Saturday, June 28, 2014
The studio was recommended to Delacroix by the restorer and color merchant Etienne Haro, who knew that the artist, unwell in his later years, needed to be within walking distance of St.-Sulpice, where he had undertaken a last sequence of great murals.
When he was young, Delacroix once said to his friend Charles Baudelaire, he could only work if he knew he had somewhere to be that evening, a ball, music, but as he grew older, the discipline of work grew in him and he worked indefatigably. He had visitors, but not so very many, and he kept his last illness private. Even a good friend like Baudelaire was shocked by the news of his death and wrote sorrowfully of how they would no longer find him in that grand square space "where reigned, in spite of our rigid climate, an equatorial temperature."1
A study in hot and cold, Delacroix as a personality and an artist was in continual motion between shade and gleam. He was revered for his color sense, both daring and precise, and the palettes now on display at the Musée Delacroix make his color sense dramatically visible.
Here you can see, unusually, not a rainbow or color wheel, but hot colors intermingled with cold ones, and dark contrasts grouped together with corresponding brights. The artist mixed his shades in advance and kept careful notes of each one’s composition. In Les Palettes de Delacroix (1930), Léon Piot noted that when Delacroix was ill, he would have his palette brought to his bed and spend the day there mixing colors. Baudelaire wrote, “I have never seen a palette as minutely and delicately prepared as that of Delacroix. It resembled a bouquet of flowers, knowingly arranged.”2 On its website, the Musée Delacroix points out that as time went on the artist, “fragmented more and more the tones, focusing less and less on real color as opposed to shadows, halftones, and reflections.”
Baudelaire evidently felt sympathetic to, and recognized by, the atmosphere created by Delacroix’s color. “It seems that such color thinks for itself, independently of the object it clothes,” Baudelaire is said to have said, “The effect of the whole is almost musical.”3
was said to have been given by Delacroix to Henri Fatin-Latour, a great admirer of Delacroix. Fatin-Latour, angered by the lack of official commemoration of the master’s death, painted an Hommage à Delacroix.
The group portrait includes Fatin-Latour himself (in white blouse), James McNeill Whistler (standing center,) Edouard Manet (standing immediately to the right of the portrait of Delacroix) and Baudelaire (seated right corner.)
Six years later, Fatin-Latour painted a similar group portrait, called A Studio at Batignolles that, with its depictions of Manet, Renoir, Zola, Bazille, and Monet, stands as both manifesto for and document of the Impressionist movement in something like the manner of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:
The palette that may have belonged to both Delacroix and Fatin-Latour was eventually donated to the Musée Delacroix by the granddaughter of Léon Riesener, and the Riesener family, through its friendship with the Morisot sisters, provided another, personal, conduit by which the palette of Delacroix was transmitted to the Impressionists.
This summer, the Musée Delacroix has an exhibition of works that show the influence of Shakespeare on Delacroix. Like Berlioz, Delacroix was greatly moved by the force of drama in the works of Shakespeare and there are wonderful etchings of instants of great intensity from Hamlet (Hamlet on the terrace approached by his father’s ghost, the moment before the stabbing of Polonius, the moment “up, sword” of deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer). There is also an oil sketch of Léon Riesener, a cousin and confidante of the painter, himself a painter, and a legatee of Delacroix’s.
This portrait shows a broad and sympathetic face, tones all of brown and white. In the background and upside down are discernible sketches for another picture, Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery with the skull of Yorick.
Bequeathal, and legacy were vexed issues for Delacroix, who, says Baudelaire, was increasingly preoccupied with which of his contributions would endure.
Walter Benjamin notes the aptness of Léon Daudet’s phrase for Baudelaire. Daudet writes that Baudelaire had a “trap-door disposition, which is also that of Prince Hamlet.”4 I take this to mean a theatrical, or a magician’s, feeling for circumstances and their manipulation. Appearances and disappearances, sudden dispersals, going within to get out. There seems to be something of Delacroix in the phrase, too.
Another inheritor of Delacroix was Berthe Morisot, who, in an early summer of her training as a painter was working side-by-side with her sister in the town of Beuzeval in Normandy. Their father had rented for them a mill belonging to Léon Riesener, and the Morisot sisters were soon close to, and much encouraged by, the whole Riesener family. In her notebook, Berthe Morisot recorded an anecdote they related: “Delacroix composed his palette with such precision that he could have it prepared each morning by Jenny, his maid, while he was painting his Apollo ceiling or rather while he had Andrieux paint it as he remained below. One day, he called out to him to use a No. 2 pink and Andrieux thought he would catch him out with a No. 3. ‘No, no, exclaimed Delacroix, I said a No.2.’ That is absolutely the sensation of a musician.”5
I see two ways out of this series of reflections: one is to try to see further inside the man, the other to try to see further into the legacy of his works. These efforts do not amount to the same thing, but perhaps could be displayed immediately next to each other.
Walter Benjamin, whose interest in Delacroix grew in part from Benjamin’s profound relationship to the works of Baudelaire, notes that Delacroix was interested in photography, and that his paintings “escape the competition with photography, not only because of the impact of their colors, but also (in those days there was no instant photography) because of the stormy agitation of their subject matter. And so a benevolent interest in photography was possible for him.”6 The ever more profound and fragmentary sense of color, and the idea of creating motion through the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, these went on being a significant part of how painting responded to photography through the rest of the 19th century.
Baudelaire said that his friend Delacroix was a peculiar combination of the “sauvage,” and the “homme du monde.” He was, writes the poet, “passionately enamored of passion, and coldly determined to seek out the means of expressing passion in the most visible manner.”7 In his austere seclusion he would, Baudelaire wrote, find the colors in which to bathe his scenes so that they had their own life. “As a dream is placed in the colored atmosphere proper to it, so a conception, become a composition, must moves in a colored milieu particular to it.”8
1 Baudelaire, Critque d’art, “Eugene Delacroix, son oeuvre et sa vie,” p421, translations mine.
2 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p408
3 from Ernest Seillière, Baudelaire, (Paris, 1931) cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, edited Tiedemann, translated Eiland and McLaughlin, (Cambridge, 1999) p277.
4 Daudet, Les Pélerins d’Emmaus, Paris, 1928, p101, cited in Benjamin, Arcades Project, p265.
5 Morisot, Notebook, 1885, 1887-8, p12-13, cited in Marianne Delafond and Caroline Genet-Bondeville, Berthe Morisot or Reasoned Audacity, Paris, 2011, p16
6 Benjamin, Arcades Project, p678.
7 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p418, p406.
8 Baudelaire, p408.
At Nadar's (but he was already gone)
Monday, November 11, 2013
Possibly it was somewhere in two decades of reading and rereading Susan Sontag’s On Photography that I absorbed a small but suggestive misimpression. In the midst of a passage on the relationship between photography and painting, she devotes a long footnote to Impressionism. This footnote begins, unexceptionably, “the large influence that photography exercised upon the Impressionists is a commonplace of art history.”[i]
Rereading the rest of the footnote I see, as is often the case with Sontag, that I have been thinking about what it contains for a long time without even remembering that she wrote it, and that I will probably now spend many more years arguing with myself about the details she’s included in what is for her a brief excursus.
Here is her summary of what the Impressionists found in photography: “The camera’s translation of reality into highly polarized areas of light and dark, the free or arbitrary cropping of the image in photographs, the indifference of photographers to making space, particularly background space, intelligible…” This was the “inspiration for the Impressionist painters’ professions of scientific interest in the properties of light, for their experiments in flattened perspective and unfamiliar angles and decentralized forms that are sliced off by the picture’s edge.” Sontag, magpie, quotationalist, admirer of Benjamin, points out that Stieglitz said of the Impressionists, “they depict life in scraps and fragments.”
And here is what led me astray, though, as I work this through, I’m beginning to think that the clarification of her small error of suggestion might actually affirm the rest of what she’s said. The footnote comes to the following too-irresistible conclusion: “A historical detail: the very first Impressionist exhibition, in April 1874, was held in Nadar’s photography studio on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.”
This information, too, is a commonplace of art history, and if I first saw it in Sontag I’ve since seen it referred to often enough that when I began to think of keeping this notebook I pictured an essay depicting the scene. It was to be an exciting set piece: one after another the soon-to-be-famous painters would enter the studio, so full of potential. There they are, gathering around the far-seeing Nadar, who loves their work, and says 'you must have the show here,' generously taking down his photographs. They hammer, they arrange curtains, they call out to one another. I knew that the name of the movement came from this first exhibition. Perhaps Nadar himself, watching them at work, had said something that suggested the name...
Not so, not quite so, at any rate, and in a way that matters. A recent, thorough biography of Nadar by the French writer Stéphanie de Saint Marc makes almost no mention of the Impressionists in general. The only one that Nadar really knew was Manet. The biographer says Manet inspired Nadar as a model. She has a heavy description of the famous photograph: Manet’s fine features and “romantically undulating chevelure” made a “counterpoint” with the hand “robust, almost peasantlike” seen in the picture’s foreground, on the back of a chair.[ii]
This friendship, though, doesn’t account for the presence of the Impressionists at Nadar’s studio because, as is well known, Manet resolutely did not show with his friends in the 1874 exhibition; he was still fighting it out with the official salon. (I’ve often taken a kind of, probably unfair, satisfaction in Manet’s absence from the show. His works seem to be obdurate where those of the other painters are fluid, though I do recognize that this is yet another of my difficulties with seeing Impressionism, as somehow what they saw in him led to what I see in them.)
In any case, I now hurried to John Rewald’s History of Impressionism to read the chapter on the April 1874 show. The painters formed themselves into a group, not at all impromptu, carefully thought out and argued over, with the financial structure of a joint-stock company (Pissarro’s idea,) and a deliberately un-school-like name: Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Renoir’s idea.) Though the name Impressionism did arise from the show, it did so in a roundabout, emergent way, not because of a stroke of impressarial brilliance on the part of Nadar.
The name came about through an odd mixture of the offhand, the laudatory, and the vituperative. The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Renoir's brother, Edmond Renoir. Edmond Renoir remembered, in his unpublished recollections, that when he came to the group of pictures Monet had sent he was irritated by, "the monotony of his titles: Entrance of a Village, Leaving the Village, Morning in a Village...." Edmond Renoir objected and "the painter calmly told him: 'Why don't you just put Impression!'"[iii] A painting of Le Havre was called Impression, Sunrise, and critics, both the rare ones who liked the show, and the much more common ones who vied to outdo one another in piling up ridicule, seized the name “Impressionists,” which the painters themselves accepted as close enough.
They weren’t hanging around Nadar and excitedly studying his photographs; they simply needed a space. According to Rewald: “This presented itself in the form of the studios vacated by Nadar, who, according to Monet, lent them the premises without fee.”[iv] Nadar’s biographer confirms that at this period, though he no longer maintained a studio there, Nadar still sometimes sublet the premises. He was fairly friendly with the group of painters, whom he saw now and again at the café Guerbois, but, she says, he stayed “hermétique” with regard to their innovations. He was a fervent admirer of Daumier and Guys – both dear to Baudelaire – but never collected the painters who were to become even more fully the "painters of modern life," as Baudelaire had described Guys in the long essay in which he envisioned a kind of painting.
Baudelaire did write perceptively and admiringly about Manet, a figure with one foot in that earlier generation, and one reluctant foot in the Impressionist camp. But this earlier generation hardly threw themselves into promoting the new way of seeing made explicit in the pictures of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne. Nadar may have known that the artists were penniless – if he lent them the studio for no charge that was a helpful generosity in a time when few were helpful to them. What the gesture meant, though, wasn’t that the buoyant, insightful, commercially adept, scientifically inquisitive Nadar saw the future and passed the mantle on to his comrades. The show was in a place left empty by a great, declining photographer of the previous generation.
What I’ve been thinking about today is that it may be that the complicated relationship between Manet and the younger Impressionists, which has a strong bearing on the relationship between the movement of Impressionism and photography, could be expressed by these two now slightly refined facts: Manet was the friend of Nadar’s; the others got themselves named when they had a show in Nadar’s empty studio without Manet.
Trying to be Taught
Friday, September 13, 2013
Reading about the early years in the lives of the Impressionists – the period in the late 1850s and early 1860s when they began to arrive and to meet one another in Paris – I have been thinking about the necessity and difficulty of finding teachers. Unlike writing, the craft of painting has always been passed on in ateliers and schools. Sometimes it seems like every painter in the mid-17th century in the Netherlands spent a productive period in Rembrandt’s studio. Painting is an apprentice trade. You watch the hand of a master and your hand becomes knowledgeable. You practice under a master’s eye and the lines of your drawings lose their clumsiness.
The men and women who became known as the Impressionists were desperate for teachers. As a young man in Le Havre, Monet was fortunate to stumble on Boudin and Jongkind. In Aix, Cézanne, arguing with his banker father to be allowed to study art and confined to the study of “dusty plaster casts” and “black and white engravings after paintings,” was, John Rewald estimates, “in dire need of guidance.”[i]
But in Paris there was a surprising paucity of genuine help. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts, controlled to calcification by the persnickety academicianism of the followers of Ingres, had made a decades-long practice of excluding Delacroix and the fiery energy he would have brought to students in search of more expressive means. Delacroix himself, though his studio was open to any sincere seekers, was isolated and growing old. Teachers like Gérôme were fiercely critical of what seemed to them the ugly uncouthness that resulted when younger painters attempted to render realistically the world around them.
Delacroix, Tiger and Snake, 1862
Ingres, Turkish Bath, 1863
At that time, Courbet was the enfant terrible of realism and the Paris art world was shot through with partisanship. At the end of 1861, some students even left the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in protest and petitioned Courbet to teach them. He tried. For a few crazy months he rented a large space and everyone went there with great enthusiasm and he had horses and bulls brought in to be painted ‘from life’ and cartoons of this ran in the papers. But he was haranguing and repetitive, good at the manifesto of his own work but not at helping students discover their own and the experiment was given up in April of 1862, just at the time that Renoir enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and a few months before the arrivals of Sisley, Monet, and Bazille.
They met instead at the school run by affable, old-fashioned, unimpassioned Gleyre. He looked at a study of a nude that Monet had done and he said, “not bad!... but it is too much in the character of the model – you have before you a short thickset man, you paint him short and thickset – he has enormous feet, you render them as they are. All that is very ugly.” The vigorous, impatient Monet remembered this vividly when he was interviewed about it some forty years later. Gleyre had continued, “I want you to remember, young man, that when one draws a figure, one should always think of the antique. Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest. Style, you see, is everything.”[ii] After that, Monet came to the studio just enough to pacify his family, who were already quite uncertain about letting him pursue painting.
Gleyre’s interaction with Renoir is also illustrative. Renoir remembered, again decades later, that Gleyre had said to him, “No doubt it’s to amuse yourself that you are dabbling in paint?” And light-hearted Renoir replied, “of course… if it didn’t amuse me, I beg you to believe that I wouldn’t do it!” Renoir thought Gleyre was “a second rate schoolmaster but a good man,”[iii] who at least “left them pretty much to their own devices.”[iv] And Gleyre made a place where they could work. Determined to learn, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley went on diligently in that studio, meeting afterward to talk through all their own ideas.
When these just-emerging painters looked around them in 1862, the teacher who seemed just a few steps ahead of them on the path was Manet. In those first heady conversations as they walked out of Gleyre's, Bazille told Renoir "Manet is as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento; and as the Renaissance is beginning again, we must be part of it..."[v]
Part of the excitement of studying Impressionism is to watch how this quite large group of people was able to teach one another and themselves. In the lives of writers, two, three, four friends may have a long effect on one another’s understanding, but in painting, large groups – in this case there are easily twenty figures of great significance, perhaps many more – may teach one another in a very substantial, personal way.
“Each of Renoir’s friend brought him a gift for which he was grateful,” the painter’s son judged later. “Bibesco [a prince and patron] gave him his first opportunity to see the bare shoulders of women in their beautiful evening gowns; Cézanne revealed to him the precision of Mediterranean thought; Monet opened his eyes to the wild imagination of the people of the north European countries; and Pissarro formulated in theoretical terms his own and his friends’ researches… Sisley’s gift was gentleness.”[vi]
Manet, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862
Sunday, August 4, 2013
I went with the baby, perhaps two weeks ago now, to look at the Renoirs at the MFA. In the great room of the Impressionists, she liked best the Degas ballerina, “girl! girl!” though she liked better still an actual girl in a polka dot skirt who sat on the bench. In general, her preference was for statues, mirrors, the lime green chairs in the café, the beaded curtain hanging between two rooms of contemporary works, things with which she could have a spatial interaction. It was hard to get her to stand still in front of the great Renoir, the full-length dancing couple. (The people posing for this painting were the painter Suzanne Valadon and Renoir’s friend Paul Lhote.) Woman in a red hat, cluster purple fruits part of bonnet, girlish delight; man’s face somewhat obscured; both bodies in happy motion. I looked as well as I was able to and already had the impression of a more complex light, space, and atmosphere than I had before credited to Renoir. We hurried out, both of us pushing the stroller, and some time passed – we accustomed ourselves to long strings of glittery beads, were hushed and still in the presence of a magnificent towering seated bodhisattva from the Eastern Wei dynasty, tried the new gelato at the café (excellent, though, as an administrator in the elevator pointed out to us over his delicately balanced cup, dangerously sticky) and purchased a children’s board book at the gift shop with pictures of Renoirs, “girl! girl!” said the baby. I wanted, though, to see the Renoir again, and we made our way back to the room – again I saw mostly in glimpses, but how different the painting seemed – now it had those strange depths that open in paintings after longer consideration, now the space moved about the figures and the figures moved through the space. The air was soft, but not cloying, pleasures of a summer breeze as summer turns toward autumn. Probably, I thought, as we clambered into the sticky stroller and hastened down to stand in the fountain outside, this is a very great painting indeed.
Reading Toward Renoir
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me. Too sweet, too voluptuous. All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.
Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment. It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people. It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that? Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers. In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure. Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.” They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.
When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.” In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.
There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft. Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness. He could be humming.
Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship. He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades. His father was a very good tailor. Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines. He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople. Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live. “Around them I feel happy.”
In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.
Reading Toward Renoir II
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
I find that in reading Jean Renoir’s Renoir, my father, I am thinking of Maxim Gorki’s memoir of Chekhov, a most beautiful reminiscence. In particular of a story I have always loved, and which has to be quoted complete with Gorki’s introductory meditation. It is as follows:
I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence everyone involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self; I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns himself, like a savage with shell’s and fish’s teeth. Anton Chekhov disliked fish’s teeth and cock’s feathers; anything” brilliant” or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed him; I noticed that whenever he saw any one dressed up in this way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul of the person. All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubled about what some people expected and others – coarser people – demanded of Anton Chekhov. He did not like conversations about deep questions, conversations with which our dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that it is ridiculous, and not at all amusing, to argue about velvet costumes in the future when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.
Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple.
Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and the smell of strong sent; they sat down politely opposite their host, pretended they were interested in politics, and began “putting questions”: “Anton Pavlovich, what do you think? How will war end?”
Anton Pavlovic coughed, thought for a while, and then gently, in a serious and kindly voice, replied: “Probably in peace.”
“Well, yes… certainly. But who will win? The Greeks or the Turks?”
“It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger.”
“And who, do you think, are the stronger?” the ladies asked together.
“Those who are the better fed and the better educated.”
“Ah, how clever,” one of them exclaimed.
“And whom do you like best?” another asked.
Anton Pavlovich looked at her kindly, and answered with a meek smile: “I love candied fruits… don’t you?”
“Very much,” the lady exclaimed gaily.
“Especially Abrikossov’s,” the second agreed solidly. And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish: “It smells so good.”
And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge. It was obvious that they were happy at not having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given a thought.
When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovich: “We will send you some candied fruit.”
“You managed that nicely, “ I observed when they had gone.
Anton Pavlovich laughed quietly and said: “Everyone should speak his own language.”
[Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreyev. With an introduction by Mark Van Doren. Translator not given. New York: Viking Press, 1959, pp74-76.
Although the translator’s name is, astonishingly, nowhere given in the volume, I assume the translation is a good one and that the tiny hint of condescension in “not having to strain their minds,” is Gorki’s, though perhaps, under the influence of Chekhov, the younger writer felt no such thing and it is at the further remove of translation that the note has entered the composition. I am certain, though, and in part from reading this passage of Gorki’s, that the feeling is not Chekhov’s, as it seems it would not be Renoir’s. Chekhov’s idea of a person may be more complicated than Renoir’s – it does seem that the regrets and struggles of his figures have more bitterness in them – but, as in Renoirs, there is the sense in the stories that it is natural for people to be themselves, and that the task of the painter or the writer is to help them to circumstances in which they are.
Private Collection II (with Paul Valéry)
Monday, June 3, 2013
The man who wrote the introduction to the volume decided, rather ruefully, that, despite living among the Impressionists and being himself so intelligent, Valéry’s writing about them was only in a limited way perceptive. The poet seems in a way to take the painters and their achievements for granted. But, for me, these few passages, coming as they do from a man who was married to one of Morisot’s nieces, and lived in the house that had been Morisot’s, offer something more than useful about “Tante Berthe.” Morisot’s daughter and her cousins had grown up surrounded by paintings: Morisot’s and also those of their close friends – Renoir, Degas, Monet. Berthe Morisot was Berthe Manet, as she was married to Édouard Manet’s brother, Eugène. I’ve read Morisot’s correspondence with Stephane Mallarmé now, too, and the letters give the impression of life intensively lived among a few choice acquaintances. “Rare and reserved,” Valéry says; the work, too, is private.
Of all the artists he encountered, Valéry weighed it out, Morisot, he thought, was the one:
to live her painting and to paint her life, as if the interchange between seeing and rendering, between the light and her creative will, were to her a natural function, a necessary part of daily life. It is this which gives her works the very particular charm of a close and almost indissoluble relationship between the artist’s ideals and the intimate details of her life. Her sketches and paintings keep closely in step with her development as a girl, wife, and mother. I am tempted to say that her work as a whole is like the diary of a woman who uses color and line as her means of expression. (119)
This might be a subtle way of dismissing a woman’s work – another woman damned with praise for her understanding of the quotidian – but it doesn’t strike my ear that way. Valéry also says of her canvases:
Made up of nothing, they multiply that nothing, a suspicion of mist or of swans, with a supreme tactile art, the skill of a rush that scarcely feathers the surface. But that featheriness conveys all: the time, place, and season, the expertise and swiftness it brings, the great gift for seizing on the essential, for reducing matter to a minimum and thus giving the strongest possible impression of an act of mind…. (121)
The surprising texture of paint in her handling, the odd inward structure of the material, these phrases of Valéry’s, give something to think about.
Landscape of La Creuse, 1882, Private Collection.
Woman Hanging Out the Wash, 1881, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
Young Woman in a Rowboat, Eventail, 1880, Private Collection.
Citations from: Valéry, Paul, Degas, Manet, Morisot. Translated by David Paul. Edited by Jackson Matthews. With an Introduction by Douglas Cooper. Princeton University Press: 1960.
Paintings: see the Athenaeum.