In 1874, Berthe Morisot, considered one of the founding members of French Impressionists movement, reached a career milestone: one of her paintings entered the Musée de Luxembourg.
"It was very important to her," Sylvie Patry, Chief Curator/Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Collections at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris and Consulting Curator at the Barnes Foundation, said. "For a woman, it was even more important. For Morisot, it was recognition that she was a professional."
Nearly 150 years after her death, Morisot returns to the museum world with an enthusiastic exploration of her work. "Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist," an international tour exploring Morisot's work, is now on display at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) through May 26.
Despite Morisot's significance in her lifetime, her work is not as well-known as her Impressionist colleagues, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. With the ambition to re-establish Morisot in the canon, the exhibition traces the artist’s development in an era when women were not afforded the same professional opportunities as their male counterparts.
It took a team of curators and museums to stage Morisot's renaissance. This exhibition featuring 72 of Morisot's works is co-curated by Patry and Nicole R. Myers, the DMA's Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art. It is co-organized by the DMA, the Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec, the Barnes Foundation and the Musée d'Orsay. When this exhibition appears at the Musée d'Orsay, it will be the first exhibition devoted to Morisot at a French national museum since 1941.
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Most of Morisot's work is held in private collections. Myers admits she has never worked on a project where she didn't know where many of the works would be coming from when she sent out the loan requests letters in 2016. Private collectors responded unreservedly, eager to assist in the artist's resurrection.
Morisot was both respected and criticized for her technique, her approach to her subjects and her bold style. "The critics could not figure out what the magic was, how she was able to build up the surface. These paintings, in general, reproduce terribly because they are activated by light and you approaching them and looking at them. They are ethereal," Myers said.
Early in her career, Morisot painted her sisters with their children and affluent women dressing for events or wearing the fashions that defined the era's French femininity. Once she married, her favorite model was her daughter, Julie.
In a painting of her toddler, Morisot left the little girl's right foot incomplete, detailed only with a flourish of brushwork as she experimented with leaving portions of her canvas unfinished. "This unplaced right foot is actually very much what Morisot was looking for: to express how fidgety her daughter was when she was painting her. So, it goes back to Morisot trying to express modern life, contemporary life and the reality of what it was to be a mother, an artist, a mixture of art and life," Cindy Kang, Associate Curator of the Barnes Foundation.
Several works feature Julie with her father, Eugène Manet. The brother of artist Édouard Manet, he considered an artistic career, but he became his wife’s greatest champion. "He gave up his artistic ambitions," Patry said. "This is not a typical situation with the wife pursuing an artistic career while the husband gives it up." A series of father-daughter paintings show a shift in the relationship between landscape and human figures, with the landscape enveloping the figures.
Morisot painted the women employed in her household, treating them with dignity. "These were incredibly intimate depictions of how one would live with the caretaker of her children, with the cooks setting the table or feeding the baby. She’s not painting herself as a mother with her child," Myers said.
Her self-portrait at age 44 shows an artist at work, holding the tools of her trade. "The most captivating thing about this self-portrait is the gaze. She shows herself as this totally self-confident, poised professional painter. That's how she chose to share her image with the world," Myers said.
As she pushed the boundaries of society's expectations of women as artists, Morisot began exploring the boundaries of space. Transitional places such as windows and balconies became the settings for her experimentation. "You can see in the works how she gradually begins to fuse indoor and outdoor spaces," Kang said.
Melancholy looms over the final gallery in this exhibition. Morisot's final paintings reflect her attempts to capture a fleeting moment, but time was not on her side. She died at age 54, only months after her painting entered Musée de Luxembourg.
To help patrons understand why they might not know more about Morisot, the exhibition explains what happened to the work of an artist who happened to be a woman. "We hope we won't have to do this again, that this is a definitive moment of introducing audiences in Europe and the United States to this incredibly talented painter, talented regardless of gender," Myers said.