There’s a puppy and a butterfly net nearby. There are flowers in the grass. A young girl, older than the boy in the woman’s lap, is standing just outside the patch of grass.
The background is a wooded area of thick trees, but the background is not quite there!
In the strange, amorphous shadows and deep darks of the background, however, the brilliant scope of Morisot’s composition begins to take shape.
Obviously Morisot could have depicted the background in specific detail. Is that a pond to the left? Is the deep shadow to the left actually connected with the large dark in the upper right, perhaps as the space within the woods where a small brook flows? Or are the shadows and deep darks simply a patch of woods where the trees block the sun?
Morisot has painted the background carefully as indeterminate. We don’t know what it is. It is unknown.
But more than that. In the conceptual scheme of things, the background is the unknown.
This pastel painting does more than make my hands shake, more than bring tears to my eyes. This painting gives me goose bumps.
With the background understood to be the dark unknown, let’s come back into the foreground. Back into the light. Back into the known.
We have a middle age woman in an all black dress sitting in the soft grass in the sunlight. Note one more time the odd detail of the background’s largest, deepest dark being positioned over the woman’s right shoulder and, as we’ve seen twice before, the woman is not looking in that direction.
This is the classic alter-ego of Morisot the artist in a classically tranquil scene. A woman enjoying seemingly the best of what life can offer: Warm, bright sunlight. Healthy, energetic children to raise. The leisure time to sit in the grass and play with the children.
What woman could ask for anything more?
Ha! The defining question of so many Morisot paintings! (The defining question of Morisot’s life?)
Who could ask for anything more? Berthe Morisot, that’s who! (Of course, Victorine Meurent, too...)
At least, that other part of Berthe Morisot—her secret self—could always wonder about asking for more.
Because Morisot in her life was always that middle age woman in all white or all black who accepted the traditional place into which her family and her gender and her culture placed her. The safe, the familiar, the known. But, at the same time, there always was a second Berthe Morisot who looked to the unknown with wide, child-like eyes and wanted to embrace it as best she could. The wild unknown of a blank, white canvas. The wild unknown of a passionate, intelligent, skilled artist like Manet. The wild unknown of a life off the beaten path.
She was always Berthe Morisot, but there always was Victorine Meurent in her thoughts.
And this painting is like a documentary of those two selves within her.
We haven’t even gotten to the young girl yet, let alone the moment before and the moment after.
The foreground and the background define the “here” and “there” of this composition. They are the most encompassing and abstract manifestations imaginable.
The “here” is the visible, the known, the light, the safe, the familiar, the acceptable. The “there” is the unknown, the dark, the dangerous, the unproven, the strange.
Now we get to the young girl in the painting.
Right away we see that Morisot has done some very cool things: The young girl is neither in the foreground nor the background. The young girl is standing just beyond the tall, sunlit grass. We can’t see her feet because of the tall grass in front of her but we can see that her body doesn’t block any tall grass behind her. She’s not in the foreground, but she’s not shadowed, she’s not in the background darks, either.
This creates a profound kind of tension, a visual and conceptual imbalance in the moment of the image. Where is the young girl, in the foreground or the background? Is the young girl “here” or “there?”
We can answer that question by looking beyond the moment, by looking to the moment before and the moment after.
Let’s start with the moment before. That’s where this adventure began. And this painting is an adventure and it is about adventure.
Presumably, the young girl was playing in the sunlight with the woman. But in the moment before the image we see, the young girl separated herself from the middle age woman. The young girl stepped away from the play. She walked away from the puppy, the baby, the butterfly net, the flowers in the grass, the friendly woman. She walked out off the patch of grass and sunlight, and toward the unknown, the shadows and darks of the ‘indeterminate’ woods.
But then the young girl stopped. She turned around and faced what she’d just walked away from. The visual catalogue of childhood joys: The puppy, the flowers, the baby boy, the butterfly net, the loving adult.
That’s the moment before. That moment takes us up to the moment the picture actually depicts. But it raises a question: Why did the young girl stop and turn around and look back at what she walked away from?
What will happen in the moment after? What will the young girl do next? Will she return to the childhood joys of playing in the sunlight? Will she turn back to the unknown, exciting shadows and darks of the woods and run into them to enjoy the thrills of life off the beaten path?
This painting is not a Rorschach test. Morisot is an artist and real artists answer questions they ask. This painting answers the question of what the girl does next and we can read the answer.
Because back in the moment before, Morisot has done another very cool thing. This very cool thing defines the present, the moment actually depicted in the painting, and points directly to what will follow in the moment after.
In the moment before, just before the image we see, the young girl has taken off her hat.
Look at the visual level of the young girl’s head. The top of the young girl’s head lines up almost exactly with the top of the middle age woman’s head. The middle age woman is wearing a hat. The young girl has removed her hat. Morisot depicted the heads at this exact level to underscore that the woman is wearing her hat and the young girl has removed her hat.
In today’s Britney Spears world, a girl outside without a hat means nothing. A hundred and fifty years ago in Europe a girl outside without a hat was a statement. Indeed, this is one of the very few images Morisot ever painted of a girl outside without a hat.
What is the moment after? What does the young girl do next?
In the moment after the image we see, the middle age woman will still be playing with the young boy and the puppy.
The young girl, in the moment before, had walked away from the sunlight, turned around and removed her hat. What will she do next?
The young girl isn’t going to run back to the sunlight. She is going to turn and run into the woods, into the unknown, enjoying the fun of the adventure.
That’s why she removed her hat.
This painting is about coming of age. It’s about a child making the choice to start becoming an adult. The toughest choice. About making the choice to walk away from childhood, from the accepted, the known, the familiar, and choosing the unknown thrills of starting toward adulthood.
And it’s about Berthe Morisot choosing the acceptable and Victorine Meurent choosing adventure.
The young girl in this painting removed her hat, the ‘top’ symbol, in that era, of culture, refinement and acceptability.
Victorine Meurent had made Manet famous and infamous by removing her clothes and posing nude for Manet’s odd pastiches of classical themes centered on contemporary naked women.
Morisot posed for Manet. She stepped into shadows by visiting his studio without a chaperon. She accepted his ‘scandalous’ [?] gift of the painting ‘A Bunch of Violets’ with her name inscribed with his.
But Morisot never posed nude. (At least she never posed nude and made mention of it in her letters or journals. None that have been released, at any rate.)
Morisot never ran off into those dark woods.
But her artistic alter ego always dreams of doing such things.
The young girl in this painting has taken off her hat and in a moment will turn and run off into the woods. This young girl wasn’t going to return to childhood joys and childish play. This painting is about a child starting on the path to adulthood. A particular path to a particular kind of adulthood. An adult who embraces the unknown, adventure and excitement.
The kind of adult constantly on Berthe Morisot’s mind, consistently shaping her work, consistently causing her to wonder.
The kind of adult like Victorine Meurent.
However, as we speculate about what Morisot may have done or not done—her own real life relationship to the “here” and “there”—we must remember what Morisot very certainly did do: She created paintings like “On the Lawn,” “The Harbour at Lorient,” “View of Paris” and many, many others.
Each painting is an adventure that Morisot did embrace. And each painting is an adventure that Morisot shares with us, with every viewer, as we see and think along with Morisot, as we see and think what she saw and thought through her work.
Tomorrow: “We shall die everyone with our secrets untold” — Berthe Morisot