Berthe Morisot at Dulwich Picture Gallery

When asked about impressionist artists, it is almost guaranteed that a person will respond with a male name: Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Pissarro – the list goes on. Very rarely will a woman’s name be the answer, simply due to the fact that art was not accessible to women at the time of this period’s zeitgeist; however, there were still woman impressionists. Berthe Morisot was a female impressionist artist working in the 19th century: she showed at every single impressionist exhibition, except for the one that fell four months after the birth of her daughter, Julie. Yet, she is barely known in comparison to her male contemporaries, and Dulwich Picture Gallery begs the question of why. In a stunning four roomed exhibition – displaying the work of not only Morisot, but also of her inspirations, and other artists – the gallery shines a spotlight on the female impressionist, in the first exhibition of her work in the UK since 1950.

 

Morisot is known for her paintings of everyday scenes and 19th century life, with inspiration from the work of the 18th century. Her subject matter was mostly female and there was a large range of pieces on show – from sketches, to resolved paintings.

 

The exhibition opened on the 31st of March 2023 and is running until the 10th of September 2023, and if you were lucky enough to be at the opening, you would have been been able to hear the words of the gallery director, Jennifer Scott, as she spoke about the works and the exhibitions, adding context to the paintings and curation of the show. If you were even luckier, as I was, you could have taken your first look at the show as Scott was speaking: viewing each of the paintings as they were being spoken about.

 

One of the crowning points of this exhibition is the curation. The highlight is a beautiful curatorial gesture that the director described at the end of the show. When walking into the exhibition, if you look left, the first painting that you will see is a self-portrait by Morisot; jumping to to the end of the show, one of the final works (‘Julie Daydreaming’ (1894)) was painted after the death of Morisot’s husband, Eugene Manet, and shows Julie Manet, Morisot’s daughter, in a mourning dress as well as their dog and an empty chair – which is assumed to be associated with Morisot’s late husband. Due to the nature of the space in which the exhibition is in, if you are facing ‘Julie Daydreaming’ and turn 180 degrees, the face of Morisot will be staring back at you down the corridors: the aforementioned self-portrait.

 

The work was comfortable in the space, being neither too crowded nor too isolated. I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of Morisot’s paintings with other artists: for example, her sister, Edma, Tissot, and Fragonard’s works. The exhibition thus invites the viewer to compare Morisot’s work with that of her inspirations. By placing these works next to Morisot’s, the director points out the similarities between them, and what specifically was inspirational: such as the back portrait of a woman hitching up her skirt.

 

Dulwich Picture Gallery was the perfect location for this show, as before entering the exhibition, you are faced with more paintings that might have inspired Morisot when she was on her honeymoon to England in 1875. As well as these paintings, the building itself is situated very near to Dulwich Park, Belair Park, and other green areas; it is thus perfect for an exhibition of Morisot’s work, as she loved the outdoors, and would spend early mornings painting in parks and gardens. She would go at a time of day before people came out and saw her, as they would have questions about what a wealthy woman was doing painting.

 

Morisot’s style is among some of the most “unfinished” of the impressionists. She stands out against the rest of them due to her use of a lesser number of brushstrokes and her use of quite a limited colour palette – the colour blue, for example, was prominently featured. As well as this, some colours seemed more unnatural; she often used blue liberally in the shadows, but they were a pastel-seeming blue as opposed to darker shades, and bright reds in the areas of blood flow, for example. I found the combination of sketches and more finished, refined works very interesting, as it managed to successfully highlight her process and clearly show the comparison of her rougher work to her paintings.

 

As I explained earlier, the subject matter was not that of the typical impressionist – whilst Morisot was not able to access many things that men could at the time (such as, to a degree, the outside world), her subject matter, domesticity, was generally not as accessible to men at the time. It is also interesting to note that she painted her subject matter with a certain feminine touch, through said domesticity. There were many paintings and drawings of her daughter, Julie, as well, in which the love she had for her appeared to shine through to the viewer due to the lighting and her use of carefully placed brushstrokes. There was a sense of care in her paintings, with her replication of domestic scenes being almost intimate in the way that she was physically close to her subject matter, and I felt that it was interesting to see that most of her subject matter was women.

 

John Berger wrote about how men tend to sexualise women in their paintings, and the impressionists were not removed of fault. However, in Morisot’s paintings, the women did not seem objectified: they came off as depictions of domestic scenes, as opposed to the sexualisation of the figures. Perhaps this was due to the fact that none of the paintings in the exhibition depicted women in the nude, with them all being clothed – and despite the fact that there were representations of intimate moments, Morisot did not paint them in a manner which seemed sexualising, with the focus instead being placed on the domestic nature of them.

 

As I mentioned, there were thick pronounced brushstrokes full of expression, which were typical of the impressionist movement, and I feel that it is essential to note that they looked quick and impulsive, but also had a way of seeming carefully placed and planned out. This juxtaposition was something I noted throughout Morisot’s paintings, and was typical of her own personal style. However, despite the brushstrokes seeming almost impulsive, the paintings were highly accurate, with very believable proportions. The paintings did not look rushed and showed the female impressionist’s incredible technical ability.

 

There is also the question of the intentions of the exhibition, which I think this could be very simply answered by highlighting Morisot’s place as being on par with the male impressionists. Despite the fact that painting professionally at the time was incredibly male dominated, as mentioned before, Morisot was a distinctive member of the impressionists, and secured her right as one of the finest painters of the time. However, her work was unfortunately lost with time, and she has seemed to fade out of history slightly. This is mainly due to the fact that many of her paintings were not in the public domain, very few of her works were sold or in galleries, and most were just kept by her family.

 

This exhibition effectively solidified Morisot’s place as a successful and popular impressionist painter, showing how technical her paintings were. It seems to prove that there was a female presence in the movement within Morisot – and not only this, but also how she was a radical force as a woman and drove the movement forward through her identity.

 

As I touched on, the exhibition not only displayed Morisot’s work, but also that of her inspirations in a very interesting way that contrasted the artist with the other artists that she looked up to; this made it different to any other exhibitions I have been to, as it contrasted all of the artists together. To conclude, this exhibition was highly successful in completing its aims, and managed to correctly solidify Morisot’s place as an impressionist artist. It does place Morisot as an impressionist, not only within the movement, but also driving it forwards. This exhibition perfectly executes its intentions, and highlights to the viewer how Morisot was a highly successful individual artist, but also shows her in relation to her inspirations, and the other artists of the time.

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