On the Wings of Angels by Abbott Thayer

Abbot Handerson Thayer, Winged Figure, 1889, The Art Institute of Chicago

It may be the dreamer in me who is so attracted to the winged paintings of Abbott Handerson Thayer.  The first of his paintings that I fell in love with was Winged Figure. above, at the Art Institute of Chicago.   I’ve always admired the loose simplicity of the Grecian style of clothes, even before studying Greek art. However, what appeals most to me is the sense of security and peace this figure has as she sleeps, protected and held by the curve of her wing. Her leg and golden garment are strong and sculptural, but it’s not clear if she’s on the ground or on a cloud.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Angel, 1887, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of John Gellatly             Mary, the artist’s daughter, posed.

After moving to Washington, I found that Thayer is represented well in the nation’s capital.  Angel of 1887 is a very young figure, and Thayer’s daughter Mary served as the model when she was 11. She’s frontal, symmetric, quite pale and white. She may or may not be in flight.  Thayer is probably the premier American painter of angels, a Fra Angelico or a Luca della Robbia in paint.  He gives them an idealized beauty and paints in a pristine Neoclassical style, as well as Europeans did. 

Abbott Handerson Thayer, A Winged Figure, 1904-1913, The Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer.  The model is the

artist’s daughter, Gladys

One of the winged figures at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art wears a laurel wreath.  More rigid than his other angels, she faces us frontally with the geometry of a Greek column.  Her face is severe, too, and she doesn’t quite touch the ground.  Daughter Gladys was his model. (The Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian has published an explanation of the Winged Figures collected by Charles Lang Freer.)

Thayer’s preference for painting winged figures was not entirely religious.  His interest in naturalism started as a 6-year old living near Keene, New Hampshire, when he began the avid study of birds and nature.  However, his obsession with painting winged figures, angels and innocent children may have something to do with the fact that two of his children died unexpectedly in the early 1880s.   That so many of his figures gained wings may represent hopes he had for coming to terms with loss.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Virgin, 1892-93, 
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer
(The artist’s children, Gladys, Mary, Gerald)
He painted his three remaining children over and over again, and three of these paintings are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In Virgin at the Freer Gallery of Art, the oldest Mary faces us frontally walking in a pose similar to the Nike of Samothrace.  Although she doesn’t technically have wings like the Nike of Samothrace, the clouds behind her become large, white wings.   Mary is an icon in the center who boldly holds and leads the younger sister and brother.  She is noble and unflappable but moves swiftly.  The younger children are strong, too, and do not smile. Their hair flies in the wind and the ground they walk on is hazy.  Above all, they’re innocent.   (These two younger children, Gladys and Gerald, also became painters.)   
Understandingly, there was some intense melancholy surrounding he and his wife for some time.  In 1891, his wife died, too. Thayer may be sentimental, but the paintings of his children would suggest he wanted them to be strong, triumphant and prepared for any event.   
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Roses, 1890, oil on canvas 22 1/4 x 31 3/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum,   Gift of John Gellatly

Thayer was a superb painter of other subjects.  He also did portraits, landscapes and still lives, which can be found on the Smithsonian’s websiteAn exceptional still life at Smithsonian American Art Museum, Roses, demonstrates his incredible skill.  He manages to be highly detailed with the leaves and blooms but spontaneous and expressive for the vase and background.  The color is somewhat muted, but the texture is strong.   The style of his still lives compares well to Edouard Manet’s textured still lives and the pristine beauty Henri Fantin-Latour’s still lives.  Like the highly skilled academic painter Bouguereau, he seems to be able to combine the best of the great 19th century styles: Neoclassicism, Realism and the emotional or dreamy qualities of Romanticism.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Mount Monadnock, 1911, 22 3/16 x. 24 3/16 “
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The other great style of the period was Impressionism, which captured the fleeting qualities of light and colors.  While Thayer may not be categorized as an Impressionist, he should be added to the list of marvelous snow painters.  His best scenes of snow come from the area near where he lived in Keene and in Dublin, New Hampshire.   In the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Mount Monadnock, 1911, Thayer captured some of the beautiful scenery surrounding this mountain very familiar to him. There are vivid blues, purples and reds in this snow and the lights on the mountain top are brilliant.  There’s a small, horizontal string of light coming across the ground to separate trees from mountain. 

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Monadnock No. 2, 1912,
Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Charles Lang Freer
He repeated the composition over and over, as Impressionists did.  Mount Monadnock, 1904 and Monadnock No. 2, 1912 are in the Freer Gallery of Art.   The snow topped mountain is also brilliant and even whiter in the painting of 1912.  Touches purplish-gray suggest how cold it must have been.  The trees are dark however, a definite force of nature.  Thayer knew Impressionistic techniques and had lived in France, but he was also an artist who wanted to find some solidity and permanence in the world, even as it will change and be gone.  He painted Winter Dawn on Monadnock in 1918, now in the Freer, too.  There were less pine trees at this time, but the radiant pinks of dawn pervade the scene on the left.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Winter Dawn on Monadnock, 1918, The Freer Gallery of Art,
Smithsonian Institution  Gift of Charles Lang Freer.

Who can see and understand illusion in nature better than an artist?  In 1909, he and his son, Gerald Handerson Thayer,  wrote a major book on protective coloration in nature, Concealing and Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise.   He ascertained that in shadow birds or animals become darker to be hidden, but naturally turn lighter in sun.  Another naturalist, former President Teddy Roosevelt, scoffed at his ideas and they were not accepted. However, he tried to share his ideas with the American government during World War I.
Abbott Handerson Thayer, Stevenson Memorial, 1903,  81-7/16 x 16 1/8 “
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC  Gift of John Gellatly
Thayer made as a memorial, above, to author Robert Louis Stevenson, someone he deeply admired but did not know.  His first idea was for the memorial was to paint his three children, in honor of Stevenson’s book, A Child’s Garden of Verses.   He changed his mind, and a winged figure sits on a stone marked VAEA, the spot in Samoa where Stevenson is buried.

Thayer memorialized Stevenson, but what about his salvation?  In 2008, the Smithsonian did a documentary film about him, Invisible: Abbott Thayer and the Art of Camouflage.  Apparently his ideas about camouflage are more readily accepted now than they were in his time.  Doesn’t his reputation as a painter deserve wide recognition, too?   While keeping a foothold here on earth, his winged figures suggest that humans have the potential to transcend the hard life and fly above our limitations.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Monet’s Paintings of Snow

Claude Monet, The Road to Giverny in Winter, sold last year, but hadn’t been seen in public since 1930

When Monet’s The Road to Giverny in Winter came up at auction about a year ago, it was the first time this idyllic painting had been on the art market since 1924.  The painting leaves me with a magical impression, in the way Monet painted a pink sunset with warm highlights poking through the winter chill.  Leave it Monet to see the beautiful warmth in the coldness of winter. So I wanted to explore his other paintings of snow and see how he developed the theme. At one point in the late 1870s, Monet’s colleague Manet tried to paint a scene of snow, but gave up, exclaiming that no one could do it like Monet.

When looking at reproductions online, we get a great variety of versions of the colors in the various photos of the same painting.  No reproduction can substitute for seeing the actual painting.  Monet did about 140 paintings of snow, but they represent just a fraction of his work.  It’s snowing this morning March 18 and, looking out the window, I see only white, gray and brown with touches of forest green in the grass and pines. But I try to imagine how Monet would have seen it and the answer is that would depend on where he was in his long career. 

The Road to Giverny in Winter is from Monet’s mid-career, before the extreme abstraction of his late style, but with the abundance of color characteristic of the fully developed Impressionism.  There are several contrasting textures and the blurriness in the foreground indicates an icy wind.  Some very dark blues and purples represent tree trunks and limbs, serving to anchor the painting’s composition.  If Monet had a unifying color in The Road to Giverney in Winter, I’d guess that it had been blue. There are gray blues, powder blues and green blues.  His blue is mostly a soft blue, but it is so well modulated with the pink, the green, the purple, rusty red and yellow.

The detail from the center of  The Road to Giverny in winter shows Monet’s array of colors

The center is yellow, though.  That’s the beginning of Giverny, the village he lived in from 1878 until his death in 1923. It’s where he created the ponds and nurtured the lily pads which gave rise to his most famous paintings.  He placed this village in the center of the painting and painted its buildings yellow, appropriate because Giverny was a place of warmth where he found his center, his life. Warm yellow ochre meets its match in the yellows of the sky.  There, it takes on radiance, brightness and a hint of  green.  The touch of green in the sky balances a deep forest green along the road on the right.

Color and composition are wonderful, but the brushstrokes are another reason this painting is so successful. Through his textural strokes, he suggests the flow of light at the end of day, the directions of winds and the barrenness of winter trees.   Yet the sky is very smooth and we can sense that our shoes or boots will sink if we walk on the ground.

Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1868-1869

The Magpie, one of the most popular paintings in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, is also one of his earliest snow paintings. From this work, we trace how much he changed as his Impressionist style developed. He painted  The Magpie in 1868-1869, before the first Impressionist exhibition of 1873. The public was not used to white paintings and it was rejected by the Salon of 1869.  The way Monet created the magpie as a focal point in the composition reveals his genius, leading our eye to the bird through contrast and through repeated lines of movement in the fence’s shadows. The brushwork is masterful, as he uses the brush to show light, shadow and what remains of snow on narrow branches of trees.

The Magpie is a masterpiece of Monet’s early style, more Realist than Impressionist. There’s a sharp differentiation between light and shadow, though the shadows are mainly blue and not gray.  Dark footprints in the foreground add a bit of mystery, but more than anything make us think of the rawness of nature’s beauty with only a hint of human intervention. He is still using black which may have added just the right amount of contrast.  If we could not see the energy of his brushstrokes, a viewer may think the painting’s quality so good that it could be a photograph.  The whites are bright enough, though, that you’d almost want to wear sunglasses to look at the painting.  The Magpie appears to work its special magic by depicting what may be the day after a night of snow.

Monet, The Street at Argenteuil, Snow Effect, 1874


In contrast to the view of snow in sunlight, it’s snowing in The Street at Argenteuil, Snow Effect, painted about 5 years later.  The snowflakes are big, perhaps Monet was inspired by Japanese artist Hokusai.   The whites are still very bright, but the most of the painting is gray or taupe, with touches of deep green and deep purple to make up the dark colors.  There is a feel of something magical to be walking in this snow, even if it is cold.  There’s touches of blue in the sky and a forest green where grass or pine needles appear.

Monet, Snow at Argenteuil, 1875.   Argenteuil was particularly important to the development of Monet’s Impressionist style.  The years 1875-79 included some cold, harsh winters.

Snow at Argenteuil, 1875, could be the day after a snow.  It was painted in the same village but perhaps a year later. Its also a logical progression of style.Value contrast diminishes, but Monet loves to create a sense of depth and he is truly a master of perspective space, as much as the master of reflecting color.  Black is almost entirely eliminated but we only have a few strokes of colors in their dark values.  The town, nature and people are alive with movement and they go about their business despite the overall chill in the air.  The blue in the painting, and the red bricks that been dulled to a pink, let us know it’s cold outside.

By 1880, Monet’s paintings were gradually becoming more and more abstract.  He was less concerned with structure, depth and perspective.  The paintings become more and more about color, pattern, vibration.  In the Floating Ice near Vertheuil, we see tons of blue: deep blues green-blues, purple-blues and powder blue for the sky.  Nearly half the painting is a reflection of the water, something he take to full abstraction with his water lily paintings later.  It’s not only about the weather and how light effects the color, but Monet was also very concerned with pattern. The brushstrokes look like dabs of paint, just quick impressions.

Monet, Floating Ice Near Vetheuil, 1880

As time goes on, even his snow scenes begin to take on more colors. Fortunately, 19th century painters were allowed an expanded palette of colors, and, for the first time, they could buy their paints in tubes. In many paintings, snow and ice become less dominated by white and gray, and appear to be dusted with all the hues of the rainbow.  Near Lavacourt and Vetheuil, he did many paintings of the break up of ice on the River Seine.  In these paintings, snow and ice combine with water in Monet’s color analysis of the reflections as they hit the water. 

The Road to Giverny in Winter is chronologically between the ice series on the Seine and the Grainstacks series

 
Monet’s Grainstacks series of about 25 paintings includes at several snow scenes which offer a good comparison if we see them as Monet intended, next to the other paintings in the series.  The Art Institute of Chicago’s painting, Grainstacks, Snow Effects, Sunset, 1891 is an example.  This painting, an explosion of color on form is viewed in the gallery with at least six other paintings from the series.  Shadows are not painted black or gray, but only as cold colors.  (Blue, green and purple are cold colors, yellow, orange and red are warm.)  Complementary color contrast creates a sensation, with the warmest colors in the upper righthand corner.

Monet, Grainstacks, Snow Effect, Sunset, 1891

Monet traveled to Norway in 1895 and painted landscapes in the palest of colors.  From Sandviken, Village in the Snow, it’s apparent that Monet’s interest in spatial depth, so apparent in earlier paintings, is gone, and overlapping shapes are the only forms to give definition to space.  He used the lightest of pastel tints to differentiate color in paintings flowing with the brightness of snow, or in the whiteness of paint.   The reds of barns are very red, yet they are submerged in white.  It does seem that snow is everywhere and this is truly a winter wonderland.  The edges of the canvas look as if they could dissolve in continuity. 

Monet, Sandviken, Norway, Village in the Snow, 1895

If snow continually inspired Monet and if he pressed himself to paint it whenever possible, we must see his relationship of snow as being akin to his relationship with painting water.  Snow, like water, was a vehicle for him to explore the wonders of refracting light and reflection, to scatter colors as they reflect off of each other while forming unexpected designs and patterns.

About 10 years ago I took a painting class.  Using a photo of a snow scene from the Morton Arboretum, my teacher kept encouraging me to see the purple in the landscape. She said that every landscape has an underlying color that unifies it and in this one it’s purple. The snow is purple, the water is purple, the tree trunks are purple, she said, and suggested that I stop interpreting what I knew was there: grays, whites, browns and blacks.   She was trying to help me see as the artist sees and to use my eye to see an Impressionist’s vision of the world. There also was a gorgeous sunset in the painting I was doing, but I certainly didn’t paint a glorious rainbow of color effects as Monet did. Check out more of his snow scenes on this website.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Manet and Morisot: The Tale of Love and Sadness in the Portraits

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 progressive, 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, perhaps an unrequited love, is far more interesting.  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.  Manet had many female models but 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 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

It appears that Berthe’s mother was her chaperone whenever she went to Manet’s studio, as befitted her social class.   Manet wife was Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch piano teacher his father had hired years earlier to teach the Manet brothersHe married her shortly after his father died, perhaps out of obligation to protect the reputation of his father, a judge. It’s likely 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 was probably 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, but if that were true, social conditions would not force him to cover that the boy was born out of wedlock.)

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.

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 a highly determined woman 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 her allure, 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 emaciatedIt’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 respectsBerthe 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 for any reason.  He must have realized Berthe’s extreme fondness and  probable preference for Édouard.  Once they were married, the older Manet seems 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.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Gauguin’s Shame and Salvation

Paul Gauguin was impressed with the sincere, unspoiled piety of women from Brittany, where he painted in 1887. He placed the Yellow Christ, 1889, in a Breton landscape.
Paul Gauguin, an early modern rebel against western culture, is influenced by religious culture like his French forebears who painted for kings and churches 400 years earlier. After seeing the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition of Early Renaissance Art in France, I saw the Gauguin exhibition at the National Gallery. Many of Gauguin’s subjects also had religious themes. He put the Crucifixion in a setting of yellow and ocher pigments, and blended it into the landscape of Brittany, a region he respected for its piety and cultural backwardness at that time.

The standing woman in Delectable Waters, above, has the shame of Eve being expelled from the garden of Paradise. We don’t know her relationship to the other women, although they also seem to live in a lush tropical place, much like a Garden of Eden

Many of the paintings in Gauguin: Maker of Myth come from his Tahitian stay after 1891. He treats several scenes of Tahitian women and gods through the lens of Christianity and other religious traditions. It’s curious that the moon goddess Hina who appears in Delectable Waters, above, is actually in a pose from Hinduism that Gauguin morphs into this Tahitian image. In some canvases the Tahitian women, rather than Eve, deal with evil and temptation. He portrays human dramas of guilt, fear, agony and pain.

Why Are You Angry, from the Art Institute of Chicago, has always fascinated me. It also seems to have a mysterious theme of guilt or shame. This encounter between a standing lady and two seated girls who humble themselves creates a provocative drama separated by an old woman and a tree. Each woman is strongly modeled with lovely, brownish skin tones. The colors of this paradise blend warm hues of yellow and red with the cool, peaceful colors of mauve and blue.

Why Are You Angry, from the Art Institute of Chicago, exemplifies Gauguin’s ability to balance the warm and cool colors of nature, while the composition is balancing the various sides of the human drama .

Even before going to Tahiti, he painted of Christ’s Agony in the Garden, showing Jesus is a human who feels the same pain of rejection that we, as humans, do. He uses his own face as Jesus Christ. Bright red-orange hair is symbolic of the fire and pain of human suffering, which we see not only as Jesus but part of humankind. There are many self-portraits on view. Symbolist Self-Portrait from the National Gallery’s collection, shows the paradox of his own good and evil natures, making his choices appear like Adam and Eve’s. More powerful than ego promotion, these self-portraits are powerful expressions of the human dilemma. After all, he started out as a stockbroker, which clearly did not work for him. The exhibition has an impressive display of Gauguin’s sculpture and ceramics, even in self-portraiture.

The Agony in the Garden, is a Christian theme. Here Gauguin has given Jesus his own face, suggesting that he empathized and identified with the suffering of Jesus.

One can wonder if Gauguin ever overcame his pain, shame and reached a type of salvation in his final destination, Tahiti. Whether it was Eden, Tahiti or Gethsemane, he seems to paint so many gardens, the paradises for which he hoped. (He had spent a childhood in Peru, traveled to the island of Martinique, to the opposite corners of France, Brittany and Arles, in search of simplicity before arriving in the South Seas.) Curiously, there are no paintings representing his short stay in Arles with Vincent Van Gogh.

In the end, Gauguin leaves his meanings ambiguous, but color is Gauguin’s salvation as an artist.

Two Women
, above, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows Gauguin’s gift of color–not only yellow sky and brilliant red cherries. The woman to the right is painted with green hues beneath her brown skin, a wonderful match for her blue dress, while the other women has red under brown skin.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

The amazing unknown master in an Art Institute exhibition

This Crucifixion from the Getty Museum is the center of a 3-part altarpiece which can be seen at the Art Institute in its original format until May 30th. The unknown master used saturated colors in oil paint, while packing an incredible amount of detail into a panel 19 x 28 inches. Click on the photo to see an enlargement.

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently showing a major exhibition of French Renaissance painting, Kings, Queens and Courtiers. To me, the most impressive and interesting piece is by an unknown painter, the Master of Dreux Budé. It dates to about 1450.

One of the values of this type of scholarly exhibition is the opportunity to find and gather lost or separated parts of paintings. Here, we view the original pieces of what was once formed a triptych, three panels connected by hinges to tell a concise history of Christian Salvation. The largest painting was in center; it’s a Crucifixion from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Resurrection, from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, was once a wing on the right side.

It’s a special treat to see the left panel, The Kiss of Judas or Betrayal of Christ, which starts this Passion, Death and Resurrection story. (The painting is in private hands, therefore rarely seen and photographed.) This artist’s conception is very original; Judas’ kiss of betrayal is set in the darkness of night with moon, stars and faces as the light which heightens the drama of Christ’s arrest. Suddenly we notice a crowd of soldiers that is emerging from behind. The Crucifixion in center continues the story in a daytime landscape and tells multiple episodes as well, including the Harrowing of Hell on the far right.

Each panel of the painting is a masterpiece by itself but more complete when grouped together. The unknown painter is a vivid and imaginative storyteller.

A few suggestions for the identity of this painter have been made: Andre d’Ypres or Colin d’Amiens. We know of the patrons: Dreux Budé, a wine merchant, and his wife, Jeanne Peschard. The three-part painting, called a triptych, was for the altar in the Budé family chapel of Saint Gervais, Paris. A Crucifixion in the Louvre, Paris, is by the same painter, who may have learned from Rogier and/or Robert Campin in the guild of Tournai.

A double-mouth demon and sinners in a cauldron, above left. In the bottom left of the Crucifixion is a demon in Hell whom Jesus encountered while going there to rescue Adam and Eve. The photo is courtesy of Dawn Pedersen of Blue Lobster Art & Design.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016