Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Corot: Women at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Corot: Women 


National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

September 9  - December 31, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The frustration of work, the "daily grind," can affect everyone, even great artists like Jean-Baptist-Camille Corot (1796-1875). No one is immune from the urge to post an "out to lunch" sign and set off to try their hand at something new and exciting.

Corot's "extracurricular" pursuits are the subject of an important exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. But to get a sense of why artists depart from the well-trodden paths to fame and fortune, a brief moment with another Old Master is in order.

Having gained renown and a handsome income from immortalizing the faces of Victorian worthies - and more importantly their wives - John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) declared "Portrait painting is a pimp's profession."

Sargent, whenever he could, ventured to mountain and stream, creating some of the greatest landscape works of the late nineteenth century, primarily in watercolor.

This was exactly the opposite of what Camille Corot had done earlier, beginning in the 1840's. Having established himself as France's preeminent landscape painter, Corot began a series of figurative studies which explored the human psyche in unexpected ways.

 Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Corot: Women exhibition

Corot: Women at the National Gallery showcases 44 paintings of young women, some of them known by name as Corot's models. Yet these works are not polished "portraits" of individuals as Sargent did so well and Corot too, on occasion, painted. 

Instead, Corot probed the shifting moods and states of mind of human beings with these works. Neither formal portraits or illustrative "types," Corot presents distinct individuals, real people. Each is an embodiment of that most amazing feature of  human life. Every person is a mystery, to themselves most of all.

Corot, on a certain level, is no mystery. He was born into a successful middle-class family in 1796, which made him too young to be marched-off as cannon fodder in Napoleon's wars. As a young boy, he was introduced to the glories of nature in field trips led by an esteemed teacher just as Romanticism caught "fire" in France. To the chagrin of his parents, Corot proved an abysmal failure in every form of business endeavor. He had but one talent and that was for painting.

In 1824, John Constable's The Haywain was shown at the Paris Salon of that year. French painters were greatly impressed and the influence of the "British School" was extended by Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828). It was the sight of a watercolor by Bonington which impelled Corot toward landscape painting. This became his forte, and although he struggled at first, Corot began to sell landscapes to wealthy patrons. In 1846, to the amazement of his father, Corot received the Légion d'Honneur.

Unlike the great 1996 Corot exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are no landscapes in the current National Gallery show. That is not a drawback for two reasons. The National Gallery is richly endowed with Corot masterpieces. Only a few galleries from the Corot: Women exhibit, The Forest of Fontainbleau, one of Corot's greatest landscapes is on view.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Forest of Fontainebleau, 1834

The second reason not to be alarmed at the absence of Corot's specialty is bit more difficult to grasp. Corot's figurative studies were a indeed a sideline to his landscape oeuvre. Corot was overheard telling a model who had inquired about a session, "Come back sometime later, my child, I can't take a vacation at the moment."

Yet, these figurative works provide a telling insight into Corot's character - and of all great artists - namely the desire to go beyond what has been achieved, to probe the unknown and the unknowable.

Corot's Woman with a Pearl (which introduces this review) is a case in point. The parallels with Mona Lisa are obvious but actually superficial. Leonardo's immortal work was a lot less "immortal" when Corot studied it than it is today. Mona Lisa gained its present "superstar" notoriety only after it was stolen from the Louvre shortly before World War I. 

Corot's misnamed masterpiece - the model, Berthe Goldschmidt has a flower petal on her forehead, not a pearl - evokes the enigmatic persona of La Gioconda rather than her elite status in the canon of Western art. 

Early on, Corot painted his female protagonists in peasant or folk attire, Italian and Greek especially. One of the first of his figurative studies, Young Italian Woman from Papigno with Her Spindle, is amazingly modern in the informal pose of the subject and the direct, focused application of paint. What must have seemed "slap-dash" in the 1820's and 30's appeals to us today as a work just a short step from genius.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 
Young Italian Woman from Papigno with Her Spindle, c. 1826-1827


Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Italian Girl, c. 1872

Corot began painting figurative works in earnest during the 1840's. He continued to dress his models in colorful, traditional garb. Yet these were not costume subjects, intended for sale. Corot's figurative works (including several nudes) were paintings he did for himself. Few were exhibited during his lifetime. Woman with a Pearl only gained renown - and an incorrect title - when it was shown in 1889.

Corot was aided and "abetted" in this secret pursuit by one of his favorite models, an enchanting young woman named Emma Dobigny, who also posed for Edgar Degas and other French painters of the mid-nineteenth century.

"Posed" may not be the appropriate word to describe Dobigny's role. Lively and gregarious, she could not stand still for more than a few minutes. She pranced about Corot's studio, gossiping and singing, and the old artist loved every minute of it.

“That mobility is exactly what I love about her,” Corot commented. “My goal is to express life. I need a model who moves around.”

Two paintings of Dobigny, both with Greek themes, illustrate the difficulty in fixing a "trajectory" for Corot's figurative studies.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Young Greek Woman, c. 1870-1871

The first, Young Greek Woman, painted around 1870, is highly finished and certainly in keeping with the tastes of the mid-century 1800's.

The second is ostensibly one of a series of ancient Greek muses. You would hardly guess that there was a mythological or classical subject matter to this very modern-looking work. The thoughtful young woman in a sleeveless blouse was painted five years before Young Greek Woman. Because of the lack of finish, we cannot be absolutely certain that Emma Dobigny was the model, but it very likely was her.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Muse: History, c. 1865

Interestingly, this "impressionistic" work was sold by the legendary art dealer of the Impressionists, Paul Durand-Ruel, to Henry Havemeyer and his wife, Louisine, in 1899. The Havemeyers, the greatest American patrons of French 19th century art, bought the first work of Claude Monet owned by collectors in the U.S. They also favored Manet, so the modern appearance of this classical subject (in name only) by Corot likely appealed to the Havemeyers' forward-looking taste in art. 

It was not just daring American art collectors who were intrigued by Corot's figure studies. Artists began to take notice of the aging master's experiments. 

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Woman Reading in the Studio, c. 1868

Corot taught Berthe Morisot and her sister, Edma. Surely, the broad, almost reckless brush strokes of Corot's Woman Reading in the Studio (1868) influenced Morisot in some of her daring, dazzling displays of brush work.

The real impact of Corot's figurative studies took place after his death. The trove of paintings he kept in his studio were displayed in a number of exhibits and young revolutionaries like Braque and Picasso were impressed.

In 1909,an exhibition, Rétrospective de figures de Corot, was held on Paris. Ironically, several of the works with high finish and tradition-honored themes made the greatest impact. One of these is especially worthy of note, as it is now in a private collection and rarely displayed. Woman with a Large Toque and a Mandolin was an early figurative work by Corot, a deliberate homage to the Renaissance.

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) 
Corot's Woman with a Large Toque and a Mandolin, 1850-1855

Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso took note. The two young painters had launched the Analytical phase of Cubism, where all the elements of the picture were being reduced to geometric essentials. Corot had used the musical instrument as an emotional focus point in his tribute to the Renaissance. Braque and Picasso grasped that they needed to do the same in their radically different compositions. Braque, followed by Picasso, incorporated the mandolin into Cubist works, an event of signal importance in the evolution of Modernism. 

During the final decades of his long life, Corot had searched for the "essence" of his subject. In his case it was the humanity of his models which he sought to capture on canvas. “My goal is to express life," Corot proclaimed. 

Despite his advanced age, Corot was "expressing life" with ever increasing energy, skill and insight. A year before he died, Corot reached the mountain top.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Lady in Blue, 1874

The National Gallery exhibition concludes with Corot's last great work, The Lady in Blue, created in 1874. This pensive woman was painted with the same vigorous brush strokes that Corot had used on the Young Italian Woman from Papigno with Her Spindle, painted nearly a half-century before.

Indeed, this astonishing work of art was as "impressionistic" as anything on display in the first Impressionist Salon held that same year. Lady in Blue, however, enjoyed the distinction of being purchased almost immediately, which was not the case of most of the works of art at the Impressionist Salon.

By 1912, when The Lady in Blue was put up for auction, the painting had acquired an almost legendary fame. The Louvre snapped it up for the hefty sum of 162,000 francs. Its true worth, however can only be computed in the words of praise which art commentators spoke of it.

Of these complimentary remarks, none was more fitting or more accurate than the assessment by art critic, Gustave Geffroy. His words, moreover, spoke for the  entire range of Corot's figurative studies, not just this final masterpiece.

"With this fleeting instant," Geffroy wrote of Lady in Blue, "Corot has created a definitive reality."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Ed Voves
Introductory Image:

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) Woman with a Pearl, c. 1868–1870.
Oil on canvas: overall: 70 x 55 cm (27 9/16 x 21 5/8 in.) framed: 93 x 74.5 x 9 cm (36 5/8 x 29 5/16 x 3 9/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures  © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo by Stéphane Maréchalle

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Corot: Women exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) The Forest of Fontainebleau. Oil on canvas: 175.6 x 242.6 cm (69 1/8 x 95 1/2 in.) framed: 196.9 x 262.9 cm (77 1/2 x 103 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Chester Dale Collection 1963.10.109

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) Young Italian Woman from Papigno with Her Spindle, c. 1826–1827. Oil on wood: overall: 29.85 x 19.69 cm (11 3/4 x 7 3/4 in.);
framed: 53.98 x 41.59 x 8.89 cm (21 1/4 x 16 3/8 x 3 1/2 in.) Private Collection

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) Italian Girl, c. 1872. Oil on canvas: overall: 65 x 54.5 cm (25 9/16 x 21 7/16 in.) framed: 94.9 x 84.5 x 11.4 cm (37 3/8 x 33 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Avalon Foundation

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) Young Greek Woman, c. 1870–1871.
Oil on canvas: overall: 84.14 x 70.49 cm (33 1/8 x 27 3/4 in.); framed: 102.3 x 73.7 x 10.8 cm (40 1/4 x 29 x 4 1/4 in.) Collection of Shelburne Museum, Gift of the Electra Havemeyer Webb Fund, Inc.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) The Muse: History, c. 1865.  Oil on canvas: overall: 46 x 35.2 cm (18 1/8 x 13 7/8 in.); framed: 73.7 x 61 x 11.5 cm (29 x 24 x 4 1/2 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) Woman Reading in the Studio, c. 1868.
Oil on paperboard on wood: overall: 32.5 x 41.3 cm (12 13/16 x 16 1/4 in.);
framed: 50.5 x 59.1 x 6.4 cm (19 7/8 x 23 1/4 x 2 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Ed Voves, Photo (2018) Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Woman with a Large Toque and a Mandolin, 1850-1855. Oil on Canvas. Collection of William I. Koch.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796-1875) The Lady in Blue, 1874. Oil on canvas:
overall: 80 x 50.5 cm (31 1/2 x 19 7/8 in.); framed: 125.5 x 95.5 x 16.5 cm (49 7/16 x 37 5/8 x 6 1/2 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, photo by Stéphane Maréchalle

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Berthouville Treasure at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Devotion and Decadence

The Berthouville Treasure and Roman Luxury

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York City 
October 17, 2018 - January 6, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves                                                                                                    Original photos by Anne Lloyd

"All roads lead to Rome" was a proverb based on the extensive communication network which bound the provinces of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East to the capital city of the Caesars. At the very heart of this infrastructure, the veins and arteries of the Roman Empire, was a milestone to mark the central spot, a marble column covered in gilded bronze called the Milliarium Aureum.

Nine hundred miles from this fabled marker was a crossroads in the region of France we call Normandy. In Roman times, the place was called Canetonum and was the site of a temple to the god Mercury. Today, the village of Berthouville marks the spot. Then and now, the location was not of strategic importance. But what was under the soil was a different matter.

For nearly fifteen hundred years, a fabulous treasure lay buried, a hoard of silver statuettes, ceremonial cups, vases, utensils and plate. The greatest trove of silver art objects to survive from ancient times, these artifacts date to the height of Rome's grandeur. Now, for a limited time, the Berthouville Treasure is on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York City.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) 
 Gallery view of  the Berthouville Treasure exhibition at the ISAW

The ISAW is located two blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 15 E 84th St. ISAW is a graduate school of New York University. It does not have an art collection of its own, but mounts outstanding exhibitions of works from other museums. You won't have to search your pockets for a spare sesterce or drachma to pay the admission price of ISAW. The exhibitions there are free of charge.

The Berthouville Treasure normally resides in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), in Paris. When the BnF closed its galleries for renovation in 2010, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles undertook a massive conservation effort of these ancient art works. After four years of careful study and treatment, the restored Berthouville artifacts went on display at the Getty and several other U.S. museums. The ISAW exhibition is the final display of these treasures before they return to France.

The wonder of the Berthouville Treasure is that it survived all. There were many dangers to this array of precious objects from the Temple of Mercury Canetonensis. But the most perilous moment came with its rediscovery in March 1830. A French farmer, Prosper Taurin, was plowing his field when he unearthed a Roman-era tile. Beneath were ninety-odd silver objects.

Bowl with a Medallion Depicting Omphale, 1–100 CE

Taurin, like most French peasants was not flush with cash. After digging-up the treasures (with his pick-ax!), Taurin decided to travel to a nearby town which had a goldsmith. He planned to employ the goldsmith to melt the artifacts down for the weight value of the silver. Fortunately, Taurin stopped to show his discovery to his cousin. At his cousin's  urging, Taurin took the treasures to the local antiquarian society instead of the goldsmith. These worthies convinced Taurin to sell the wondrous silver objects to a museum, thus preserving them for posterity.

The authorities at the Louvre and the Bibliothèque nationale de France took note. When the Berthouville Treasure was placed on auction, a bidding war ensued. The BnF won. Taurin walked away from the sale, a much wealthier man than had he ignored his cousin's advice.

Following their lucky escape, the Berthouville Treasures were studied by French scholars. The most intriguing question concerned the prominence  given to the god Mercury. Two statuettes, four phialae or libation bowls and a ladle all bear Mercury's image.  Clearly, Mercury was an important deity to the Celtic peoples who inhabited the area around Berthouville in ancient times.

We know a great deal about the Celts of what is today France - but through the testimony of their Roman conqueror, Julius Caesar.

Statuette of Mercury from the Berthouville Treasure , 175–225 CE

Of the Celts, Caesar wrote in The Gallic War, "The god they reverence most is Mercury. They have very many images of him."

Mercury, the messenger god, was the divinity who protected merchants and traders and helped them gain financial success. There was a similar god in the Celtic pantheon, Lugus, whom the Romans equated with Mercury. So there was indeed some justification for Caesar's claim.

To the Celts, however, Mercury had a much more important role. He acted as guide for the souls of newly deceased humans on their journey to the afterlife.

The Celts had a highly developed belief in the immortality of soul and body. This conception of the "hereafter" animated their prowess as warriors and extreme individualists. The amazing - and formidable -  Celtic race lacked a written language but had a complex and sophisticated culture which Caesar's conquest, 58-51 BC, and the later Roman invasion of Celtic Britain did not destroy.

During the years following Prosper Taurin's discovery, archaeological surveys revealed the existence of of a temple complex close to where the Berthouville Treasure had been unearthed. Given the numerous examples of Mercury-inspired art works in Taurin's haul and the role of Mercury as guardian of souls, it is surely correct to identify the temple at Canetonum/Berthouville as a shrine to Mercury.

Nine of the silver objects were donated to the Temple of Mercury Canetonensis by an individual named Quintus Domitius Tutus. His identity has not been established, so we do not know if he was a Roman living in Gaul or a Romanized-Celt. 

Nor are we sure of when Tutus lived. I suspect that he lived during the mid-second century, the era of the "Good Emperors" when a Roman citizen's words and deeds still retained their value. 

Of this rare moment, Edward Gibbon declared, "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus."

If Quintus Domitius Tutus lived during this period, then he did indeed have something to thank the gods for.

The introductory image for this review, Cup with Centaurs and Cupids, is one of his donations. It is a superbly crafted work, made during the first century after Christ. This and the other pieces donated by Tutus were "high-end" works of art, either extremely valuable personal possessions or purchased specifically to be given to the Temple of Mercury.

Cup with Centaurs and Cupids seems excessively ornate and hedonistic to be a presentation object to a temple, even by Roman standards. Yet, on the bottom is inscribed: MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO ” (To Augustan Mercury, Quintus Domitius Tutus in fulfillment of a vow).

Pitcher with Scenes from the Trojan War of Achilles and Eight Greek Warriors Weeping over the Body of Patroclus, 1–100 CE

I thought the same about the pair of pitchers decorated with gruesome scenes from the Trojan War. Of course, it is a huge error to read contemporary standards of belief into the art and culture of the past. Yet, Quintus Domitius Tutus, whether he was a citizen of the second century or later, lived in an era when people were searching for a deeper spirituality. Why would he donate these objects, reeking of war and slaughter, to the Temple of Mercury?

Anne Lloyd , Photo (2018) 
 Silver Pitcher from Berthouville with Scenes from the Trojan War,  
showing Priam’s Embassy to Ransom Hector’s Body

When I focused on the back of one of the pitchers, my opinion swiftly changed. I was deeply moved by the scene of the body of the slain Trojan hero, Hector, being weighed in order to fix the amount of ransom so that it could be properly buried. Here was the price of human cruelty memorably depicted!

Anne Lloyd , Photo (2018) 
Detail of Scenes from the Trojan War,  
showing Priam’s Embassy to Ransom Hector’s Body

Given the deep-seated Celtic belief in the immortality of the soul, I think it likely that Quintus Domitius Tutus chose art works of great spiritual value to donate to the Temple of Mercury. The sensitive depiction of the corpse of the heroic Hector establishes this silver pitcher as a remarkable visualization of human fate. It certainly would have affected a Celt or Romanized-Celt during the later Roman Empire far differently than a Greek or Roman of earlier centuries.

The works of art donated by Tutus were not destined to be on view for long. The third century A.D. was marked by a calamitous downturn in Rome's fortunes from the time of the "Good Emperors." Endless civil wars sapped the strength of the Roman legions and in the year 276 a huge incursion of Germanic barbarians broke through the defenses along the Rhine River. Ironically, the tribe of Franks, who ultimately gave their name to France, were in the vanguard of the assault.

The Temple of Mercury Canetonensis was burned at some point during the third century, though whether it was a casualty of Roman civil war or barbarian invasion is unresolved. The Berthouville Treasure was buried in order to save it from being carried off as spoils of war.

It is no mystery why the Berthouville Treasure remained below ground until the plowshare of Prosper Taurin broke through the sleep of centuries. The Roman Empire nearly collapsed around the time of the destruction of the Temple of Mercury Canetonensis. Rome's control of what is now northern France and the Rhineland in Germany remained tenuous until the Western Roman Empire finally expired in 476.

This was the age of "hoards," stashes of precious objects or gold and silver coins, hurriedly buried as barbarians or mutinous legions rampaged across the landscape. Many of the owners did not live to reclaim their buried treasures

The ISAW includes a number of surviving artifacts which have come to light over the years, along with the Berthouville Treasure. These include the "Patera of Rennes," a spectacular golden plate decorated with mythological characters and coins of Roman emperors. This was found in Brittany where many British Celts fled to escape the invading Saxons during the fifth and sixth centuries.

Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins, "Patera of Rennes." ca. 210 CE

Fished from the Rhone River, a similar plate, made of silver, shows a scene from the Iliad much like the ones on the silver pitchers dedicated by Quintus Domitius Tutus

Plate with the Embassy to Achilles (The Shield of Scipio), 375–400 CE

Amazingly, this impressive silver plate dates to the years 375–400. This was almost four centuries after the works bequeathed by Tutus were created. Even as vast geopolitical forces reshaped their world, the people of the Roman Empire clung to the old "favorites," motifs from the classical past, when commissioning new works of art. 

This Plate with the Embassy to Achilles and the treasures from Berthouville would seem to confirm the French saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

Actually, the true significance of the Berthouville Treasure is the very opposite of this oft-quoted remark. The Berthouville Treasure points to monumental change. These precious objects testify to the fusing together of Celtic culture with the Classical civilization of the Mediterranean world to form the foundation of a new, dynamic political state. 

If all the roads of Imperial Rome terminated at the Milliarium Aureum, the Berthouville Treasure marks the spot where the nation of France began.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University and Anne Lloyd.

Introductory image:                                                                                                          Cup with Centaurs and Cupids. Roman, 1–100 CE. Findspot: Berthouville, France. Silver and gold: H. 11.7 cm; W. 26.8 cm; D. 17.4 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris: Inv. 56.7.  Photo: Tahnee Cracchiola © Getty-BnF. Inscribed: “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO ” (To Augustan Mercury, Quintus Domitius Tutus in fulfillment of a vow)     

Anne Lloyd , Photo (2018) Gallery view of the exhibition at the Institute for the Study  of the Ancient World, NYC, showing the Statuette of Mercury from the Berthouville Treasure. Photo taken with the special permission of the ISAW.

Bowl with a Medallion Depicting Omphale. Roman, 1–100 CE. Findspot: Berthouville, France. Silver and gold: H. 8.2 cm; Diam. 28.9 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris: Inv. 56.11. Photo: Tahnee Cracchiola © Getty-BnF. Inscribed: “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO ” (To Augustan Mercury, Quintus Domitius Tutus in fulfillment of a vow)

Statuette of Mercury. Roman, 175–225 CE.Findspot: Berthouville, France. Silver and gold:  H. 56.3 cm; Diam. 16 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris: Inv. 56.1. Photo: Tahnee Cracchiola © Getty-BnF.

Pitcher with Scenes from the Trojan War of Achilles and Eight Greek Warriors Weeping over the Body of Patroclus, Priam’s Embassy to Ransom Hector’s Body, and Episodes from the Life of Achilles.  Roman, 1–100 CE. Findspot: Berthouville, France.  Silver and gold: H. 29.9 cm; W. 14.5; Circumference. 42 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris: Inv. 56.4. Photo: Tahnee Cracchiola © Getty-BnF. Inscribed: “MERCVRIO AVGVSTO Q DOMITIVS TVTVS EX VOTO”. (To Augustan Mercury, Quintus Domitius Tutus in fulfillment of a vow)

Anne Lloyd , Photo (2018) Pitcher with Scenes from the Trojan War with Achilles and Eight Greek Warriors Weeping over the Body of Patroclus, Priam’s Embassy to Ransom Hector’s Body, and Episodes from the Life of Achilles. Photo taken with the special persmission of the ISAW.

Anne Lloyd , Photo (2018) Pitcher with Scenes from the Trojan War, showing  Priam’s Embassy to Ransom Hector’s Body (Detail). Photo taken with the special permission of the ISAW.

Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins, "Patera of Rennes." Roman, ca. 210 CE. Findspot: Rennes-le-Château, France. Gold: H. 4 cm; Diam. 25 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris: Inv. 56.94.

Plate with the Embassy to Achilles (The Shield of Scipio). Roman, 375–400 CE. Findspot: In the Rhône, near Avignon, France.  Silver and gold: Diameter. 71 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris: Inv. 56.344. Photo: © BnF 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Barnes Foundation. Philadelphia

Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia 
October 21, 2018 - January 14, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd

Art criticism is a notably risky business. Albert Wolff, one of the leading critics of nineteenth century France, permanently damaged his reputation by one infamous review. On the pages of Le Figaro in 1876, Wolff denounced the art exhibition of "five or six lunatics, one of whom is a woman."

The "lunatics" were the Impressionist painters and the woman was Berthe Morisot. A splendid exhibition of Morisot's paintings is now on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist is a joint project of several museums: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris - and the Barnes Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)  Curators of the Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist exhibition. From left: Nicole R. Myers, Dallas Museum of Art, Sylvie Patry, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Cindy Kang of the Barnes Foundation.

This long-overdue retrospective is brilliantly organized to present Morisot in all aspects of her creative genius: Impressionist, woman artist and pioneer of Modernism.

Albert Wolff, by comparison, is all but forgotten except for his notorious comments. Yet, it is worth "giving the devil his due" and revisit Wolff's article. He was clearly impressed with Morisot and caught something of the emotional forces which impelled her quest for artistic  success.

"There is also a woman in the group, as is the case with all famous gangs," Wolff wrote. "Her name is Berthe Morisot, and she is interesting to behold. In her, feminine grace is preserved amidst the frenzy of a mind in delirium."

"Frenzy" and "delirium" were wide of the mark as descriptors for Berthe Morisot. Yet Wolff intuitively grasped Morisot's artistic zeal. She boldly - if quietly - explored  the limits of objective, observable reality. Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist might just as well have been entitled Berthe Morisot, Modern Artist.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist

The array of art works on display at the Barnes reveals Morisot to have been one of the most daring and experimental of the Impressionists. Over seventy of Morisot's paintings have been placed on display in this, the first major U.S. exhibition of her work since 1987 and the first in France since 1941!

Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist follows the basic chronology of Morisot's life, but is also structured to enable visitors to grasp the themes which preoccupied her as an artist. 

The exhibition has much to show about Morisot as a woman and as a woman artist. Many of her paintings take place in "threshold" places, windows, balconies, doorways and verandas. The women and girls are poised to go beyond the home boundaries in these paintings, just as women in the the late 1800's began the campaign for female suffrage and a role in the male-dominated professions. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Interior, 1872

Many of Morisot's female protagonists seem pensive and melancholy, as if aware of the emotional price to be paid for reaching beyond the age-old confines of a "woman's" role. The aptly-named Interior, painted in 1872, is a notable example of the theme of Morisot and the modern woman on the threshold.

Some of Morisot's concerns, such as the need to document women as members of the work force or engaged in domestic chores, need to be interpreted in the light the nascent feminism of the nineteenth century.

Morisot, especially early in her career, "appears" to remain focused on the traditional social duties of women, motherhood and "keeping up appearances." Yet appearances were deceiving. There was so much more to Morisot's artistic vision, in contradiction to what was expected of a woman artist.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Serving Girl,1886

By the time Morisot died, aged 54, in 1895, she had erased almost all details of the fashionable world from her paintings. Clothing styles, ornamentation, the surrounding milieu vanished, with only the human essence of her sitters remaining on the canvas.

This is not a posthumous twenty-first century assessment, no revisionist recalibration of her Impressionist achievement. Morisot's fellow Impressionists - Renoir particularly - were in awe of her talent. And so were critics not blinded by prejudice or male vanity.

 "No one represents impressionism with a more refined talent and more authority than Mme Morisot," Gustave Geoffroy wrote in 1881. 

Berthe Morisot began her career in the company of her elder sister, Edma (1839-1921). Both young women were extremely talented and were supported by their parents in their artistic ambitions. This consideration, exceptional for a family of the haute bourgeoisie, was predicated on eventual marriage for their daughters.

That is exactly what destiny had in store for Edma. She and Berthe studied with a private art tutor and briefly with Corot. Edma's 1865 portrait of Berthe demonstrated both her skill and traditionalist oeuvre. Had she continued with her art, Edma would likely have to follow Corot's lead. In 1869, however, Edma married a naval officer in 1869 and abandoned plans for an artistic career.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Edma Pontillon's Berthe Morisot, c.1865

For Berthe, Edma's portrait represented the road not taken. From the start, as Corot realized, Berthe was a more restless spirit. But why did she join the fledgling Impressionist movement?

Thanks to family connections, Berthe Morisot was introduced to a wide circle of rising artists. Her meeting with Édouard Manet was obviously of crucial importance. Manet painted Morisot several times and his elan in pressing forward with his unique vision of art served an an example for her own efforts. But Manet did little in practical terms to encourage Morisot professionally. 

Morisot was also close to the Symbolist painter, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898).  who warned her against challenging the art establishment of France. Yet she did not heed his advice nor was she influenced by his allegorical style.

Instead, Morisot surveyed the work of rising artists and found her inspiration in a key work by Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870), View of the Village, 1868. This work, one of the masterpieces of early Impressionism, was featured in a recent National Gallery exhibition on Bazille.

Morisot was fond of the tall, generous painter from southern France. "Big" Bazille, as she called him, painted a simple, naturalistic depiction of a young girl sitting on a hill overlooking a valley near his home in Montpellier. What sounds like a banal, unremarkable work was actually a perfect example of a "figure en plein air.”

 Morisot was tremendously impressed with View of the Village. Bazille explored the psychological depths of an "ordinary" person in the setting of her daily life. Morisot responded with several similar paintings set in coastal towns of Brittany. But Morisot did not hit her stride with plein air works until after Bazille's death in the Franco-Prussian War. 

Berthe Morisot, Reading (the Green Umbrella),1873

Two  en plein air paintings by Morisot exemplify how she responded to the inspiration she found in Bazille's View of the Village. Her sister Edma appears in Reading (1873) and again, with her young daughter Jeanne, in Hide and Seek, also painted the same year. These are deceptively simple works, each with subtle touches which note the brevity and preciousness of time.

While Edma is perfectly at ease - or appears to be - with her book, a farm cart trundles by in the distance. This work-a-day image, like the numerous factory smoke stacks which appear in  many Impressionist paintings, reminds the viewer that labor does not cease, even when we pause to relax.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Hide and Seek, 1873

Nor does time stand still - though many would think so from a superficial reading  of Impressionist painting, including works by Morisot. In Hide and Seek, mother and child playfully romp around a sapling tree which will grow, bear fruit and, in time, wither with age. So will young Jeanne. So do all human beings.

The date of these paintings is hugely significant, 1873, the year before the first Impressionist salon. Morisot played an important role in this pivotal event. She did so, however, as mature, fully-formed artist rather than as an acolyte to an established master. Indeed, one may say that she responded to Bazille's work because he embraced spontaneity and personal inclination.

"Every day I pray that the Good Lord will make me like a child," Morisot wrote."That is to say, that He will make me see nature and render it the way a child would, without preconceptions." 

Morisot brought no "preconceptions" to the first Impressionist Salon of 1874. She did bring outstanding examples of her creativity, including Hide and Seek and her most famous painting, The Cradle.

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle,1872

Morisot's The Cradle is a tremendously accomplished and appealing work. It recalls the sensitive portraits of young women painted by her teacher, Corot, which are currently on view in an excellent exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. The painting's theme, motherhood, was one of the traditional standards of Western art, the modeling of the figure was superb (note the exquisite treatment of the fingers holding the veil) and the delicate tracing of the sleeping infant's eyelids is just short of miraculous.

Despite this litany of superlatives, The Cradle did not sell at the Impressionist Salon of 1874. It was Morisot's lot to struggle, just as her male Impressionist colleagues did. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Mr. M(anet) and His Daughter, 1883

Thanks to the emotional support of her husband, Eugene Manet, brother of Édouard, and family financial resources, Morisot never had to fear bill collectors. Yet she faced ceaseless frustration, much of it due to her own exacting standards. Morisot referred to her dissatisfaction with her work as my "mania for lamentation."

 Morisot's nephew, the poet Paul Valéry, noted perceptively:

As for her personal character, it is well known that it was rare and reserved; distinction was of her essence; she could be unaffectedly and dangerously silent and create without knowing it a baffling distance between herself and all who approached her, unless they were among the first artists of her time.

Morisot resolved her "mania" through experimentation. Over and over again in the exhibition were see brush strokes and paint-handling on one canvas, so different from a nearby work that we would have to assume that it was by a different artist.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Berthe Morisot's Mr. M(anet) and His Daughter

In the portrait of her husband and daughter sitting in the garden, Morisot used countless flecks of color. John Constable had used the same technique, half a century earlier, to the incredulity of critics who derided it as "snow." Morisot and Constable both appreciated this approach to capturing the effect of reflected light - and so will you when you study this amazing painting and similar works at the Barnes.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Berthe Morisot's The Milk Jug, 1890

By contrast, Morisot utilized flowing, liquid brush strokes in her depictions of women and children at work. Quite a number of the works on view in the Barnes exhibit are from private collections and one, showing a little farm girl carrying a bowl of milk, beautifully reveals Morisot's painterly treatment of bodies in motion.

Later in career, Morisot painted on pieces of unprimed canvas. Édouard Manet had done so earlier and Morisot borrowed this radical innovation, using it to brilliant effect. She placed bold, "sketchy"  strokes to give the elemental form or framework or her subject and them concentrated on the essentials, as in the face of the sitter in Young Girl with a Vase. This astonishing work is another of the private collection loans which make Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist a tour de force exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Young Girl with a Vase, 1889

Morisot exhibited in seven of the eight Impressionist Salons. In his review of the final exhibition in 1886, the critic Jean Ajalbet noted the radical manner in which Morisot had reduced all externals to what was crucial in understanding her subject.

 “She eliminates cumbersome epithets and heavy adverbs in her terse sentence,"  Ajalbert wrote of Morisot's daring simplicity. "Everything is subject and verb."

Ajalbert's brilliant assessment was absolutely correct and the evidence to justify his assertion is evident in every work on view in the outstanding exhibition now at the Barnes Foundation. 

Berthe Morisot, no less than Manet, Degas, Cezanne and the rest of the Impressionist "lunatics", made a vital, unique contribution to creating the language of Modern Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Barnes Foundation and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Berthe Morisot (French, 1841‐1895) Self‐Portrait, 1885. Oil on canvas: 61 x 50 cm (24 x 19 11/16 in.) Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. CMR 169

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Curators of the Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist exhibition. From left: Nicole R. Myers, Dallas Museum of Art, Sylvie Patry, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and Cindy Kang of the Barnes Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Interior, 1872. Oil on canvas: 60 x 73 cm (23 5/8 x 28 3/4 in.) Diane B. Wilsey. CMR 26

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Serving Girl,1886. Oil on canvas: 71 x 44 cm (27 15/16 x 17 5/16 in.) Private collection, courtesy of Pyms Gallery, London CMR 199

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Edma Pontillon's Berthe Morisot, c.1865. Oil on canvas: 100 x 71 cm. (39 3/8 x 27 15/16 in.) Private collection.

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841‐1895) Reading (the Green Umbrella),1873. Oil on canvas: 46 x 71.8 cm (18 1/16 x 28 1/4 in.) The Cleveland Museum of Art Gift of the Hanna Fund. CMR 14

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Hide and Seek, 1873. Oil on canvas: 45 x 55 cm (17 11/16 x 21 5/8 in.) Private collection. CMR 27.

Berthe Morisot (French, 1841‐1895) The Cradle,1872Oil on canvas: Oil on canvas: 56 x 46 cm (22 1/16 x 18 1/8 in.) Musée d’Orsay, Paris. CMR 25

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Mr. M(anet) and His Daughter, 1883.  Oil on canvas: 60 x 73 cm (23 5/8 x 28 3/4 in.) Private collection. CMR 138,

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Berthe Morisot's Mr. M(anet) and His Daughter.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Berthe Morisot's The Milk Jug, 1890. Oil on canvas: 45 x 55 cm (17 11/16 x 21 5/8 in.) Private collection. CMR 27

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Berthe Morisot's Young Girl with a Vase, 1889. Oil on canvas: 81 x 100 cm (31 7/8 x 39 3/8 in.) Private collection. CMR 246