|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
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.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|Mary Cassatt, La Loge, 1878-79
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.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|Rania Hassan, Pensive I, II, III, 2009, oil, fiber, canvas, metal wood, Each piece
is 31″h x 12″w x 2-1/2″ It’s currently on view at Greater Reston Arts Center.
There’s a revival of status and attention given to traditional, highly-skilled arts and crafts made of yarn, thread and materials. “Stitch,” a new show at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), proves that traditional sewing arts are at the forefront of contemporary art, and that fiber is a forceful vehicle for expression. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Women in the Arts puts the historical spin on traditional women’s art in “Workt by Hand,” a collection of stunning quilts from the Brooklyn Museum which were shown in exhibition at their home museum last year.
|Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82″;
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3;
Photography by Gavin Ashworth,
2012 / Brooklyn Museum
Quilts are normally very large and utilitarian in nature. To some historians, American quilts are appreciated as material culture with possible stories of the people who made them, but they also have some vivid abstract patterns and strong color harmonies. Their bold geometric shapes vary and change with different color combinations. Quilting is a folk art since it is a passed down tradition, and the patterns may seem stylized and highly decorative. Yet there is room for tremendous variation, creativity and individual style.
Within the United States there are important regional folk groups whose quilts have a distinctive style, like the Amish quilt, above. Amish designs can have a sophisticated abstraction deeply appreciated during the period of Minimal Art of the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition outlines distinctions and also shows styles popular at certain times, including Mariners’ Knot quilts around 1840-1860, the Crazy Quilts of the Victorian period and the Double Wedding Ring pattern popular in the Midwest after World War I.
|Victoria Royall Broadhead, Tumbling Blocks quilt–detail, 1865-70 Gift of Mrs Richard Draper, Brooklyn Museum of Art. Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum. This silk/velvet creation won first place in contests at state fairs in St. Louis and Kansas City.
One beautifully patterned quilt is from Sweden, but the rest of them are made in the USA. The patterns change like an optical illusions when we move near to far, or when we view in real life or in reproduction. There’s the Maltese Cross pattern, Star of Bethlehem pattern, Log Cabin pattern, Basket pattern and Flying Geese pattern, to name a few. The same patterns can come out looking very differently, depending on the maker. An Album Quilt has the signatures of different people who worked on different squares. We know the names of a handful of the quilting artists.
|Orly Cogan, Sexy Beast, Hand stitched embroidery
and paint on vintage table cloth, 34″ x 34″
While most of the quilts featured in the exhibition were made by anonymous artists, the Reston exhibition includes well-known national figures in fiber art, such as Orly Cogan and Nathan Vincent. Cogan uses traditional techniques on vintage fabrics to explore contemporary femininity and relationships. Her works appear to be large-scale drawings in thread. She adds paint and sews into old tablecloths. I loved the beautiful Butterfly Song Diptich and Sexy Beast, a human-beast combination with multiple arms, like the god Shiva. Vincent, the only man in the show, works against the traditional gender role, crocheting objects of typically masculine themes, such as a slingshot.
|Pam Rogers, Herbarium Study, 2013, Sewn leaves, handmade
soil and mineral pigments, graphite,
on cotton paper, 22″ x 13-1/2″
Most “Stitch” artists are local. Pam Rogers stitches the themes of people, place, nature and myth found in her other works. Kate Kretz, another local luminary of fiber art, embroiders in intricate detail, expressing feelings about motherhood, aging and even the art world.
Kretz’s own blog illuminates her work, including many of the pieces in “Stitch. The pictures there and the detailed photos on an embroidery blog display in sharper detail and explain some of her working methods.
Often she embroiders human hair into the designs and materials, connecting tangible bits of a self with an audience. Kretz explains, “One of the functions of art is to strip us bare, reminding us of the fragility common to every human being across continents and centuries.”
Kretz adds, “The objects that I make are an attempt to articulate this feeling of vulnerability.” Yet some of the works also make us laugh and chuckle, like Hag, a circle of gray hair, Unruly, and Une Femme d’Un Certain Age. Watch out for a dagger embroidered from those gray hairs!
|Kate Kretz, Beauty of Your Breathing, 2013, Mothers hair from gestation
period embroidered on child’s garment, velvet, 20″ x 25″ x 1″
|Suzi Fox, Organ II, 2014, Recycled
motor wire, canvas, embroidery hoop
12-1/2″ x 8″ x 1-1/2″
Kretz is certainly not the only artist who punches us with wit and irony, and/or human hair, into the seemingly delicate stitches. Stephanie Booth combines real hair fibers with photography, and her works relate well to the family history aspect alluded to in NMWA’s quilting exhibition. Rania Hassan is also a multimedia artist who brings together canvas paintings with knitted works. In Dream Catcher and the Pensive series of three, shown at top of this page, she alludes to the fact that knitting is a pensive, meditative act. She painted her own hands on canvases of Pensive I, II, III and Ktog, using the knitted parts to pull together the various parts of three-dimensional, sculptural constructions. She adds wire to the threads for stiffness, although the wires are indiscernible. Suzi Fox uses wire, also, but for delicate, three-dimensional embroideries of hearts, lungs and ribcages (right).
There’s an inside to all of us and an outside. Erin Edicott Sheldon reminds us that stitches are sutures, and she calls her works sutras. Stitches heal our wounds. “I use contemporary embroidery on antique fabric as a canvas to explore the common threads that bind countless generations of women.” Her “Healing Sutras” have a meditative quality, recalling the ancient Indian sutras, the threads that hold all things together.
|Erin Endicott Sheldon, Healing Sutra#26, 2012, hand
embroidery on antique fabric stained with walnut ink
In this way she relates who work to the many unknown artists who participated in a traditional arts of quilting. Like the Star of Bethlehem quilt now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the traditional “Stitch” arts remind us to follow our stars while staying grounded in our traditions.
|Star of Bethlehem Quilt, 1830, Brooklyn Museum of Art Gift of Alice Bauer Frankenberg. Photo by Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|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 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 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.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2023
|Photo courtesy of Rachael Matthews from the UK Crafts Council
“High fiber” usually refers to a type of diet, but High Fiber at the National Museum for Women in the Arts demonstrates how “high art” integrates with the everyday world of a Folk Art. In the multi-media world of contemporary art, Fiber Art has gained recognition as a serious art form over the last fifty years. Like the art of glass making, fiber art was invented milleniums ago for utilitarian purposes. Knitting, sewing and weaving developed to meet basic needs of warmth and clothing, but as soon as pattern and design were involved, the process of making art began.
|Knitted objects are often in Matthews’ work
When the ancient artists/crafters knitted, knotted, wove or stitched to follow patterns or innate designs in their heads, they tied together movements between the left and right hands, bridging the creative left side of the brain with the analytical right side of the brain.
Contemporary fiber art may or may not have definite recognizable patterns and designs, but fiber art by definition is very tactile and textural. It may also be sculptural.
The National Museum for Women in the Arts’ exhibition of contemporary fiber artists, on view until January 6, 2013, features seven contemporary fiber artists, each working in styles completely different from the next one. High Fiber is the third installment of NMWA biennial Women to Watch exhibition series, in which regional outreach committees of the museum meet with local curators to find artists. The NMWA made a final selection of the seven artists representing different states and countries.
Rachael Matthews was a leader in a revival of knitting movement in the UK about 10 years ago. She is co-owner of a knit shop in London, Prick Your Finger, where one is more likely to see objects crafted of yarn, rather than a sweater. In Knitted Seascape, 2004, Matthews used illusionism much the way painters do; her hanging curtains, lace-like and pleated, open onto the seascape seen through a false window. She created depth similar to that in Raphael’s visionary painting. The vigorous texture into those waves, making their foam as real as in a Winslow Homer seascape, is not painted but knitted. Matthews also did a floor sculpture to which an hourglass and skull and crossbones attach. We are reminded of death in A Meeting Place for a Sacrifice to the Ultimate Plan, 2010. Another piece she supplied in the exhibition is a wedding dress, made as a collaborative effort where the individual pieces knit by different women form the whole. Collaboration and connection is certainly a part of emerging trend in Fiber Art.
Louise Halsey, from the Arkansas council, is a weaver, who has spent years studying the ancient art of weaving, while teaching and doing workshops. Her work demonstrates vivid color and technical perfection, but also shares the artist’s own narrative ideas. The four works in this show are images of homes. On her website, she explains, “Recently I have been weaving tapestries using the house as a symbol for what I cherish. These images of houses include placing the house amidst what I see as threats that are present in the environment.” Dream Facade, at right, may warn of being too strongly possessed and owned by vanity, while Supersize My House, 2011, questions the dream of bigger and bigger homes.
Louise Halsey, Dream Facade, 2005
wool weft on linen warf – tapestry technique
The house becomes sculpture in large, colorful constructions by Laure Tixier, from France and representing Les amis du NMWA, are based on architecture from around the world. Like children’s forts out of blankets, architecture meets the basic need for shelter with imagination in design. She stitches the forms out of felt and very large Plaid House reflects the classical architecture of Amsterdam. Smaller houses are also on display and they reveal her domestic interpretations of diverse types of architecture, including that of the future. Tixier clearly has an interest in the symbolism and meaning of architecture in history.
Laure Tixier’s Plaid House , 2008, wool felt and thread, 90-1/2″ x 33-1/2″
Collection of Mudam Luxembourg
Debra Folz of Boston combines sophisticated cross-stitch patterns on furniture and mirrors with a sleek modern look. Her works are a contrast to the homespun beauty of some of the works described above, but she was trained in Interior Design. The threads are small and look mechanical but can have depth, control, color harmony and pattern. Mixing thread with a industrial materials may sound discordant, but this harmony of opposites is beauty!
Debra Folz, XStitch Stool, 2009. Steel base,
perforated steel and nylon thread, 20 x 14 x 12 in
Steel is the canvas for embroidery.
|Beili Liu, Toil, 2008, Silk organza,72 x 36 x 8 in
Homes and their contents give security and comfort, but not all works of art in the exhibition have a domestic meaning. There are sculptural wall hangings and installations in the NMWA’s show. Beili Liu, recommended by the Texas State committee, spun strips of silk, a material traditionally associated with China, her country of origin. For Toil, she burned the edges of silk fabric with incense before winding the strips into the funnel-shaped projections that point off the wall. These forms twist and turn in various directions — like miniature tornadoes — creating paths and shadows on the wall. A variety of beige and brown tones add to the richness of this view. Liu’s larger Lure Series (not on view) installations use thread to recall Chinese folklore, she has that is said her work highlights the tensions between her Eastern origins and Western influences. She bridges these gaps well. In fact, fiber art is all about connecting.
Fiber Art seems to be on the verge of asserting new importance into the world of art. Jennifer Lindsay, one of my former students from the Smithsonian Associates and Corcoran College of Art and Design’s Masters Program in the History of Decorative Arts, coordinated the public outreach, the design and collaborative installation of the Smithsonian Community Reef. The replica of a coral reef in crochet made expressly for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s 2010-2011
expressly for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s 2010-2011 Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, is now on view in the Putman Museum of History and Natural Science in Davenport, Iowa, until 2016.
|Jennifer Lindsay, Cowgirl Jacket is a memento mori to Frida Kahlo, photo by Judy Licht
Jennifer also dyes her own wool yarns and uses them to make intricate knitted and crocheted clothing, examples of which are shown here. She calls her cowgirl jacket a memento mori for Frida Kahlo. It uses nearly every knitting stitch available. Note the skeletons which link this design to El Dia de los Muertos. Memento mori is a reminder of death.
|Lindsay’s Russian Star, photo by Judy Licht
Getting back to the women’s museum, in the permanent collection, there are other works of fiber or those that remind us of fiber. On the 3rd floor of the NMWA, Remedios Varo’s Weaving of Space and Time is on loan along with two other works by Varo. The oil on masonite painting uses a symbolic circle to magically pull together the opposites of male and female figures, representing time and space. Within the circle are threads, not real threads but painted threads in light glazes that weave together ideas. Nearby is also a Judy Chicago painting whose circular painted form in acrylic and airbrush resembles the type of patterning with which traditional fiber artist created.
NMWA also has a piece by Magdalena Abakanowicz, one of the best known fiber artists of today. Four Seated Figures are of her recognizable life-size figural types made of fabric. The same, yet different, these abakans are representative the anonymity and uniformity of communist society in Poland, what she has known during the bulk of her life. Born in 1929, to Abakanowicz is accustomed to living in conditions which repressed individual creativity and intellect in favor of the collective interest.
|Magdalena Abakanowicz, Four Seated Figures, 1974-2002, burlap, resin, metal pedestal
figure: 115 cm, 55 cm, 63 cm pedestal: 76 cm, 47 cm, 23 cm
coll. The National Museum of Women in the Arts
Finally, we can be reminded of the diverse women came together for their quilt-making art who in a film of 1995 called How to Make An American Quilt, including Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Alfre Woodard and Winona Ryder. Quilting is one the most lasting forms of Fiber Art, embedded into so many folk art traditions. In the end, the making of a quilt is compared to life: “As Anna says about making a quilt, you have to choose your combination carefully. The right choices will enhance your quilt. The wrong choices will dull the colors, hide their original beauty. There are no rules you can follow. You have to go by your instinct. And you have to be brave.”
It’s with fibers that women can connect and that the women of history are tied to the women of today.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Since going to the Miró exhibition recently, I’ve been reminded of Remedios Varo. In 2000, I discovered this marvelous Surrealist in an exhibition devoted to her at Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Museum. Called The Magic or Remedios Varo, the exhibition had been organized by Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts and shown there. At the moment of this writing there is an exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderne de Mexico, entitled Remedios Varo: 50 Keys. It includes 50 works of art and a single sculpture.
Certainly Frida Kahlo is much better known, but I find Varo, who knew both Kahlo and Diego Rivera, more evocative and interesting as an artist. Varo also uses a female subject as her chief descriptive vehicle, but she is less self-absorbed than Kahlo and more concerned with the larger world.
Varo was a Surrealist born in Spain in 1908, but exiled to Mexico after 1941. Like Gaudi, Miró and Dalí, she was Catalan, originally from Angles, near Girona and close to the French border. Some of the literature I read of her suggested she was a scientist with a dedication to nature close to that of Leonardo da Vinci. She learned much through her father, an engineer, and lived part of her childhood in Morocco. Varo is certainly a detail artist and paints more in the style of a tempera painter than an oil painter. Yet I hardly see a deep devotion to science; her art taps into more of a spiritual quest for understanding the world. Perhaps, to other observers, she bridges the gap between science and the mystical.
Varo’s people are tall and thin, elongated like Sienese or Catalan figures from around 1400. Her perspective is also similar, somewhat long and exaggerated, also. She has a delicate touch and is able to find connections unexpectedly. As a woman spins in The Alchemist, above, the checkerboard of her cloak turns into tile patten of the floor beneath her. Or is it opposite? She could be weaving the tile floor into her clothing. Some kind of contraption behind her is the machinery that connecting what’s inside with the outdoors. The perspective is like Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo.
Throughout her work I’m reminded of creativity, where it comes from and where it goes. Her artwork evokes these connections again and again. There something mystical in how it comes about. While The Flutist, above, plays next to a mountain, the stones magically rise and form a tower, while a schematic mathematical drawing holds the tower in place. Stairs of the tower are rising, going up to heaven like a Tower of Babel. However, some sources cite the the periodic table of chemistry, though I don’t quite see that connection. There are fossils on these stones, so a connection to the ancient past, present and future come together in one place.
Creation of the Birds, left, dates to 1957. As a wise woman in owl’s clothing paints birds, the birds fly out the window, She also holds a magnifying glass lit by a star out the window which, in turn, illuminates her creation. The brush comes out in her center, the heart source of creativity, which is really a guitar strung around her neck. There are egg-shaped contraptions on the floor and out another window. In fact, this machine mixes her paint, while a bird eats on the floor. Art, music, inspiration, heart, mind, and inspiration flow together, while birds fly in and out. The artist’s work is to connect inner and outer worlds.
Varo’s connection to Surrealists in Paris and Barcelona was strong. She attended the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, the same art school as Salvador Dalí had attended. We know little of her work in Europe before she went to Mexico, but we know she admired the paintings of Heironymous Bosch at the Prado and philosophical writings of the hermetic tradition. Most of the work that can be seen is comes from the 1950s up to her death in 1963. Her association with the Surrealism made her unacceptable to either the Spanish government after the Civil War or a France during Nazi occupation. She and her French husband fled to Mexico where they met other artists such as English-born Leonora Carrington, perhaps the artist closest to her in style.
We can’t always know what was on her mind, as in the case of much Surrealism, but there seems to be a desire to tap into the origin of creativity and to connect the self (herself) to the larger universe. Her last painting, before she unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 53, was Revolving Still Life. Pieces of fruit spin off plates as the planets orbit the sun. How interesting the many ways she can connect the small and ordinary with the big, cosmic implications! She has many online followers and fans of her work. There was an exhibition in Los Angeles last Spring which featured 10 of her paintings.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016