Rachel Cohen

Morisot, Occasionally

Morisot Occasionally

Berthe Morisot, Mr. M. and His Daughter, 1883, Private Collection. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

I went to Québec City in the summer of 2018 to cover Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist. I had never been to Québec City before, and I had not been away from the children for two nights in a row. Our daughter was then six, and our son three and a half.

Both Québec City and the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec (MNBAQ) were built with French models in mind, and then also built to be of a different place. So the buildings and collection assembled into the MNBAQ are connected to European museums, but are substantially built around the work of Inuit artists from the far north of the continent and of other artists working in Canada today and in the last century, and, in the city, the winding stone streets and battlements recall Normandy, but look at the Atlantic quite differently.

I did things I used to do all the time, and hadn’t done so much of in recent years. I walked far, stood long hours in the museum, sat outside alone at a café. I was interested in my own thoughts, and I was bored by them. In this environment, it was possible to remember both the pleasures and failures of an old life, and to respond to a vigorous and interesting contemporary situation. Morisot, I thought, might have found it interesting to see her work in a place that drew on France and was not France. Just far enough away, just near enough by, to make space for reflection.

**

One of the paintings I photographed most in the show was this one that Morisot painted of her daughter and her husband in 1883.

Her husband was Eugène Manet, it seems necessary to add immediately, brother of the famous painter Édouard Manet and himself a very fine painter, who was not interested in exhibiting his work. The daughter was Julie Manet, who would grow up to be a part of a rich cultural life, and important in establishing the legacy of her mother and of other painters. A quality of sustaining attention would already have been perceptible in the child, and to the child.

I loved the intimacy and directness of the painting – him facing the painter, her facing away. Their world, their world together. How it was just right for them is there in the painting, though no one else would live within it as the three of them had.

I loved the freedom of the paint – the radiant boldness of the little girl’s dress, the dash of rose-orange in the toy sailboat, and especially the leaf or two that reach over his shoulder.

I went to the show three times, and for most of the paintings, I photographed them only once, but I made two complete sets of images of this one, beginning with the painting in its frame, and taking a dozen details. This morning it interests me that several of the pictures from the second set are sharper, as if, overnight, I had come to a clearer understanding of the painting, present when I saw it again the next day, but that some, both of the details and the whole, is best captured in the pictures I made first. A continual back and forth, shifting perspectives.

**

When the four of us get up in the morning, and go to the kitchen and begin the day, I often choose our coffee cups out of hopes for what the day may be like. This morning, for M, I picked a mug I brought back for him that says Québec City in ornate black letters on one side.

for Matt Boyle

Late Manet

Frederick Project: Unfinished

Manet Morning Glories 1881

Édouard Manet, Morning Glories and Nasturtiums, 1881, McNay Museum of Art, San Antonio. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Last summer, the summer of 2019, the Art Institute of Chicago had a Manet show, Manet and Modern Beauty which I reviewed for Apollo Magazine.

The paintings in the show were mostly from the late 1870s and early 1880s, a period when Manet’s touch and palette were lightening, he was interested in flowers and fashion, and he was also dying of complications of syphilis. Thus the tone was an odd combination of lightness, fluidity, melancholy, and decay.

It was a very sad show. I had not realized that Manet was only fifty-one at his death, and he had not been one of my favorite painters, more a painter whose accomplishments and influence I recognized, so it had never really occurred to me to wonder what more he would have done if he had lived through the 1880s and 1890s when many of the paintings I love best – by Cézanne, Morisot, Monet and Pissarro – were made.

This painting, Morning Glories and Nasturtiums, 1881, from the McNay Museum of Art in San Antonio, was left unfinished, or was finished in a radical way, with areas of canvas still open and showing through. It leaves much to the imagination. To my eye, it is more like a sketch of thoughts and intentions. Ideas about the meaning of plants and the space around them.

In the show, it was in a gallery with many beautiful letters that Manet wrote to his friends as he was increasingly confined by his illness. He decorated these with water colors of flowers, fruit, bees.

Here is a letter that, in palette and meaning, seems related to the Nasturtiums of 1881. The letter has a watercolor of a horse chestnut. Manet had sent it to Marthe Hoschedé, the year before, in 1880. It belongs to a private collector.

Marthe's father Ernest Hoschedé had been a very important art patron for Manet and others. Ernest Hoschedé went bankrupt in 1878, and moved his family in to a household with the painter Claude Monet and Monet's family. Monet’s beloved wife Camille died the next year, in 1879. By the time this letter was sent to Marthe Hoschedé, her mother Alice had formed a new household with Monet and all of their children.

Layers of death, resilience, odd greens, empty spaces around them.

At Nadar's (but he was already gone)

At Nadar039s but he was already gone

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (painted from Nadar's studio), 1873


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]

rcohen 72
Nadar, Édouard Manet, 1863

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.      


[i] All Susan Sontag quotes from On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, paperback 1989, p92.
[ii] Stéphanie de Saint Marc, Nadar, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2010, p203.
[iii] John Rewald, The History of French Impressionism, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973. Rewald is here paraphrasing and citing the unpublished recollections of Edmond Renoir, p318.
[iv] Rewald, p313.