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Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist at the DMA

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

Berthe Morisot's Young Girl With Vase

"Young Girl With Vase," Berthe Morisot, 1889.

As in the DMA's earlier exhibition by a woman artist, "Ida O'Keeffe, Escaping Georgia's Shadow", it was nearly impossible to pick a favorite piece in this show. I was overcome with a feeling of "where has this been all my life?" and "why am I just now seeing it?" although I know the answer to both of those questions.

Like many woman artists, French Impressionist Berthe Morisot isn't nearly as well known as she should be. But a major showcase at the Dallas Museum of Art shines a spotlight on her work and story, exposing her to modern audiences. Is it a little late? Yes. She should be as well known as Monet, Degas, Renoir and her other contemporaries. She created art in a different era, and while she had critical acclaim in her lifetime, in general that timing didn't work in her favor. But audiences are seeing her now, and finding in her an artist whose work is just as distinctive and interesting as others in the movement that she co-founded, and infused with her own individual gifts.

"Through her portrayal of the human figure, Morisot was able to explore the themes of modern life that came to define Impressionism, such as the intimacy of contemporary bourgeois living and leisure activities, the importance of female fashion and the toilette, and women’s domestic work, all while blurring the lines between interior and exterior, public and private, finished and unfinished. " - DMA Press Release

There is a dreamy, gestural, sketched quality to Morisot's work, yet the details don't get lost. The edges of her figures are soft, but viewers still get a clear sense of the subject matter and the captured nuance of the scene. As in other Impressionist art, the broken color effect blends so perfectly at a distance, and complement each other just as well, giving the work a unique depth and interest, on closer look.

Winter by Berthe Morisot, Figure in Green jacket 1889

Detail of "Winter," by Berthe Morisot, 1880.

One thing that stood out to me was that the women in these pieces were not "posed." Many times, they seemed to be caught in the middle of doing something much more important than posing for a portrait. (And what busy woman can't relate? "Pose for a painting? Who has time? Ok, fine - just paint it fast." ) They are also rarely smiling; their facial expressions are natural and authentic. Despite the loose, Impressionist style, Morisot has captured something about women of all ages that is quite real and timeless.

"The Mandolin," Berthe Morisot. 1889.

Although it was hard to choose a favorite piece, I did. It was a "no photos" piece, but I found an image online : "Girl in a Green Coat," 1894. I love everything about it, the green shade of the coat against the softer colors in the piece, the shimmering, iridescent quality of the lighter fabric of the dress, and the fact that this young lady could step off the canvas and walk down any street today and fit right in. In 2019, more than 100 years after the subject existed, I both love the painting and covet that coat.

The saying "better late than never" springs to mind, but seems like a flip and inarticulate way to describe Morisot's work and story, so I'm trying to phrase it better. I wish things had been different for her and the countless women like her who aren't being discovered and rediscovered. I'm sad for the "nevers" whose work we are missing out on altogether. With that said, I do feel that the DMA is a museum that is trying to level that out a bit, which is good. The O'Keeffe exhibition was also a showstopper, and I appreciate that the DMA has scheduled a good deal of extra programming around these historically under-promoted women artists. Hopefully, this means that future Morisots and O'Keeffes can more easily claim their place in the canon in real time, and stay there.

Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist is on view at the DMA through May 26, 2019. Several special lectures are planned through its run. I'm particularly interested in "Fashion and Art in Impressionist Paris" which will take place at 7 p.m. April 25. The Dallas Museum of Art is located at 1717 N. Harwood in the Dallas Arts District, and tickets start at $12.

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