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

Delaney and Morisot Ochre: This Week in Self-Portraits

Delaney and Morisot Ochre This Week in SelfPortraits

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1962, detail. Collection of halley k Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday, looking at pictures of Beauford Delaney’s Untitled, 1965, I noticed a kind of ochre in the corner that I hadn’t remembered being part of the palette. It's down in the lower right corner, near the rosy orange, under the diagonal of green.

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1965. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo Rachel Cohen.

I have also been going through Morisot paintings this week, and her self-portrait, with its ochre, came into view.

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait, 1885, Musée Marmottan Monet. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Ochre was so important that she used it to show her own palette, the physical artist's palette that she the painted painter held:

*

Following ochre, I started to think about the two of them together. Which I anyway do fairly often because two shows – Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, and Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door – have been two of the deep experiences of learning about a painter that I’ve had in the last three years. Here is a self-portrait Delaney did that is, among other things, a consideration of ochre.

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1962. Collection of halley k Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Both are painters who have been difficult to see – with works widely dispersed and a very large number in private hands. Both long under-recognized, so not part of every large group show on Impressionism or Modernism. Both were courageous, independent, and, about painting, self-assured.

At what layer of presence does a person’s perception of themself reside? Is it the innermost layer, private and nearly inaccessible to anyone else? Or is it the outermost layer, where they present themself to the world? Or is it just beyond the edge of the self?

Part of what I love in both Morisot and Delaney is the way layers over- and under- layer.

*

Learning as I go, I look up ochre. It is a family of pigments — red-yellow-brown. It comes out of the earth, and all the members of the family have in common the presence of iron oxide. It is the ferric element that gives the yellow. Earliest artistic use uncovered so far: pieces of ochre with abstract designs carved into them at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, 75,000 years ago. Used on every continent inhabited by people, important in cave and mural work among Aboriginal people, Greco-Romans, Egyptians.

Both Morisot and Delaney would have used ochres that came from the Vaucluse part of Provence in France, where the famous red and yellow cliffs were the central source for the finest pigments for artists for two hundred years, after Jean-Étienne Vastier discovered the method of refining that clay in the 1780s. So there is also a mineral proximity.

*

The Self-Portrait, 1885 is the main Morisot self-portrait. Delaney painted himself many, many times. Each also painted another person at all the stages of that other person’s life. Delaney painted a man he was friends with, and mentored, and loved, James Baldwin, whom Delaney first met when Baldwin was still a teenager. Morisot painted her daughter Julie (nearly a third of her paintings are of Julie).

Morisot painted the 1885 self-portrait in between the paintings of her daughter that I showed earlier this week. Her daughter was growing beautifully, was observant, was interested in painting and loved her mother's painting; they were close.

Delaney painted this self-portrait in 1962, in a year when he moved back into Paris after several very important years living in Clamart, outside of Paris, where he had really understood his own abstract style, and where he had often sat in the evenings with Baldwin looking out a window together.

Seeing yourself in other people, seeing other people and being free of yourself for a while, taking pride in someone else, all of these may let a self-portrait swing out.

Degas Portrait Trio

Degas Portrait Trio

Three portraits by Degas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the MFA right now, a trio of Degas portraits are not to be missed.  They can be stumbled upon in a narrow blue-green corridor on the second floor, next to the sealed off construction zone that is normally Impressionism.  It is as if three of the finest musicians – one at the beginning of his career, one at the end – happened to all be passing through a town on the same night and to have the idea of playing some chamber music – and you happened to be staying at the hotel and to walk by the room they’d found for their rehearsal.    

One of the portraits actually is of musicians – of a guitarist and of Degas’ father, listening.  

rcohen 102


Then in the middle hangs the famous double portrait of Degas’ sister and her to my mind supercilious husband.  

rcohen 102


On the right, the formidable Duchessa di Montejasi and her two wavery daughters.  

rcohen 102


Of course they are famous pictures, but hung together in this order the experience is extraordinary.  


Things noticeable: a significant progression in Degas’ style – from the middle couple painted in 1865,

rcohen 102


to the portrait of his father and Lawrence Pagans dated 1869-72, through to the later piece in 1876.  

rcohen 102


Then there are the family relationships – the father, a little weary but firmly engaged with the music, seems almost to see his outward-gazing daughter as he looks toward the middle portrait – the mother and her two daughters on the right suggest a different balance between the generations.  

rcohen 102


The heights of the paintings, the textures, and palettes, go beautifully together. And then formal resonances: from far apart, the musician and the pair of daughters face each other, while the Duchessa and the married couple have the prominence of facing the viewer squarely, even demandingly.  

And who would have thought the cramped hallway, 253, with its poor lighting and difficult bluish-green paint would make such an astonishing space for them. You have just enough room, by dint of backing and turning, to see all three at once and it is good to look from the long angles the hallway affords and to be brought into such direct confrontation with the pictures.

rcohen 102


rcohen 102


Degas’ beautiful-ugly palette is perfect against the wall color, which flattens out most paintings, but seems to make these only more astringent and demanding.  

It is all the strictest happenstance – because the museum is renovating its main Impressionist gallery, where two of these portraits often hang, but in no clear relation to one another; because the renovation has been made the occasion of the “Boston Loves Impressionism” show; because when offered the choice of fifty great Impressionist works the public voting online chose thirty pictures and not one of these Degas portraits; because the curators, possibly a bit frustrated with the limits of curating by public taste saw an opportunity; because the cramped and difficult space is actually better for seeing these paintings then the larger halls in which they more often hang, because of all of this, a rare chance…

Do go.  A little further along the hallway, you will also get to see what is possibly Cézanne’s last self-portrait, hung immediately next to his wonderful “Woman in a Red Armchair,” (moved since I last wrote about it here).  This, too, is a powerful juxtaposition, strong in the tight hallway, not before displayed in like fashion.  The shadow show, the Impressionism Boston does not love, is as revelatory a sequence of paintings as the seven works in the Frick’s Piero show were last year.    

rcohen 102