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Berthe Morisot at the Barnes: Fresh, smart work from the overlooked Impressionist

Her work captures something you don't tend to see in Impressionist paintings — women with minds of their own.

Berthe Morisot's  Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873.
Berthe Morisot's Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873.Read more© Cleveland Museum of Art.

A woman in a white, flower-print gown sits in a meadow of wild flowers and grasses, reading a book. An umbrella is flung to one side. A cart is seen passing in the background. The label for this painting, Reading (The Green Umbrella) (1873) in the Barnes Foundation's new exhibition "Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist," quotes a critic from the time who praises the work's "juxtaposing the charming artifice of a young woman from Paris with the charm of nature."

This observation is not necessarily wrong, but it ignores the main thing that is happening in the picture: the young woman is deeply absorbed in her reading.

Compared with her vivid surroundings and detailed dress, the woman's face is almost ghostly, as though she were transported into another realm. Her round hat with green veil appears more solid than her head, though when the veil passes over her shoulder, it is revealed as just a brushstroke.

The young woman, who is the artist's sister Edma, is shown to possess something women rarely have in impressionist paintings — an inner life. She is not merely an ornament, a fantasy, or an erotic temptation. She knows how to be charming, but she is not doing that right now. She is working at becoming herself.

This is the great subject of this exhibition of 68 paintings, co-curated by Sylvie Patry, consulting curator at the Barnes and chief curator at the Museé d'Orsay in Paris, and Nicole R. Myers, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art.

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The show, which opens to the public on Sunday after three days of member previews, has been seen in Quebec City, and will go on to Dallas and Paris after it closes here Jan. 14.

It is the first Morisot show in the United States in 31 years, even as her work has become more prominent in museum collections and group shows. (The Philadelphia Museum of Art website lists three paintings in its collection, along with a lithograph for which she served as model for her husband's brother, the great Édouard Manet.)

Morisot's status as an overlooked member of the impressionist pantheon gives this show its edge. Morisot had much in common with her male colleagues, and with the American Mary Cassatt, the other well-known woman in the group. But she also has her own way of seeing, thinking, and painting that is fresh, unfamiliar, and psychologically astute.

The rubric "Woman Impressionist" appears at first to describe some limitations that were very real. Her male counterparts were free to see and paint whatever they wanted, but Morisot was a wife, a mother, the matron of a well-connected, fashionable upper-middle-class household with servants. Her life was privileged yet constricted.

The vast majority of her paintings are of members of her extended family, especially her sister Edma, when both were young, and her daughter Julie, for the rest of her career. The only man shown in the exhibition is her husband, Eugene Manet.

The exhibition has an entire section of works about thresholds — spaces that incorporate a genteel, comfortable indoor world, and a luxuriantly green, sometimes jungle-like, outdoor world. In most cases, we see a woman, on the private and domestic side of this barrier, sometimes looking out at a wider world, but just as often consumed with interests of her own.

Sometimes we are looking over her shoulder and do not see her face. Sometimes, even when the woman is beautifully dressed and coiffed, we see a face whose mind is elsewhere.

The most glamorous pictures are less memorable than those that involve preparation. In Woman at Her Toilette (1875-80), we see a woman at her dressing table. She is wearing the kind of white gown Morisot loved to paint, full of subtle grays and blues and violets, an impressionist tour de force showing the colors, textures, and reflections that an apparently colorless frock can contain.

But the viewer's eye is captured by the gleaming silver earring at the center of the composition, one that seems to be at the center of an energy field Morisot has created with her bold, loose brushstrokes. On closer inspection, the earring is a thick dollop of white paint that pushes out of the surface of the canvas.

The painting makes us reflect on the work required to be beautiful, and its bold, gestural style reminds us that this painting, too, is an artifice, one that requires work, skill, and force of will.

Scholars believe Reading was one of several Morisot works  included in the first impressionist exhibition in 1874, and she exhibited in all but one of the six other original impressionist shows. Clearly the impressionists thought she was one of them, but later collectors were not as sure. Albert C. Barnes, for example, owned a Morisot — Young Woman with a Straw Hat (1884) but he sold it. It is in the current show, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

As Morisot's work matured in the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s, it became freer and less finished in appearance. Some viewed this distinctive style as feminine, flighty, and impatient. It seems more likely a mark of increasing confidence in her art and her view of the world.

Her Self-Portrait (1885) at age 44 shows this confidence. She is thoroughly professional, and unlike most of her figures, her eyes directly engage the viewer. Much of the light in the painting comes from the blank canvas. There is no nonsense in her bearing, or on her canvas. She is a complete professional.

As it turns out, being a "woman impressionist" seems to have been at least as liberating as it was constricting. Like her male counterparts, she painted women. But while Edgar Degas and Pierre-August Renoir usually showed women as ornamental or seductive, part of a distinctly male experience, Morisot showed the lives of women as she understood them, from experience.

They may be laboring to make themselves beautiful for a glittering ball, or they might be hanging laundry or cleaning the house. Don't dismiss them for that. Like Morisot, her women are active, learning, and working hard. And they have something on their minds.