Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Mother And Daughter At The Writing Desk

Today I’ve got a couple of things that are not directly related to each other, but since they’re both more or less about the same subject—the Impressionist painters—I’m going to do both of these things in the same post.

Today’s post started because all summer I’ve been trying to track down a particular quote I’d read two or three years ago. I remembered some things about the quote but I’d forgotten the context. It was either Berthe Morisot writing to her mother or her sister Edma, or it was Edma writing to Berthe. It was either about a painting by Caillebotte or one by Bazille. It was possibly in a book about Berthe, or one about Caillebotte or one about Bazille or one about Monet (Monet and Bazille were close friends) or it was in a general survey of Impressionism. And although I remembered the general content of the quote—the writer was asserting that the painter accomplished a certain difficult type of effect in a painting—I didn’t remember any particular words that would help me do an automatic search for the quote.

So I was screwed. I couldn’t either search the internet or ask a librarian for help because although I knew the quote I wanted existed, I didn’t remember any of the particulars a librarian or a search algorithm would need to track down the actual quote itself.

This kind of thing happens to me a lot, and I just kind of push the thought off into the background of my mind and trust myself to latch on to what I’m looking for when I accidently stumble across it in the course of general reading about other things.

And that’s what happened.

A couple of days ago I found the quote I was looking for when I was angrily tracking down the source of another quote.


Here’s the other quote, the one I was angrily trying to get a source for. I’ll save the good quote for last.

“The portrait of one madman by another!”

(That’s a Cezanne in the upper left and a Renoir in the lower right.)

I’ve read a lot of art books lately and I’ve seen this quote attributed to entirely different people and entirely different contexts.

For instance, in Sue Roe’s book “The Private Lives of the Impressionists” this quote is given to Renoir speaking to Victor Chocquet, affectionately describing the portrait Renoir painted of Chocquet. (Chocquet was a middle class government official who spent large amounts of his less-than-excessive salary supporting the “rebellious” young Impressionists—they rebelled against the Salon, not against wealthy or even modestly wealthy patrons.) In Silvia Borghesi’s book “Art Book: Cezanne” the quote is given to Degas sarcastically describing Cezanne’s portrait of Chocquet. Neither book notes the original source of the quote.

One of the most carefully documented books about Impressionism I know about is Bernard Denvir’s “The Chronicle of Impressionism.” It not only sources everything, but usually provides a reasonably complete context surrounding interesting quotes. And it turns out the source of the ‘madman’ quote is the daughter of the source of the quote I’ve been trying to track down all summer and this book contains both quotes.

In 1899 Victor Chocquet’s extensive art collection was auctioned off, and many well-known people from the art world attended. Julie Manet, daughter of Berthe Morisot, was there and so was her friend, Edgar Degas. Degas apparently had very much liked and bid on but not succeeded in buying the Renoir portrait of Chocquet and had playfully described the painting to Julie as “The portrait of one madman by another,” and Julie had recorded the quote when she wrote about the auction in her diary.

Those Morisot girls!

When they weren’t gossiping they were journaling about the gossip.

Julie seems to have picked up the habits from her mother. Berthe seems to have spent so much time gossiping and journaling that you wonder when she found time to devote herself to painting such extraordinary paintings.

At least I wonder about that.

And so much of Berthe’s journaling and letter writing sounds so trivial—“Degas has a very pretty painting of a very ugly woman in black, with a hat and a cashmere shawl falling from her shoulders”—that to my ears she doesn’t really sound like the kind of person who would paint so many of the extraordinary paintings attributed to her.

Here’s a more full context of that little quote, because it contains the quote I’ve been looking for all summer. This is from a letter Berthe wrote to her mother in 1869 after attending the Salon exhibit which included Manet’s portrait of her on the balcony.

“I myself look more strange than ugly. It seems that people are using the phrase ‘femme fatale’ about the painting.

“Degas has a very pretty painting of a very ugly woman in black, with a hat and a cashmere shawl falling from her shoulders. The background is that of a very light interior, showing a corner of a mantlepiece in half-tones. It is very subtle and distinguished. Antonin Proust’s entries look very well, despite the fact that they are badly hung. Corot is very poetic, as usual. I think that he has spoiled the sketch we saw at home by working too much on it in his studio.

“The tall Bazille has painted something that is very good. It is a little girl in a light dress, seated in the shade of a tree, with a glimpse of the village in the background. There is much light and sun in it. He has tried to do what we have often attempted—a figure in the outdoor light—and he seems to have been successful.”

(That’s a Degas in the upper left and a Bazille in the lower right.)

So that is Berthe writing to her mother. I’m interested in Berthe Morisot’s reaction to the Bazille painting. She writes, “He has tried to do what we have often attempted—a figure in the outdoor light—and he seems to have been successful.”

Hmmm. Morisot certainly painted many figures in landscapes, however hers strike me as being vastly more “successful” than Bazille’s, although his is certainly nice.

In Morisot’s landscapes there is almost always an implicit sense of drama as subtle interactions take place between the foreground and background, and in Morisot’s landscapes the figures are almost always interacting with the setting rather than making eye-contact with the viewer.

I much prefer Morisot’s paintings to Bazille. But I’m struck by Morisot’s wording: “He has tried to do what we have often attempted.”

Who’s “we”?

Is she simply referring to herself, using the editorial plural? I don’t really remember her writing about herself that way in other letters.

Is she simply referring to the Impressionists as a loose group of friends, all painters who have attempted to capture outdoor scenes in natural light? Could be.

Or is she referring to herself and her sister Edma?

Edma, of course, and Bertha took lessons together and often painted together when they were young. When Berthe wrote that letter, however, Edma had “retired” from painting to be a “respectable” middle-class wife and devote herself to her husband and children.

Or did she continue to paint?

I don’t know. This is very interesting to me. So far as I know, only two paintings by Edma have survived. One is Edma’s portrait of her sister that I’ve posted about before, in Edma In Heaven Laughing. The style is controlled and detailed, quite consistent with the careful and evocative paintings attributed to Berthe. I’ve never seen the other.

I don’t know. It’s interesting that Berthe wrote to her mother that phrase, “He has tried to do what we have often attempted.”

She could be referring to herself and her sister.

I don’t know. There seem to be two entirely different styles of painting traditionally attributed to Berthe. One is tight, controlled and very evocative. The other is loose, rough and almost decorative.

Certainly to my eyes the very loose and roughly finished paintings attributed to “Berthe Morisot” seem more consistent with the “voice” of the Berthe Morisot that we “hear” reading her letters and journals.

The controlled, evocative paintings seem to come from a different hand. I wonder: Was that careful, almost dramatic hand Edma’s and was Edma the “we” Bertha was referring to in that letter?

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