Review: Ahead of her time

“a delight …” exhibition review by Peter Clossick PPLG

Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Self Portrait (1885) Berthe Morisot

Yesterday I spent an enjoyable afternoon with the art critic Corinna Lotz visiting the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is now open until the 10th of September.

Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (1841 – 1895) was the daughter of Tiburce Morisot, the Secretary General of the Credit financier. From 1862 to 1868 she was a pupil of Corot, soon developing a close relationship and friendship with Manet, whose brother she later married in 1874. Regarded as a key Impressionist artist she exhibited in every exhibition apart from one when her daughter was born. It is easy to label her as a female product of the nineteenth century, simply following in the footsteps of the “great Impressionist masters” but this is not the case.

Works by Fragonard, Watteau, Boucher, Gainsborough and Reynolds are hung side by side to illustrate the curators’ emphasis on Berthe’s 18th century influences. Berthe is influenced by the Rococo and the two British masters, as she admired them, but I found some of these comparisons rather tenuous.

Her work is beguiling, intriguing, and fascinating with a will-o’-the-wisp quality, capturing the moment. Her rapid and direct technique through clusters of quick fluid brush marks and opaque paint weaves a thread of reflection and create surface reality. She obviously painted directly from life with atmospheric volume, colour and highlights in surface impasto. Her fluid and opaque paint has brush marks dancing across the surface and a marvellous sense of transience.

Morisot addresses her brush wholeheartedly in a way that is relevant to the subject with exquisite illumination, serenity and almost reverential tenderness. Her strength is that she does not let her ego interfere as she penetrates the beauty of the scene. There is nothing noisy and disorderly about her art.

As Walter Sickert has said, through a sacred atmosphere of delicate intensity Berthe Morisot has added most preciously to our intellectual wealth. Degas warranted her as the surest of draughtsmen (or should that be draughtswoman!) thanks to her superlative ability to capture edge and line.

But there is no mention of her in Ernst Gombrich’s classic Story of Art. Women working as 19th century painters were considered minor members of schools founded and demonstrated by male artists. Writers and critics find it difficult to get away from the nineteenth-century concept of women as self-abnegation whose essential ingredient is sentimental idealisation rather than the strength of character, qualities generally considered the preserve of men and male vanity, so they found it difficult to get away from such terminology because women did not merit inclusion.

It is only now we realise the merit of such artists as Berthe Morisot and probably her quote (on the exhibition wall) does not help: “My ambition was limited to wanting to capture something of what goes by, just something, the smallest thing.” Her ambition was certainly not limited or as small as revealed by this exhibition. She was a fascinating woman way ahead of her time and also ahead of many of her male counterparts. It is a delight to discover and enjoy an artist who previously you knew so little about. This exhibition certainly opened up my eyes to her many qualities.

Peter Clossick PPLG 2023

Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875) Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism
31 March – 10 September 2023
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road
SE21 7AD

images wikimediacommons