Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782, Kimbell Art Museum
Vigée-Le Brun: Woman Artist of Revolutionary France is major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until May 15. Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s Self-Portrait from the Kimbell Art Museum explains her quite well. She shines with the confidence and elegance of a woman who would eventually become an international superstar. It shows off her top-notch artistic skills. Touches of brilliant red for the ribbon, sash, lips and cheeks to add sensual pizzaz. Portraits are not my favorite genre of painting, but Vigée-Le Brun’s portraits are always dazzling. The light radiating through her earring is just the right touch. One reason we never hear her mentioned among France’s top ten or twenty painters is that she was a painter of royalty who supported the wrong side of the French Revolution. It is only last year that France gave her a major retrospective, although her international reputation was strong back in her day.
Jacques-Francois Le Sevre, c. 1774 Private Collection
Vigée-Le Brun compares well with Jacques-Louis David and the very best French artists of her time. For the most part, she was fairly traditional rather than an innovator. Her style has elements of the late Rococo and Neoclassical styles, but with the addition of some naturalistic features. She was largely self taught, having learned from her painter father before he died when she was 12. Her mother was a hairdresser. She set up her own studio at age 15, supporting herself, mother and younger brother. After her mother remarried, she painted her stepfather, Monsieur Le Sevre (whom she really didn’t like, though I can’t discern it in the painting.) She was only about 19 at the time she painted it, around the same time she entered the Academy of Saint Luke, the painter’s guild.
Vigée-LeBrun was earning enough money from her portrait painting to support herself, her widowed mother, and her younger brother. T – See more at: http://www.nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/%C3%A9lisabeth-louise-vig%C3%A9e-lebrun#sthash.AhJDfSMB.dpufsupporting herself, her mother and younger brother. After her mother remarried, she painted her stepfather. The portrait of Monsieur LeSevre, is superb, though the artist was probably no older than 19. Around the same time, she joined the Academy of St. Luke (the painter’s guild). She soon made her way to the top. A few years later, she was called to work at Versailles, becoming the personal painter of Marie Antoinette. She commanded some very high prices for her work.
Joseph Vernet, 1778, Louvre Museum, Paris
In 1778, she painted Joseph Vernet, a distinguished older painter of seascapes whom she greatly admired. He counseled her to always look at nature. I had seen the Vernet portrait in a NMWA exhibition a few years ago, a monumental exhibition that brought to light many of the gifted female artists of the era. the Met describes Vernet as her mentor, and it’s easy see the affectionate expression in this portrait. It has a wonderful harmony of various blacks and grays.
Painters are sometimes divided into those who are great draftsmen (like Michelangelo and Ingres) or great colorists (like Titian and Rubens). Vigée-Le Brun combines drawing ability and an exquisite sense of color. (There are several drawings in the exhibition.) Vigée-Le Brun’s father, Louis Vigée was a pastel artist and the self-portrait she did in pastel is just lovely. It combines loose, free lines with delicate, subtle modeling to make the face pop out. What other artists can make black, white and gray so interesting?
Self-portrait in Traveling Costume 1789-90, pastel, Private Collection
Marriage, Her Husband and Daughter
In 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter, art dealer and a great connoisseur who fostered an appreciation of northern artists. He was the grandnephew of Charles Le Brun, founder of the French Academy. Together they traveled to Flanders and the Netherlands to study the northern artists. She was a greater painter than he was, but it was a connection of great mutual benefit for both of them. In 1780, a daughter, Jeanne Julie, was born. Julie became the subject of many of her mom’s paintings. A real gem of the show is the portrait of her daughter looking in a mirror. It simultaneously gives us a frontal and profile view. It is also a very sentimental painting.
Julie LeBrun Looking in a Mirror c. 1786, Private Collection
One self-portrait by her husband is in the exhibition. He was probably the most important art connoisseur and dealer in France in his time. Pierre Le Brun is credited with writing the most important book on Netherlandish art and elevating the reputation of one of the world’s most popular Old Masters, Johannes Vermeer.
In 1783, Vigee-Le Brun gained entry into the prestigious Royal Academy, one of only four women in the elite group. There was some conflict of interest, because her husband’s profession as an art dealer could have disqualified her. However, King Louis XVI used his influence to promote her. Even at the relatively young age of 28, she commanded higher prices than her peers.
At the time, history painting, meant to instruct and moralize, was considered the highest category of painting. The canvas she submitted for admission into the French Academy was an allegorical piece meant to inspire virtue, Peace Bringing Back Abundance. As the name suggests, prosperity comes from staying out of war. While the classical Grecian style of this painting is not the taste of today, it’s her colors that I love. Unfortunately, peace would not remain in her life and in France for very long.
Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780, Louvre Museum, Paris
When Marie-Antoinette fell from favor and lost her life, Vigée-Le Brun had reason to be afraid. She left France for Italy, with her daughter and without her husband. She was quickly accepted into the Accademia di San Lucca in Florence. She was asked to add her portrait to the the Corridoio Vasariano at the the Uffizi, an obvious sign that her reputation preceded her. This self-portrait in the Uffizi Gallery, painted in 1790, is one of her most famous paintings (below). According to the Metropolitan Museum, the ruffled collar was meant to show her affinity to Rubens and Van Dyke. The cap is reminiscent of self-portraits by Rembrandt, but the brilliant red sash and the use of color contrast is strictly Elisabeth Vigee – Le Brun. It shows greater spontaneity than some of her royal commissions. A few years earlier she had been criticized for breaking with convention by painting self-portraits with an open mouth, making them look less serious.
Self-portrait, 1790, Uffizzi Gallery, Florence
With her out of the country and the Reign of Terror going on in France, her husband was forced to divorce her. (When the aristocracy lost power, he also lost his major clients.) She remained in exile for 12 years, but painted in the Austrian Empire, Russia and Germany. Her services as a painter were in high demand and she commanded high prices from her lofty, aristocratic clients. In particular, she painted many Russian aristocrats, including one owned by the National Museum for Women in the Arts which is not in the current exhibition.
Portraits of Russian and Foreign Aristocrats
Duchess Elizabeth Alexyevna, 1797 Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg
Many of the paintings on view at the Met are from private collections, suggesting that many portraits may still be owned by descendants. None of her paintings from Russian museums are on loan to the United States, because of diplomatic problems at this time. The exhibition going to National Gallery of Canada in June will have several paintings from the Hermitage that are not in the New York show. These paintings were included in the Paris, where the exhibition started.
Vigée Le Brun painted at least five portraits of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexyevna, but the example here has a sumptuous red cushion and a transparent purple shawl, that sets off nicely against white skin, dress and long flowing hair.
Duchess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris 1793, Private Collection
Vigée Le Brun also enjoyed depicting personifications and allegory, as did many of the artists of this era. At one time she painted her daughter as the goddess of flowers, Flora. When she painted the beautiful Duchess von und zu Liechtenstein, she imagined her as Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. The colors shine brightly, though a rainbow which I expected to discern in real life, at the exhibition can’t be found in the painting.
In general, she greatly flattered her sisters. It would seem that she only painted women who were beautiful. At the Metropolitan show, about 5/6 of the paintings portray female sitters. She carefully considered all props, and how to reflect the personality of the sitter. Vigée Le Brun figured out how to bring out their best features and reflect the personality of the sitter.
Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya, 1796, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
The use of materials, props and settings is crucial to her goals. A portrait of Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya has a large outdoor background taken from the natural world, a Romantic setting. The countess looks dreamy and wistful. In general, there is a very wide variety to the types of colors she used, and the harmonies she created. The National Museum of Women in the Arts currently has an exhibition on Salon Style, which includes portraits by Vigee Le Brun, among other French women artists. An unattributed pastel of Marie Antoinette would appear to be by Vigee-Le Brun, too, or at least copied from a painting by her.
Vigée-Le Brun’s Legacy and Queen Marie-Antoinette
From a strictly historical perspective, however, her connections to the French Royal family may be the most important contribution. From her many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, historians can look for clues into the life and character of this demonized queen. It’s difficult to figure out if Marie-Antoinette was really as bad a person as history portrays her. I saw the Kirsten Dunst movie about her and more recently a play about her, both of which show her as a tragic figure who was a foreigner and really didn’t really know how to fit into the world into which she married. We may never really know. Marie-Antoinette may have wanted Vigée Le Brun to soften her image. Several portraits of her are in the exhibition. The bouffant, powdered hairdos don’t beautify her to me. Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, a large, flamboyant group portrait loaned shows the young queen with three children and an empty cradle. It emphasizes that the Austrian-born queen had recently lost a child. So even in this sumptuous setting there is great sadness and loss.
Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, 1787, Musée National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Madame Royale and the Dauphin Seated is a portrait of the two oldest children when the were around 3 and 6 years old. The princess’ satin dress is brilliant display of Vigee Le Brun’s skill at portraying texture. The pastoral background is nostalgic and adds to the sense of innocence. It gives no hint of what’s to come. The prince died of tuberculosis in 1789, ate age 7. (Dauphin County, Pennsylvania is named after him.) Marie-Therese, named for her grandmother, was imprisoned between 1789 until 1795. She was queen 20 days in 1830 and lived until 1851, but generally had a very sad life. There is actually one landscape painting in the exhibition (and there were several landscape drawings in the Paris exhibition), but Vigee Le Brun is first and foremost a portrait painter.
Madame Royale and the Dauphine Seated, 1784, Musee National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Between 1835 and 1837, Vigée Le Brun wrote her memoirs. A remarkably great artist and a remarkable woman, she lived to be 86. She is appreciated much more than for her paintings of many Marie – Antoinette. When I took a college Art History class that started with the French Revolution and went to about 1850, we didn’t cover Vigée-Le Brun. David, the academic teacher who influenced so many students, was treated like a god in my class. I find it curious that Vigée-Le Brun remained completely loyal to the royal family, while David was such a politician. He painted for the king, turned into a revolutionary and then easily switched gears to become Napoleon’s artist. He secured his reputation for posterity. With this exhibition traveling to Paris, New York and Ottawa, Vigée-Le Brun’s reputations will go up a few notches, putting her in a rank equal rank to that of David. The Metropolitan has a complete list of paintings in the exhibition. See the Met’s video of her.
Mary Cassatt was several years younger than Edgar Degas, but when he saw her work he exclaimed, “Here’s someone who sees as I do.” Currently, the National Gallery is showing Cassatt side by side with Degas, comparing how they two worked together and shared. Both are remarkable portrait artists.
Like Manet and Morisot, their relationship was especially helpful for each of them reach the fullness of artistic vision. They spent about ten years working closing together. As their artistic visions changed, they grew in different directions. They share same daring sense of composition. Both are excellent portrait artists. I just finished reading Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers. It’s the story of Manet, Morisot, Degas and Cassatt: their biographies, their art and their interdependence.
Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt
Degas and Manet were good friends, too, and had a friendly competition. They had much in common, having been born in Paris and coming from well-to-do backgrounds. Both had a strong affinity for Realism, but Degas was the greater draftsman, and probably the greatest draftsman of the late 19th century. (Read my blog explaining Degas’s dancers) Cassatt and Morisot also were friends, as the two women who were fixtures of the Impressionist group. They were very close to their families, and their subjects were similar. Their personalities were quite different. Berthe Morisot was refined and full of self doubt, while Mary Cassatt was bold and confident. Cassatt did not have Morisot’s elegance or her beauty.
Her confidence shines in all of Degas’ portraits. She was not too pleased with the portrait at right, but Degas often did get into the character of his subjects. Degas painted her leaning forward and bending over, and holding some cards. He put her in a pose used in at least two other paintings, but I’m not certain what he meant by this position. The orange and brown earth tones, and the oblique, sloping asymmetric composition are very common in Degas’ paintings.
Degas may have been somewhat shy, but caustic, biting and moody. By all accounts, it appears that Cassatt made him a happier person. Degas was the one who invited her to join the Impressionist group in 1877, three years after it had formed.. They worked together to gain skills in printmaking. In addition, to their common artistic goals and objectives, both had fathers who were prominent bankers. Mary Cassatt was an American from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while Degas had relatives from his mother’s family who lived in New Orleans. Some of his father’s family had moved to Naples, Italy, and had married into the aristocracy there.
No on seems to know if they were lovers. Both artists were very independent, remained single their entire lives. Neither was the type who really wanted to be married. However, each of them had proposed to others when they were very young, and before they knew each other. Writers don’t spend a lot of time speculating about their love lives, still an unknown question. Most art historians believe Degas sublimated his sexual energies fairly well while exploring the young girls and teens who were ballet dancers.
Degas, Henri De Gas and His Niece Lucie, 1876
I have always loved this painting of Henri De Gas and his niece Lucie, from the Art Institute of Chicago. It seems a very sympathetic portrait of his uncle and cousin, both of whom have kindly faces. Sometimes it’s been explained that the chair as a vertical line showing the separateness of the relationship. I see it differently. The composition has a large diagonal, and an arc brings are eye from the upper right side to the lower left corner. A continuous compositional line from their heads down to the edge of his hand and the newspaper pulls the older man and young girl together. There heads are nearly at the same angle, single expressing their togetherness. The uncle looks like such a kindly man, and both look at us the viewers.
Marry Cassatt, Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son Robert Kelso Cassstt
Mary Cassatt also shows an even stronger family bond in the Portrait of Alexander Cassatt and His Son, Robert Kelso Cassatt, her brother and nephew. Her brother ultimately rose to be President of the Pennsylvania Railroad and may have been somewhat of a robber baron. You would never see his harshness in his sister’s portrayal. He seems like the ultimate warm, affectionate father. The two faces are placed so closely together, and they’re similar. Degas and Cassatt often portrayed individuals in relation to each other to show their great affection for each other, so differently from the way Manet did. In most of his group portraits Manet makes us keenly aware that each individual is a unique soul. He emphasizes differences and oppositions, One the best of Mary Cassatt’s portraits is the Young Girl in a blue armchair.
Albrecht Dürer, The Head of Christ, 1506 brush and gray ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue paper overall: 27.3 x 21 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in.) overall (framed): 50 63.8 4.1 cm (19 11/16 25 1/8 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
The National Gallery of Art is hosting the largest show of Albrecht Dürer drawings, prints and watercolors ever seen in North America, combining its own collection with that of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria. Across the street in the museum’s west wing is the another exhibition of works on paper, Color, Line and Light: French Drawings Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac. The French drawings are spectacular, but it’s hard to imagine the 19th century masters without the earlier genius out of Germany, Dürer, who approached drawing with scientist’s curiosity for understanding nature.
Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484 silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 19.5 cm (10 3/4 7 11/16 in.) (framed): 51.7 43.1 4.5 cm (20 3/8 16 15/16 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Dürer’s famous engravings are on view, including Adam and Eve, but with the added pleasure of seeing preparatory drawings and first trial proofs of the prints. Some of his most famous works such as the Great Piece of Turf and Praying Hands, are there also. In both exhibitions, as always, I’m drawn to the beauty and color of landscape art, especially prominent in the 19th century exhibition. However, both shows have phenomenal portraits to give us a glimpse into people of all ages with profound insights.
Dürer drew his own face while looking in the mirror at age 13, in 1484. He still had puffy cheeks and a baby face, but was certainly a prodigy. Like his father, he was trained in the goldsmith’s guild which gave him facility at describing the tiniest details with a very firm point. Seeing his picture next to the senior Dürer’s self-portrait, there’s no doubt his father was extremely gifted, too.
Albrecht Dürer, “Mein Agnes”, 1494 pen and black ink, 15.7 x 9.8 cm (6 1/8 x 3 7/8 in.) (framed): 44.3 x 37.9 x 4.2 cm (17 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 5/8 in.) Albertina, Vienna
In his native Nuremburg, the younger Dürer was recognized at an early age and his reputation spread, particularly as the world of printing was spreading throughout the German territories, France and Italy. We can trace his development as he went to Italy in 1494-96, and then again in 1500, meeting with North Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini and exchanging artistic ideas. Dürer is credited with bridging the gap between the Northern and Italian Renaissance. I personally find all his drawings and prints more satisfying then his oil paintings, because at heart he was first and foremost a draftsman.
Though we normally think of Dürer as a controlled draftsman, there are some very fresh, loose drawings. An image he did of his wife, Agnes, in 1494, shows a wonderful freedom of expression, and affection. He married Agnes Fry in 1494 and did drawings of her which became studies for later works. She was the model for St. Ann in a late painting of 1516 and the preparatory drawing with its amazing chiaroscuro is in the exhibition.
Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann, 1519 brush and gray, black, and white ink on grayish prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?) overall: 39.5 x 29.2 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) overall (framed): 64 x 53.4 x 4.4 cm (25 1/4 x 21 x 1 3/4 in.) Albertina, Vienna
Also on view are Durer’s investigations into human proportion, landscapes and drawings he did of diverse subjects from which he later used in his iconic engravings. We can trace how the drawings inspired his visual imagery. There are also several preparatory drawings of old men who were used as the models for apostles in a painted altarpiece.
Albrecht Dürer, An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, 1521 brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white, on gray-violet prepared paper overall: 41.5 28.2 cm (16 5/16 11 1/8 in.) overall (framed): 63.6 49.7 4.6 cm (25 1/16 19 9/16 1 13/16 in.) Albertina, Vienna
My favorite drawing of old age, however, is a study of an old man at age 93 who was alert and in good health (amazing as the life expectancy in 1500 was not what is today.) He appears very thoughtful, pensive and wise. The softness of his beard is incredible. The drawing is in silverpoint on blue gray paper which makes the figure appear very three-dimensional. To add force to the light and shadows, Durer added white to highlight, making the man so lifelike and realistic.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte, An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878 charcoal, overall: 47.5 x 39.6 cm (18 11/16 x 15 9/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1996
In the other exhibition, there’s a comparable drawing by Leon Lhermitte of an old woman in Color, Line and Light. Lhermitte was French painter of the Realist school. He is not widely recognized today, but there were so many extraordinary artists in the mid-19th century. What I find especially moving about the painters of this time is more than their understanding of light and color. I like their approach to treating humble people, often the peasants, with extraordinary dignity. Lhermitte’s woman of age has lived a hard and rugged life and he crinkled skin signifies her amazing endurance. We see the beauty of her humanity and the artist’s reverence for every crevice in her weather-beaten skin.
Jean-François Millet Nude Reclining in a Landscape, 1844/1845 pen and brown ink, 16.5 x 25.6 cm (6 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
There are many portraits of youth in the French exhibition, too, including fresh pen and inks such as Edouard Manet’s Boy with a Dog and Francois Millet’s Nude Reclining in Landscape, who really does not look nude.
Camille Pissarro’s The Pumpkin Seller is a charcoal without a lot of detail. She has broad features, plain clothes and a bandana around the head. She’s a simpleton, drawn and characterized with a minimum of lines but Pissarro sees her a substantial girl of character. The drawing reminds me of Pissarro himself. He may not be as well-known and appreciated as Monet, Renoir, Degas, yet he was the diehard artist. He was the one who never gave up, who encouraged all his colleagues and was quite willing to endure poverty and deprivation for the goals of his art. Berthe Morisot‘s watercolor of Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle has a minimum of detail but is a quick expression of her daughter’s infancy.
Camille Pissarro, The Pumpkin Seller, c.1888 charcoal, overall: 64.5 x 47.8 cm (25 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.) Dyke Collection
Taking in all the portraits of both exhibitions, I’m left with thoughts of awe for beauty of both nature and humanity. The friends I was with actually preferred the French exhibition to the Dürer. There were surprising revelations of skill by little known artists like Paul Huet, Francois-Auguste Ravier and Charles Angrand. The landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School and the Neo-Impressionists, are important and beautiful, but perhaps not recognized as much as they should be. In both exhibitions, we must admire how works on paper form the blueprint for larger ideas explored in oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle, 1879 watercolor and gouache, 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Dyke Collection
It was a curator a the Albertina who wisely connected a mysterious Martin Schongauer drawing of the 1470s owned by the Getty to a Durer Altarpiece. The Albertina is a museum in Vienna known for works on paper, much its collection descended from the Holy Roman Emperors, one of whom Dürer worked for late in his career. The French drawings come from a collection of Helen Porter and James T Dyke and some of it have been gifted to the National Gallery. They’re on view until May 26, 2013 and Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Prints and Watercolors from the Albertina will stay on view until June 9, 2013.
Manet, The Repose, 1870, Rhode Island School of Design. Berthe Morisot is at rest, but the seascape behind her could symbolize an inner restlessness behind her calm demeanor.
Why hasn’t the love story of painters Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot been told in film? (Both Manet and Morisot are represented in large numbers at the exhibition, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, formerly at Musée d’Orsay, but now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and onto the Art Institute of Chicago this summer. Morisot was the subject of a large retrospective at Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, last year, and her work, like much Impressionism, is so much better when viewed in real life rather than reproduction.)
Manet, a “people person” and painter of people, is the one artist of the past I would wish to meet above all others. Morisot, one of his muses, is the artist with whom I empathize more than any other. She loved in a painful way, but her only consolation was to marry his brother.
Berthe Morisot, The Harbor at Lorient, 1869, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Manet’s portraits of her are compelling. Manet , a man of paradox, painted realistic themes in an audacious style which was shocking to the mid-19th century. Yet he was conventional, proper, well-dressed and conservative in so many ways. His political ideas were forward-looking, but he was patriotic and enlisted in the National Guard during the Prussians’ siege of Paris in 1870. Deeply hurt by art criticism, Manet’s honor was also so important to him that he challenged an art critic to a duel by sword. Duels were remnants of the medieval era, very rare in 19th in 19th century France. The charismatic artist was the ultimate elegant Parisian, the first modern painter but deeply rooted in the past.
Portrait of Édouard Manet, by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1867, Art Institute of Chicago
Fantin-Latour introduced Manet and Morisot, an important personal
and artistic relationship.
Last week I watched a movie about Modigliani, but the story of Manet and Morisot’s love is far more interesting. Although letters exist, they don’t tell the whole story and mystery remains. An actress with the soulful eyes and depth of Juliette Binoche would be an ideal choice to play Berthe, although there are younger stars like Audrey Tautou who could do justice to her character. I can think of many actors who could be the confidant, dapper Manet. With the right script and right director, this story in film could be even more interesting than films of artists like Jackson Pollock, Vincent Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo, artists known for their tempestuous lives.
Manet, The Balcony, 1868, in the Salon of 1869, now in Musée d’Orsay, Paris
While waiting for this film to be made, we can track the story and trace much of the love and feeling in Manet’s 12 portraits of Berthe. She was his leading muse, as he painted her more times than anyone else. Many of Manet’s people are distinctive for their air of nonchalance, and they end up revealing themselves if only by expressing a desire not to let us get to know them. Berthe was different, as he tapped into her soul and seemed to know the longing and wistfulness that was inside. These portraits are tantalizing and mysterious, and they come in many forms, but leave us guessing the extent of their relationship. Manet’s The Repose, at the top of this page, shows Berthe relaxed and dreaming on a sofa, but the image of a Japanese sea storm above her suggest turmoil may lurk beneath her quiet demeanor.
Manet first painted Berthe Morisot in The Balcony, but with two figures not in communication with each other or with the viewer. Berthe’s black eyes grab all the attention. Hers is the only face which is revealing, while the others have expressive hand gestures. The second woman who posed for Manet, violinist Fanny Claus, appears vapid and vacant next to the pensive Berthe leaning on a green balcony. The man, painter Antoine Guillemet, enters from behind and a boy is vaguely seen in the black background. The womens’ white dresses are in daylight, vividly contrasting with darkness behind while a plush dog and porcelain planter below Berthe’s feet add textural richness of the painting.It is “focused on her air of compelling beauty, her mystery and the complex inner struggle reflected in her face.” (Sue Roe, reference below)
Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Muff, 1869
By most accounts, excluding her own, Berthe Morisot was stunning. Her beauty comes across in her deep, dark eyes and delicate, chiseled features we see in Manet’s portrayals of her. She was elegant and filled with social refinement. One contemporary account described her as so full of politeness and graciousness towards others as to make acquaintances of less manners uncomfortable. Yet she broke with convention in pursuit of career in art and in the pursuit of a art style outside of tradition.
She and Manet came from similar background, he as the oldest of three boys and she as the youngest daughter in a family of three girls and one younger boy. Their parents walked in the same social circles. He spent time in the Navy, and it was awhile before his father finally agreed that he could pursue a career in art instead of law. Though it was hardly typical of women to become painters at the time, it seems that the Morisot parents were encouraging of the daughters who studied under a famous artist, Camille Corot. Berthe was the most serious, the only one to continue that career through marriage and motherhood.
Photo of Berthe Morisot, c. 1870
However, Manet was 9 years older and married when they met copying paintings at the Louvre copying in 1867. Each of them had already submitted paintings which had been accepted in France’s annual Salon, the yearly review of what was in judges’ views considered the best art of the time. Édouard Manet’s reputation was controversial on account of his subjects and the way he painted them. Berthe was very taken with him immediately, but of course younger French painters who were interested in breaking new artistic ground, including Monet and Renoir, also revered Manet.
Manet, Berthe Morisot with Fan, 1872
According to some sources, Berthe’s mother was her chaperone whenever she went to Manet’s studio, as befitted her social class. Who really knows? Manet wife was Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch piano teacher his father had hired years earlier to teach the Manet brothers. He married her shortly after his father died, perhaps out of obligation to protect the reputation of his father, a judge. Many sources staty that the older Manet was the father of a mysterious son she brought into the marriage, Léon Leenhoff, another favorite model of Manet’s. Léon always referred to Manet as his godfather, but may have been a half-brother. Manet’s marriage was not an easy love and he had other liaisons. However, he was always protective of his family name and loyal to this immediate family, although no children were born in the union. In his will, it was made clear the inheritance would pass from Suzanne to Léon. (Some writers believe Manet was the father. If that were true, would he be forced to cover up that the boy was born out of wedlock? No.)
The letters of Berthe Morisot were published by a grandson who edited them, perhaps leaving out things intended to remain private. In letters to her mother and sisters, she confessed strong feelings for Manet, fraught with jealousies, frustrations and the pain that it could not be more. Much of her self-doubt has to do with her frustrations as an artist, a situation most artists have at some point. Personally, I cannot stand when writers attribute female artists’ inner difficulties primarily to gender politics. Suggestions that Morisot and Manet were in competition or that he tried to hold her back are off the mark. In letters between the mother and other sisters, it’s clear that the mom feared for her youngest daughter who pined for Manet and sometimes didn’t eat. Berthe was unable to stay away from him, and he appears to have been quite attached, too. As friends, they shared an intellectual and artistic kinship. He painted many other women, repeatedly, but none with so much insight as those of Morisot.
Manet, Berthe Morisot with Violets, 1872
Berthe Morisot with Violets, 1872, seems for many observers to express the growing love between Manet and Morisot. To me, it is Manet’s painting of her in which Berthe seems the most forthright and the most confident. Berthe’s gaze is usually quite intense, a characteristic also found in the few photographs which exist.
However, in Berthe Morisot with a Fan, 1872, she covers her face, hinting that real intimacy with the artist was socially forbidden. Berthe Morisot with a Veil , 1874, also conveys the social blockage in the relationship. While working closely with Berthe, Manet began to loosen his brush work and get more of Impressionist swiftness to his paint. There is more spontaneity as time goes on and Manet adds many more light colors to his canvases.
Manet sometimes lightened his colors, but he rarely lightened his palette while painting Berthe Morisot. Does he see a sadness in her that does not brighten over time? Or is there a darkness that he sees and knows? Her hair was black and painting the contrast of exquisite blackness and lighter tones was his specialty. He certainly painted her with greater verve and style than many other portraits, including those of his wife and of Eva Gonzalès, a 20-year old student who came to studied under Manet. Berthe was envious of that relationship, although a portrait of Eva Gonzalès caused him much difficulty and was not successful.
Manet, Berthe Morisot in Profile, 1872
To a certain extent, the portraits seems to grow in their sense of intimacy as time goes on, and Berthe seems increasingly relaxed with Manet. Portait of Berthe Morisot in Profile, 1872, shows Berthe in movement with spontaneous gestures. Her expressive fingers and long hand add to a sense of elegance and she appears less serious than previous depictions. Clearly Manet found a fascinating subject.
Professionally, each artist helped and encouraged the other. On one occasion Manet complemented her on a painting and then started touching it up. She did not object and sent it to the Salon, where it was accepted. It was a painting of her mother and her pregnant sister, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Manet, Berthe Morisot Reclining, 1873
When Degas, Pissaro and Monet wished to break out of the Salon and start their own salon des indépendentes in 1873, Manet refused to join them and opted only for the traditional road to success. This inner conservatism reflects a paradox in his character. He also advised Berthe Morisot not to rock the boat, not join in their venture, which became the first Impressionist exhibition and almost an annual event. Berthe, however, kept her own counsel and continued to exhibit with the Impressionists until 1886, when Impressionists were finally accepted and no longer needed an alternative venue. Of the 8 Impressionist exhibitions, the only one she skipped was in 1879, after giving birth to her daughter in November of the previous year.
Manet, Berthe Morisot in Mourning Hat, 1874
We know Berthe Morisot was highly determined to follow her chosen path and not be deterred by the man of her dreams when she disagreed. However, that doggedness often hid behind a shell of quietness and, at times, depression. Edouard Manet’s paintings of her variously capture herallure, her elegance, her intelligence and a pensiveness tinged with tragedy. He painted Berthe Morisot in a Mourning Hat in 1874, during the same year her father died. The texture is rough, the eyes are enormous and the color contrast is bold. Her color is pale and she appears emaciated. It’s an expression of the sadness she was holding deeply within her at the time.
Manet, Violets, 1872, was a gift to Berthe Morisot
Manet gifted an exquisite still life of violets in 1872 to Berthe. He painted Violets with a swift, fresh and textural style,signed it and dedicated to her. Note that it includes a fan, a symbol Berthe holds in several of his earlier paintings of her.He only painted her in clothing, and she never painted him.
Berthe clearly gave Manet an outlet and a means to express his feeling for her in painting. In these portraits of her, we also see the workings of her psyche. On the other hand, he seemed to appreciate Victorine Meurent (the other favorite model who posed in Olympia, The Luncheon on the Grass, The Railway and later became a Salon painter), for the versatile expressions she could give to a painting’s message. In other words, paintings of Morisot are all about Berthe Morisot. Victorine would have had greater freedom than Berthe in some respects. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were expected to behave according to their social standing. (American Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were important Impressionists who had a professional relationship and bond of friendship similar to the Morisot – Manet duo. The time period was fascinating not only for how the artists related to each other, but to contemporary writers, poets, musicians and intellectuals.)
Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Island of Wight, 1875
Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait, 1884
Édouard Manet suggested to Berthe that she marry Eugène his brother, a situation that promised they could continue indefinitely to see each other, but in the company of others. The mother’s criticisms of Édouard had been out protectiveness for the daughter, but her hesitation about Eugène was because he lacked a profession. Eventually, at age 33, Berthe and Eugène married. Four years later at age 37, she gave birth to her only child, Julie Manet. Berthe Morisot did many portraits of her daughter and her husband which suggest affection and domestic happiness.
By all accounts, Eugène Manet was kind and extremely supportive of his wife’s career and provided much administrative support for the Impressionists in general. His famous brother certainly overshadowed him in every way, but there is no evidence that he was jealous of his brother. He must have realized Berthe’s extreme fondness and probable preference for Édouard. Once they were married, the older Manet appears to have stopped painting her.
Compared to her brother-in-law Édouard’s work, Morisot’s own paintings have smaller and lighter brushstrokes, and a lighter palette. Her form is not deliberate as that of Manet. In a self-portrait of 1884, we recognize the same chiseled features and delicacy that Manet portrayed, and self-confidence. Their styles were already well developed when the met. Differences in their styles reflect the differences between their teaching: Morisot learned from Corot, the master of outdoor painting in diffused light of day, while Manet studied under Thomas Couture whose techniques are recognized in his heavier brushwork. Manet’s dark backgrounds reflect his admiration of Spanish painters Goya and Velazquez. Her forms were more diffused, silvery and more true to the goals of Impressionism.
Manet, Self-Portrait with Palette, 1878, sold at a London auction for approximately $33 million 2010
Though he was criticized in his early career, by the time the Impressionists were accepted and recognized, Manet was esteemed as the leader of new way of seeing and painting in a modern technique. Like his father, Manet received France’s highest honor, the prestigious Légion d’honneur before he died. Advocating for this success and protecting the honor of his family was extremely important in the end, despite his progressive political and artistic ideas. Both Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot died fairly young, he of syphilis (like his father) in 1883, and she of pneumonia a little more than 12 years later.
Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Julie Manet, 1894
(When the diary of Julie Manet was compiled and published many years ago, I read the book,Growing Up with the Impressionists, in which Julie Manet expresses her thoughts and feelings about her family and the important artists who were their friends. From what I remember, she seems to have had a fondness for everyone except Edouard Manet’s wife Suzanne, whom she found overbearing, perhaps reflecting her mother’s feelings.) Berthe Morisot was devastated when Manet died, and again when her husband Eugène died in 1892. Berthe and daughter Julie were extremely close. Berthe was nursing Julie who had pneumonia when she caught the bug and suddenly died in 1895. Her friends Renoir, Monet and Degas put together a large solo exhibition of her work shortly afterwards.
An orphan at age 16, Julie was left to the guardianship of painter Auguste Renoir and poet Stéphane Mallarmé. A few years later Julie married a painter, Ernest Rouart. She became an artist, as did cousins Jeannie and Paule Gobillard. Julie Manet lived until 1966, nearly 88 years, in contrast to her mother, father and uncle.
Renoir did several portraits of Julie Manet, including a painting of the Berthe Morisot with her daughter towards the end in 1894. Morisot‘s hair appears to have changed from black to gray rather quickly after the loss of Manets, both of Édouard and then her own Eugène, who she had undoubtedly loved dearly. He was kind and generous to her. When the older Manet died, his estate held a key indication of Berthe’s personal importance to him — seven of the paintings of her were found in his possession. While Manet’s wife had the financial and social benefits of marriage, he painted her less often.
Manet, Young Woman with a Pink Shoe
In grad school, I took a seminar, Manet and Degas, and remember reading Manet and His Critics, as well as the novels of Émile Zola. Many books have come out since that time. Marni Kessler published an important article in The Art Bulletin about Manet’s paintings of Morisot, which I’ve not read. I’ve read The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe and quoted her above; The Judgment of Paris by Ross King, and a biography, Rebel in a Frock Coat: Édouard Manet, by Beth Archer Brombert, each book very well documented. Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers, a book I’ve not read, insists they were lovers. Perhaps the most recent book to cover the Manet-Morisot relationship is Roberto Calasso’s book, La Folie Baudelaire, which has a chapter about the relationship as well as Manet’s connections to Degas. Brombert says of Manet, “He hungered for critical and popular success but refused to yield to the taste of the day; he was the leader of a new school who dissociated himself from it as soon as it gained cohesion; he was a man of public diversion and the most private of lives.”
Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80
Manet’s greatness is in the paint and the experimental ways of presenting his subjects. At a time when painting had to compete with photography, he asserted the importance of texture and presented the ambiguities of modern life. I could not imagine Van Gogh without the influence of his rich, tactile paint and color juxtapositions as seen in the sofa of The Repose , the green of The Balcony and the lush purple Violets. Morisot’s style intersects with Manet’s at times, but in most ways she is closer to Pissarro, Renoir, Monet. She and Manet inspired each others’ artistic evolution, as did Degas and Cassatt, who excelled in the artfulness of their compositions.
Morisot’s Women at her Toilette, above, features a mirror and centers on a female figure, as in Manet ‘s very important painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, but her tones are always more silvery and form is less defined. Morisot’s work is also a masterpiece, but the figure and mirror merge into the overall impression. Manet’s woman at the Folies-Bergere is an icon who reminds us of what remains when participating in the excitement of the fleeting, contemporary world. Manet is best known for painting ambiguities, while the purest Impressionist compositions of Morisot, Renoir and Monet keep the figure merely a part in the whole painted arrangement. In her modern compositions, Morisot holds her place in the path to 20th century abstraction.
Manet was the right person born at the right time to be pivotal in the changing world of art. Morisot loved him but was independent, carving out her own reputation, in her time and in our time. (Here’s a blog with a wide variety of Morisot’s paintings.) Having been soulmates unable to live together in love, Manet and Morisot respected each other until the end. Our pictures of them together remain in our imagination.
Since 1993, Martin Schongauer’s 10″ x 13″ drawing of Peonies has been in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles..
A painting of peonies came up for auction in 1990 under the vague label of Northern Italian. However, a museum curator at the Albertina in Vienna recognized it as an important drawing from about 1472-73 by Martin Schongauer, an artist who lived in Alsace on the French-German border. The drawing, now in the Getty Museum, is a study for the flowers in Madonna of the Rosary, 1473, painted by Schongauer for a church in Colmar (now in France). Albrecht Durer traveled to Colmar to visit Schongauer in 1491, but the great Alsatian master had died by the time 21-year old Durer arrived. Martin’s brothers met with him and gave him some of the master’s drawings. This drawing may have been one of the drawings owned by Durer; the same Viennese curator recognized a flower similar to one of the peonies in a Durer painting of 1501.
In 2007, a pastel drawing came up on the auction market and it was labeled as 19th century German. An astute Canadian collector who bought it had other ideas and sought expert opinion. Most experts now attribute this drawing to Leonardo da Vinci, and it is called La Bella Principessa. The sitter may be the 13-year old daughter of the Duke of Milan, Bianca Sforza. Interestingly, a fingerprint on the paper matches a fingerprint in Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St. Jerome. The technique is ink with black, white and red chalk on yellow vellum to give the flesh tones. Leonardo is said to have learned the pastel technique from a French artist.
A badly damaged painting supposedly by a student of Leonardo sold for 45 British pounds in 1958. Only in the past year has it been cleaned and recognized as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. Called the Salvator Mundi, it was recently part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. In the frontal image, Jesus holds a glass globe and stares directly at the viewer while using the blessed gesture. His calm face is full of compassion and kindness. The penetrating sense of life in this image is clearly palpable, as revealed after its cleaning. It has Leonardo’s recognizable sfumato, the smoky quality which gives a dark softness to the shadows. It has the iconic and mysterious qualities reminiscent of as the Mona Lisa. Cleaning revealed this Salvator Mundi to be an authentic
Leonardo da Vinci dating to c. 1500
Martin Kemp, Leonardo expert in England, has identified the rock crystal orb to show the crystalline cosmos in Jesus’s hand as something only Leonardo could have painted with accuracy. Leonardo was quite the geologist and Kemp compared the painted example to crystal orbs in the geology collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Therefore, the painting could not have been done by a follower. The last time a painting was discovered to be by Leonardo was 100 years ago.
Only the master Leonardo, who intimately studied nature,
could have portrayed this rock crystal so accurately
Even more remarkable is the fact that a lost painting by Leonardo’s young rival, Michelangelo appeared in 2009. This Temptation of St. Anthony is now in the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth. Michelangelo painted this oil and tempera when he was only about 13 years old. The first writer of art history in 1570, Giorgio Vasari described a painting that copied an engraving by Martin Schongauer.
The fact that the two greatest artistic prodigies born in Europe during the 1470s, Albrecht Durer and the divine Michelangelo, admired Martin Schongauer, speaks to that master’s incredible reputation as an artist in the 15th century. He died young, but his contribution to later art cannot be overlooked. Although Schongauer’s travels probably took him only to the center of Europe: Alsace, Burgundy, Flanders and the Rhineland, his prints gave him a reputation throughout Italy, France, Spain and even England. Italians called him Bel Martino. Perhaps he was born around 1448, a few years before another great observer of nature, Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings inspired the great drawings of nature by Durer, namely The Rabbit and Large Piece of Turf.
National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, is hosting a ground-breaking exhibition, From Royalists to Romantics: Woman artists from the Louvre, Versailles and other French National Collections. The exhibition celebrates the 25th anniversary of NMWA and will continue to be on view until July 29, 2012. It features 35 woman artists who worked between 1750 and 1850.
The women who worked as artists in France at this time went through difficult times of the Revolution and its aftermath, the governments of Napoleon and Napoleon III and uncertainties in
between. They reveal themselves as extraordinary talents, able to overcome so many odds. Many of those who painted and were the subject of portraits reveal themselves as the Renaissance woman of their days. The cover of the catalogue has an alluring portrait of Madame Juliette Récamier, by Eulalie Morin.
Madame Récamier, by Eulalie Morin, late 18th century, is on the cover of the NMWA ground-breaking exhibition. Morin’s Mme Récamier wears a grecian dressand standing in front of an olive tree. Morin used an encaustic technique
Madame Récamier was an extraordinary woman known for holding salons in Paris, hosting notable literary and political figures. She was brilliant, beautiful, charming, witty and politically involved. In time, she was critical of Napoleon, and Madame Récamier went in exile to Italy, but returned to France later. Morin’s portrait dates to the last quarter of the 18th century, before the more famous portraits of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David and Francois Gérard. Morin captured the personality of this charming and clever figure and set her in front of a distant landscape. Her skin is soft and smooth, and the flesh tones contrast nicely with the bright white headband and grecian dress. She stands in front of an olive tree, another tribute to Greece and her interest in the ideals of the classical world. The composition is unified with curves of the face, arm, tree and headband to pull it together and focus on the face. Morin’s Madame Récamier is intimate and alluring. Perhaps as a result of the NMWA exhibition, Morin’s painting will become the iconic image of Madame Recamier, and Eulalie Morin will become better known. (A specific type of couch, a récamier, takes its name from David’s portrait of her.) It’s interesting that Morin primarily painted miniatures, the tiny portraits which went out of vogue with the advent of photography.
Neoclassical style and the simplicity of white, grecian dress represented sympathy for Republican ideas.A self-portrait of Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux in NMWA’s exhibition shows her bending over a painting, demonstrating her art. However, she shined not only as a painter, but as a musician and composer. Her style compares well next to the work of Jacques-Louis David, most revered painter of the age, especially when we see the texture and shine of an exquisite dresses she painted.
A self-portrait of Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, left, from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen, demonstrates her painting profession.
The current exhibition only features paintings from French museums, but there is a also a full-length self-portrait by Ducreux in the Metropolitan Museum, where she plays the harp. Ducruex was also a musician and composer; this painting, below, was accepted in the Salon of 1791.
Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun was a prodigy who opened her own painting studio at age 15, supporting her mother and brother. She soon became a favorite of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Marriage and motherhood did not interfere with her career, and she is known for having painted several portraits of herself in affectionate, loving poses with Julie, her daughter.
Vigée-LeBrun did not support the Revolution and left France, only to gain an international reputation as a portrait painter, particularly amongst the nobility of Austria, Russia and Poland. (A recent blog on her is found here.) Anne Vallayer-Coster was a marvelous still life painter who was voted into Royal Academy in 1770. A favorite of Marie-Antoinette, she seems to have fallen out of favor after the Revolution. Vallayer-Coster, Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, were elected into the exclusive French Academy and achieved fame in their day, but there were many other artists of extraordinary talent whom we now can see and recognize in a new light. Many are portrait painters and some are history painters, the latter considered the highest type of art in its time. A few of them painted genre scenes, still lives or landscapes.
The exhibition’s 77 paintings, prints and sculpture mainly come before the invention of photography and do not show its influence. By 1850 the style of Realism had entered the art scene, but the exhibition does not cover this style in which new, younger artists such as Rosa Bonheur were painting. A Legion d’Honneur recipient, Bonheur completed in 1855 her famous The Horse Fair, now in theMetropolitan Museum of Art.
Before the French Revolution, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun painted this lively portrait of Joseph Vernet in 1778, primarily using a rich variety of grayish tones. Joseph Vernet was a well-known marine painter who frequently portrayed shipwrecks and other disasters.
These works are on loan from France until July 29, 2012, after which they will travel to Sweden.
Constance Mayer, The Dream of Happiness, from the Louvre, has a Romantic mood, popular in the early 19th century. The exact date is unknown