Tuesday, September 16, 2008

“A Vaguely Fantastic Truth”

“Whenever she works she has an anxious, unhappy, almost fierce look. This existence of hers is like the ordeal of a convict in chains.”

The artist’s mother describing Berthe Morisot painting

Berthe Morisot, “Woman and Child in a Meadow,” 1871, watercolor

I’m not going to talk about this—my favorite watercolor of all time—the way I talked about Morisot’s images during Berthe Morisot Week (The Landscapes With Figures Of Berthe Morisot: Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday).

I’m just going to mention one thing . . .

In the very foreground of this image, right at the bottom of the picture, there is a closed, black parasol. It is pointing to the left. In the very far background of this picture, right on the horizon but lined up above the parasol, there is a black ship.

Even though this painting is a textbook example of atmospheric perspective—as elements of a landscape get farther away the color intensity diminishes, value contrasts neutralize, diminish and details diminish, even disappear—Morisot took care to paint the distant ship on the horizon in plain black. And she carefully depicted the tiny details of the masts tipped backward and a wave breaking against the ship’s stern. Why? Because the black ship is moving to the left. In the same direction the black parasol is pointing.

Black only appears in three places in this painting: In the parasol in the foreground; In the woman’s hat in the mid-ground; And in the ship far away on the horizon.

There is a lot going on between the parasol and the ship. I mean, a lot.

There is a lot going on between the parasol and the ship and none of it is dogs playing poker.


The most comprehensive exhibit of Berthe Morisot’s paintings during her lifetime happened in 1892. She had turned fifty the year before.

A journalist friend of Morisot’s wrote the introduction to the show’s catalogue, describing her painting as, “delightful hallucination, a vaguely fantastic truth.”

Morisot, not a happy person, enjoyed the show. She wrote to a friend, “I shall tell you frankly that the whole seemed to me less bad than I had expected, and that I did not dislike even the very old pieces. Let us hope that twenty years from now the new ones will have the same effect on me.”

At fifty Morisot was making plans for the next twenty years of her career . . .

Just three years after that exhibition Morisot developed something like pneumonia and passed away.

Pissarro attended Morisot’s funeral and wrote to his son, “You can hardly conceive how surprised we all were and how moved, too, by the disappearance of this distinguished woman, who had such a splendid feminine talent and who brought honor to our impressionist group, which is vanishing—like all things.”

All quotes are from,Berthe Morisot: Impressionist

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