- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

The National Museum of Women in the Arts’ “Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle” tells the 19th-century French artist’s life story better than it shows her art. Mainly borrowed from the small Denis and Annie Rouart Collection in Paris’ Musee Marmottan Monet, the exhibit is certainly no retrospective, nor does it comprehensively present the artist’s illustrious “circle,” which included Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro.

The exhibition shows Morisot (1841-1895) searching for a style in just 47 works — many of them watercolors and drawings — that began with influences from Manet’s low-keyed palette; moved to the color-and-light stippling of Monet and Renoir; and finished with the linear, symbolist approach advocated by her friend, the poet Stephane Mallarme.

Raised in a wealthy Parisian family that encouraged her art, Morisot, as was the custom, first copied paintings by the old masters at the Louvre museum, then studied with the Barbizon landscape painter Camille Corot. In 1874, she joined the impressionist group and married Eugene Manet, brother of the painter Edouard Manet. Her family and marital connections — illustrated in the exhibit by samples from their work and collections — furthered her career. She painted and exhibited constantly until she died during the 1895 influenza epidemic.

Though small, this exhibit is important, as museums too rarely show Morisot’s work. The National Gallery of Art mounted her only U.S. retrospective in 1987, and her reputation rests mainly on her status as the only female member of the group of French impressionists, who rebelled against the popular academic art styles of the day.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts describes her as “the consummate Impressionist,” and the exhibit, though incomplete, deserves attention. Visitors could make a better judgment, however, had the show been organized chronologically rather than thematically.

The museum chose to open the show with Edouard Manet’s sensual 1873 portrait of the young artist (“Portrait of Berthe Morisot Reclining”) set among some of Morisot’s top portraits. One of several portraits painted by Manet of the woman who was his student and favorite model, the iconic work was even more sensuous in its original horizontal format.

Manet cropped the original reclining position to make it more appropriate to Morisot’s generally conservative times and avoid comparisons with Francisco Jose de Goya’s even more sensual “Clothed Maja (Maja Vestida)” and “Naked Maja (Maja Desnuda)” paintings in Madrid’s Prado museum.

Manet’s portrait is the only sexy painting in the emphatically woman-oriented show that follows. The portraits range from Morisot’s earlier, softly impressionist portrait of her friend Louise Riesener (1881) to her more roughly brushed, impressionist “Self-Portrait” (1885).

The artist’s “Self-Portrait” is difficult to analyze. She directs her piercing gaze directly at the viewer and poses with disheveled, grayish hair. Dressed in a casual smock while holding a painter’s palette, she seems to have made herself deliberately sexless. Yet she includes the full, pouting lips and deep-set eyes that made her portrait by Manet so arresting.

Julie, obviously one of the artist’s favorite models, occupies center stage in her mother’s tall, monumental “Cherry Tree.” The work, depicting Julie teetering on a ladder to stretch toward the fruit, figures as the star of the exhibition and looks to what could have been the painter’s future artistic direction.

“An Impressionist and Her Circle” should whet viewers’ appetites for more of Berthe Morisot’s beautiful, often haunting, work. Seventeen years have passed since the National Gallery’s previous exhibition. This interesting, challenging painter is long overdue for a major retrospective.

WHAT: “Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and Her Circle”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Through May 8.

TICKETS: $10 adults, $8 students and visitors 60 and older, free for youths 18 and younger and during Free Community Days, the first Sunday of each month

TELEPHONE: 202/783-5000

WEB SITE: www.nmwa.org

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