Progression of Art
View of Paris from the Trocadero
This early work is one of the few fully realized landscape works Morisot painted. Completed just after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the work depicts a view of Paris as a city finally at peace. The view is painted from the top of a hill colloquially known as the Trocadero, today the site of the Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Seine. Beyond it stretches the Champ-de-Mars, site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle just five years before, which Manet had painted, famously, from nearly the same spot as Morisot does in this work. Now cleared of the massive exhibition buildings, the Champ-de-Mars appears barren and brown, as if its grass has died during the winter. This once-bustling portion of the city, whose fecund fields that showcased industry now lie fallow in Morisot's depictions, mirrors the sort of windswept silence of the larger panorama. The gray sky, opening slightly to a splash of blue at the very top of the canvas, hints at the tumult of the events of the previous five years - the exposition, the war, the fall of Napoleon III's Second Empire, and the Paris Commune - and the notion that the proverbial smoke is, perhaps, finally clearing from Paris in their collective aftermath.
The three figures in the foreground are probably Morisot's sisters Yves and Edma, accompanied by Yves' daughter. They are separated from the cityscape beyond by a dark but porous fence, and the road on which they stand is a dusty beige, likely indicative of the way in which Morisot and her sisters, as bourgeois women, were excluded from the everyday life of the city and from many professional opportunities as artists. As the empty ground on the women's side of the fence suggests, this was not an appealing prospect. The painting gives no suggestion that the very ground of the Trocadero that the women stand on would be massively redeveloped just six years later for the 1878 Exposition Universelle, intended to demonstrate that France, and especially Paris, had recovered from the recent traumatic events.
Oil on canvas - Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California, USA
The Cradle is arguably Berthe Morisot's most famous painting. It depicts Morisot's sister Edma gazing down at her daughter Blanche, who is asleep in a cradle behind a gauzy veil. This relatively early work is the first example of Morisot's treatment of the theme of motherhood, which would become a recurring subject in her work, in part due to the era's social limitations placed on women and their ability to explore public places without chaperones. Although the painting was generally admired by critics when it was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Morisot failed to sell it and eventually decided to keep it within her family.
Morisot's painting relies on two interlocking triangles, one encompassing the visible part of Edma's body and the other, slightly taller, formed from the veil, thereby creating a balanced composition which implies a harmony and subconscious link between parent and child. Edma is drawing the translucent curtain closed around the cradle, protecting her daughter from the viewer and emphasizing the private nature of their relationship. The close cropping of the scene (the edges of the cradle itself are eliminated by Morisot's choice of framing) both suggests the privileged nature of the view we have to the scene and invites a comparison with photography, a medium with which the Impressionists were famous for considering. It is difficult to read Edma's expression, however, as there is no direct rapport between her and Blanche, whose eyes are closed. It has been suggested that Edma, who like Berthe painted extensively before her marriage to a naval officer in 1864, appears wistful, seemingly yearning for the time she spent as an artist before settling into the traditional, stable role of motherhood. Thus, just as the veil screens her daughter's form from our clear view, our impressions of her own thoughts remain shrouded in mystery.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Dans le Blé (In the Wheatfield)
This painting depicts a scene in the village of Gennevilliers, just outside Paris, now a suburb of the French capital, where Morisot's husband's family, the Manets, owned property. The location is typical of that chosen by many Impressionist artists, such as Monet, both as a place to work and for their paintings' subject matter. The painting presents us with a comfortable visual composition of three horizontal zones of color, punctuated by the figure of the young boy to the right of center. The eponymous wheat hints at the traditional farming character of the area, and immediately catches one's attention as it occupies the prime central space on the canvas.
The ears of wheat, however, remain rather indistinct in keeping with Morisot's loose brushwork. Instead, Morisot renders the buildings in the background in slightly sharper detail, revealing in particular the smokestacks of the dirty, sooty factories on the horizon. They act as a reminder of the changing nature of the landscape from agrarian to increasingly industrial, a reminder of the growing city and the disappearance of the virginal rural past in the face of an increasingly modern future. The homely figure with his belongings slung over his shoulder who is emerging in the foreground from the edge of the wheatfield, opposite the factories, arguably represents the archetypal rural villager attempting to escape this inevitable march of industrialization. We might therefore read Morisot's painting as a seductive representation of the countryside and a quiet protest against the transformation of modern life, a theme that is extremely popular among French painters from the Realists to the post-Impressionists.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Young Girl in a Ball Gown
This depiction of an unknown young woman in a ball dress demonstrates the range of Morisot's work. It is highly dynamic, a sense created through the loosely defined floral background that is echoed in the trimmings of the woman's dress. Peter J. Gärtner argues that this background is a key element of the work, claiming that "the dense vegetation shuts out the external world and protects the young woman's youthful beauty and innocence." It also provides the viewer with a more intimate connection with the sitter, implying that most other viewers are excluded by the painting's enclosed background and tight angle. The lengthy, unkempt brushwork is typical of Morisot's work from the late 1870s, which, as Nathalia Brodskaia has noticed, created a "vibration of color and light" previously unseen in her paintings.
Morisot's work invites comparison with her fellow Impressionist Mary Cassatt's Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, painted in exactly the same year, 1879. In Cassatt's painting, a similarly formally dressed woman is positioned in an upper-level box at the Paris Opera, a prime social venue for observing others and simultaneously being seen. Cassatt's work explores the liminal nature of public vs. private space and the opportunity for 19th-century women to command a public persona. The women in both of these paintings are seated, but while Cassatt's subject appears self-confident and relaxed in a clearly identified setting, Morisot's figure appears somewhat apprehensive and distracted, as if she is waiting for someone before departing the unknown event she is attending. The dynamic brushwork here arguably underscores the unclear nature of both her thoughts and the overall scene.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Harbor at Nice
Although Morisot is frequently associated with interior or domestic scenes, her work spans a great variety of genres, like the other members of the Impressionist circle. This painting, from the height of the Impressionist era, depicts a cluster of boats docked in the eponymous port in the south of France on the Mediterranean, where Morisot and her family were wintering in 1881-82. It uses an unusually bright palette, and begs comparison with other seminal Impressionist works, including the movement's foundational work, Monet's Impression, Sunrise (1872), which similarly takes a harbor scene as its subject matter.
Like Monet, Morisot is concerned with the effects of natural light as it falls on the surfaces of the boats and the water. She has shifted the field of vision down from the predictable snapshot that would include more of the sky, the rooftops, and the pinnacles of the ships' masts. Instead, Morisot crops most of these elements out of the frame to concentrate on the contrast between the brown and white hull of the boat at the center and the water - which, through its reflection, cleverly reveals the fair weather in the blue sky that has been omitted from the opposite edge of the painting.
Morisot's work here is also innovative as it forecasts that of the Post-Impressionists such as Cézanne and especially Seurat and van Gogh by its emphasis on the juxtaposition of the different regions of color using abbreviated, loose brushwork to achieve a more luminous effect. As a result, the regions of strong color - the water, the hulls, the masts, and even the pink building at the back left - appear as more brilliant, prominent elements within the work than they might with a smoother, more homogenous application of color.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Reclining Nude Shepherdess
This painting is typical of Berthe Morisot's later work, which uses a bright color palette, marked by contrasts between orange, violet and green hues, in contrast to the muted range of colors that she preferred during the 1870s. This is one of several compositions from the early 1890s, which feature a reclining shepherdess, modeled on a young girl from a local village outside Paris. She posed her model nude except for a characteristic headdress, an unusual choice for a female artist at the time.
The landscape behind the figure is depicted in a very loose, semi-representational style, which echoes contemporary work by artists such as Monet. Morisot's treatment of the nude figure, however, owes much more to the style of Renoir, whose female nudes Morisot admired and who visited Morisot and her family during this period, which might account for his influence here. The lines of the subject's body are compact and clearly defined, both through the use of flesh tones and in the shadows, which follow the figure's contours. This can particularly be seen in the curve of the back and the definition of the limbs. However, as some scholars have noted, there no parallel pose of the nude in either Renoir's own work nor in that of Degas, whose nudes Morisot was also known to have admired. Instead, it is a key example of the way that Morisot continuously remained in dialogue with current trends, producing her own style that did not merely develop in imitation of other artists.
Oil on canvas - Museo Thyssen, Madrid