Calling Berthe Morisot a ‘woman impressionist’ in a show opening at the Barnes grates on the ears of artists and museum goers
Would an exhibition of work by Monet ever be titled "Claude Monet: Male Impressionist"?
When the exhibition of French impressionist Berthe Morisot opens at the Barnes Foundation Oct. 21 for a run through Jan. 14, it will be the first major Morisot retrospective in the United States since 1987.
Morisot is one of the key painters of what was once a radical movement, a contemporary of Monet, Renoir, Degas, and the other practitioners of what is now regarded as the most popular style a museum can hope to slice and dice. In fact, scholars see Morisot as a founder of impressionism and one of its best practitioners — yet she is not nearly as well known as her eminent male peers.
That is why this exhibition engendered such excitement among art enthusiasts when it was formally announced last spring.
But the title — "Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist" — has grated on the ears of artists and museumgoers like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Why woman impressionist?
Painter Elizabeth Wilson was deeply annoyed by the title, noting that "gender clarification seems unnecessary, outdated, and borderline sexist." Painter Jane Irish was also irritated. She said the title appeared to marginalize Morisot.
Painter and Morisot expert Bill Scott said the title was reminiscent of a recent Joan Mitchell biography: Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter. He said Mitchell would not be pleased.
Would an exhibition of Monet ever be called "Claude Monet: Male Impressionist?" Wilson wondered.
"We would not qualify Monet as a male artist," acknowledged Sylvie Patry, former Barnes curator who cocurated this exhibition. But she argued that history requires gender designation for Morisot.
At the time Morisot lived and worked, "we have to acknowledge that the situation was different for a man and a woman," Patry said in an email from Paris, where she is deputy director for curatorial affairs and collections at the Musée d'Orsay.
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"The fact that Morisot was a woman has likely contributed to her marginalization from art history in the 20th century," Patry said. "With this title we refer [to] a given and historical framework, where it can't be denied that being a woman artist has had an impact on her career and on her posthumous recognition."
Nicole R. Myers, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art, cocurator of the Morisot exhibition, said the title underwent considerable discussion. (Dallas will host the Morisot exhibition after it leaves the Barnes; it has already been at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and will conclude at the Musée d'Orsay in 2019.)
"I'm not surprised to see that there are not just women artists but women who are frustrated to see that [title]," Myers said. But not only is Morisot not well known to English speakers, even her given name, "Berthe," seems mysteriously detached from male and female designation, Myers added.
Calling it "Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist," she said, "is to make a point that this is an artist you haven't heard of and a lot of the reason you haven't is because of her gender."
That said, painter William Glackens, at the behest of collector Albert C. Barnes, ventured to Europe and began buying paintings for his schoolboy chum. As a result, what we now know as the Barnes Foundation began with a bang. That's how he acquired his first Cézanne (a view of Mont Sainte-Victoire), his first Picasso, his first van Gogh (The Postman) and Berthe Morisot's 1884 Young Woman with a Straw Hat.
But the fickle Barnes always fidgeted with his collection, and he sold his Morisot in 1936. It now resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, according to Scott, the highly regarded Philadelphia painter and Morisot aficionado.
He noted that Morisot (1841-95) came from an upper-middle-class family and did not need to sell her work. She married Édouard Manet's well-to-do brother, Eugène, and exhibited with the impressionists beginning in 1874, the first year the renegade movement set itself up with its own Paris salon and attracted attention from critics and the public. Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley — and Berthe Morisot all showed in this Salon des Refusés.
Scott believes Morisot's upper-middle-class circumstances worked against her in the long run. She did not need to sell paintings, so she didn't. The work remained out of sight, largely unknown to the critical public. Beyond that, if she didn't sell her work how serious could she be?
"I think [critics and the public] didn't know her work, they didn't see her work in person," Scott said. Myers agrees.
"She did not need to sell artwork to support herself," Myers said. "And because of that it kind of connoted, even in her own time, an aspect of being an amateur or a dilettante painter," Myers said.
As a young painter starting out, Scott traveled to Paris and visited Morisot's descendants, a visit that, off and on, continued for 20 years. The painter's grandchildren were living in the same house, and Morisot's paintings were everywhere — largely in the same locations that she originally hung them.
"They had this great place with a big two-story studio room, the salon, like the living room," Scott said. "Monet had given her a painting for hanging over the door. It was still over the door. A copy [Morisot] made of a [François] Boucher painting, hanging over her mirror — it was still over her mirror."
Scott and Myers both pointed out that Morisot was quite successful during her lifetime, but after her death, the Morisot family held on to her artwork. Her daughter, Julie, tried to make sure her mother was included in exhibitions, but when Julie died in 1966, "her three sons didn't lend anything for 20 years," Scott said.
Scott, who spent so much time with the Morisots, was more than a little aware of the treasure trove in their trust, and he sought to ferret out material for inclusion in the path-breaking 1987 exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Scott also wrote a lengthy essay for that exhibition catalog. He has another essay in the catalog for the current exhibit.
The family lent a couple of paintings for the 1987 show, he said, the first U.S. exhibition of Morisot's work since the 1950s. The 1987 show awakened some interest in Morisot. Her grandsons also died around that time, and work that had been in the family went onto the market; other paintings were donated to a museum in Paris.
Though the absence of Morisot's artwork in the public realm has been an important element in dampening her reputation, Scott believes that even if it had been more freely available, she would have faced barriers because of gender.
"The other thing, she's the sister-in-law of Manet," Scott said. "Julie Manet [Morisot's daughter], when people interviewed her, art historians, I suspect they ended up talking about Manet. [Julie] was 4 when he died. But she had teacups, she served out of them, I drank out of them too, teacups that Manet had owned. You go back to Manet even when you're in Berthe Morisot's house. In her dining room, there were eight paintings by Manet hanging up."
Gender, class, family ties — all seem to have conspired to dampen Morisot's reputation after her death. Once she was gone, the paintings were walled off and her reputation began to fade.
The 1987 exhibition put a major brake on the decline. This exhibition, Myers said, seeks to build on that.
The title, she said "puts a finger on a problem," which is "we should all be irritated that we feel compelled to use adjectives like that to explain difference."
"It was built into the system at the time, and I wouldn't argue that it is not there today," she said. "I struggled personally about the title because it feels we should have been able to move away from this with the great feminist art history of the 1970s. But, unfortunately, it's where we are."