Friday, January 25, 2008

The Landscapes With Figures Of Berthe Morisot #5

“We shall die everyone with our secrets untold” — Berthe Morisot

“With what resignation one reaches the end of life, resigned to all the failures of this life and all the uncertainties of the next one, it is a long time since I have hoped for anything and 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! and yet even that ambition is excessive” — Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot died in 1895. She was 54.

Renoir heard of Morisot’s death while he was visiting and painting with Cezanne. Legend has it that when Renoir was told of Morisot’s death he stopped in mid brush stroke, packed up his equipment and rushed back to Paris to be with Morisot’s daughter Julie.

Not long after Morisot’s death, her friends staged an exhibition of her work. Legend has it that Degas was so distraught over Morisot’s death, so passionate that her paintings be displayed perfectly, that he found himself quarreling with everyone. Unable to pull himself together, Degas stepped aside and allowed Morisot’s daughter Julie and Morisot’s other friends make the arrangements.

Manet had died more than a decade earlier. Morisot had endured his hideously protracted death from complications of syphilis. His lifelong passion for Morisot is forever evident in his work. Only Victorine Meurent appears in more of his paintings. And Manet’s “Bunch of Violets” inscribed to Morisot is unique among his work.


It is difficult to understand Morisot’s frequent episodes of silence and depression. Why would she of all people write, late in her life, about failures, hopelessness and excessive ambitions?

As a young woman barely into her twenties she had captured the friendship and respect (and hearts?) of the most talented artists of her era. Renoir. Degas. Manet. She not only remained friends with these notoriously volatile characters her entire life, but professionally she had kept pace with them. At almost every exhibition her paintings received critical praise equal to or even exceeding that given to her colleagues. It wasn’t unusual at auctions for her paintings to receive higher bids than work of her colleagues. And none of her contemporaries—with the possible exception of Cezanne—created images as uniquely powerful as her work.

What failures? What hopelessness? What excessive ambition? Indeed, one writer looking through Morisot’s letters and journals could only wonder again and again at Morisot’s “unfathomable sadness.”

Perhaps there are unknown letters and journals. Perhaps someday we shall know more about Morisot’s friendship with Manet. Perhaps there is more to know about Morisot’s friendship with the remarkable Degas.

It is conceivable that Morisot’s perception of countless failures and dashed hopes and frustrated ambitions—her unfathomable sadness—was rooted in intimacies lost or unachieved that were so personal she never confided them even to her journals.

Such things happen. The extraordinary painter Gwen John and the sculptor Auguste Rodin were passionate people and equally passionate about their privacy. If I remember the gossip correctly, the only reason history is aware of their intense, life-changing affair with one another is because their romance eventually touched the lives of others who were more forthcoming in their journals.

Or maybe the answer is this woman. Victorine Meurent. Maybe the young Berthe Morisot’s fixation on Manet was shaped by her awareness that Meurent was Manet’s mistress and muse. Maybe Manet’s obsession with Meurent created a kind of feminine analogue of itself in Morisot’s mind. When Meurent left and Manet replaced Meurent with Morisot, Morisot herself was still left with the constant awareness that Meurent had been Manet’s ideal. Did the mental analogue of Meurent that Morisot had constructed in her mind in empathy with Manet grow into her own analogue-I, her internal self-representation? Did Morisot, then, measure herself and her life against this internal ghost, her own understanding of Manet’s ideal? Is that why Morisot’s emotions seem unfathomable to anyone looking at the surface of her remarkable life? Nothing in her work contradicts this speculation. As we have seen this week, many elements of the conceptual continuity in her images are consistent with this speculation.


Ultimately, when thinking about Berthe Morisot, does anything matter except her work?

Don’t Morisot’s compositions speak for themselves?

By one count, Morisot had created 416 oil paintings, 240 watercolors, 191 pastels and more than 200 drawings. Morisot created a large body of work. She never turned herself into an assembly line like Claude Monet, but Monet never created even a single composition as deep and powerful as the three we looked at this week. In terms of just raw numbers, how many Vermeer paintings exist? How many Caravaggio paintings? How many Da Vinci paintings?

Even if we knew nothing of Morisot’s private life the things her paintings “say” when they speak for themselves would still be exactly the same.

I no longer remember the first time I saw Morisot’s work. It was years ago. I no longer remember exactly which image made me look more closely and think more carefully. I believe I saw “On the Lawn” in a book about the history of pastels. I believe I formulated many of my thoughts about the conceptual continuity of Morisot’s work looking just at that one image. Then, assuming I was being fanciful and reading in the image complexities of my own construction, I looked through some books of her paintings and was shocked—and wildly happy—to see other compositions of equal or even deeper complexity. I don’t know which surprised me more, finding images of such depth and power or reading book after book that ignored the content of her images and reduced her to a kind of very cool Manet sidekick.

Perhaps Morisot’s sadness was a kind of prescient awareness in her mind of how history would treat her.

But Morisot’s work does speak for itself to anyone inclined to listen—that is, look and think.

Morisot’s paintings say everything that needs to be said.


I’m going to end my Berthe Morisot week with a couple of personal, miscellaneous things. A final Morisot painting, a Manet painting and a Morisot drawing. When I was first thinking of how to organize this week, I considered putting Morisot paintings side-by-side with similar images painted by other Impressionists.

I wanted to stress how Morisot abandoned narrative as had everyone else, but she never sacrificed meaning as had almost everyone else. I ditched that idea because I wanted to look just at Morisot images and not clutter up the week with less interesting pictures. However, I’m putting up here a Morisot painting and a Manet painting. In the spirit of the last section, I’ll let both paintings speak for themselves. That’s Morisot, of course, to the left. Manet, to the right.

Finally, I’m going to end the week with a Morisot drawing (an engraving). It makes me smile. I don’t know if that’s a good reason to end the week with something like an apostrophe, but it’s a good enough reason to put up the drawing.

When Morisot was just about my age, she drew this cool, tough looking goose:

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