I have a new art hero. The Orsay had a solo retrospective of Berthe Morisot while I was there, and I was transfixed. I’ve always been drawn to her paintings when I’ve seen them, but (unlike so many of the other Impressionist painters who seem to be ubiquitous), there just aren’t that many out there in museums. A telling fact in this show was that fully half the paintings were in private collections, which was a shocking percentage. What it means is that museums weren’t collecting her when they were eagerly buying up works by her male peers. Monet is in a category all his own for me — he invented a new way of painting, and while all artists (especially prolific ones) produce some uneven paintings, every period of his work is fully realized and exquisite, which is not something you can say about all artists. Even great ones. But I feel that Morisot holds her own with any of the other Impressionists and more than outdoes some of them.
I spent a lot of the show tearing up, frankly. It was amazing to read that she began showing at the Salon, the pinnacle of the French art establishment, at the age of 33 and continued to do so for a decade, barring one year when they rejected both her submitted works. I kind of doubt it’s a coincidence that that year was the same year she also showed in the very first Impresssionist show (called the New Painting). She exhibited with that group as well for all eight years of their organized shows. She participated with them against the advice of male painter friends, including Manet. She knew what she wanted for herself, and she went for it. She also continued painting under her own name even after her marriage to Manet’s brother. I have to think it would have been advantageous for her to assume that well known name, but she wanted to paint under her own name on her own terms.
Morisot was written off by many for painting mostly domestic scenes, much like her contemporary Mary Cassatt. But Degas painted a ton of interiors and women at their own daily lives scenes and never got downgraded for it. Even more, Vuillard made a career of interior, domestic scenes, but it’s ok if you’re a man. Morisot’s work reminded me of Vuillard and the Nabis as well as of the other Impressionists. Both groups of artists looked at Japanese prints and worked on compositions echoed the flat picture plane of those prints. Vuillard and Morisot both went further and echoed a lot of the surface pattern found in many of the prints. Look at this fragment by Vuillard on the left (it’s part of a huge piece, so I couldn’t get it all) and a very early portrait of two sisters by Morisot. I’m also adding a second, very typical Vuillard that has both the sense of pattern and the domestic interior theme.
Morisot subverted the domestic conventions, though. She painted women at work, even if it was the domestic work in her home and in her circle. These women have more dignity and power than many of the other Impressionist paintings of women at work in cabaret settings, where they were often victimized by men. She also painted her husband and her daughter repeatedly. In a striking role reversal, these pieces show her husband entertaining and caring for their daughter while she is the one at work. It was a quietly revolutionary act.
Her self portrait as an artist, holding her palette and looking out at the viewer full of self confidence, moved me greatly. I did a small sketch of it in my journal. I couldn’t catch the likeness, but it was good to spend that time looking deeply. I also enjoyed studying the way she used paint. One contemporary art critic called her “the angel of the incomplete.” Her brushwork depicts objects with a spare, graceful economy of paint. She catches the essence of things quickly without overworking, and she uses the bare canvas in bold and radical ways. Apparently not everyone understood this, and that very boldness was denigrated as feminine tentativeness and indecision. Some thought she was afraid or unable to push her pieces across the finish line. But she knew exactly what she wanted from each canvas and didn’t feel the need to keep working to appease some outside sense of what a painting should look like. She said what she wanted to, and she left it to stand.
I especially loved the paintings of her daughter Julie. These late ones have an almost Munch-like feel to them to me. Morisot nursed Julie through influenza before dying of it herself, far too young. I would have loved to see where her art took her next. Please excuse the glare on these shots. They’re all just my camera phone as I passed through the exhibit, but I wanted to show you some of the pieces I saw and let you get a taste of the show.
I had such a good time being back at the Rodin Museum the other day that I returned today. It’s my last couple of days here, and I’m spending them in my favorite museums. I started off at the Orsay and then went over to the Rodin for tea in the garden with my lunch and more sketching. This place always fires me up. I did the top one in my big watercolor sketchbook. I felt like getting out a real brush and really playing. The rest are in my small 5.5” book with the water brush. I sketched my tea because I liked the cute little teapot.
Last was the gray pencil again with watercolor. It’s a fun place to try a bunch of new things, and I really love drawing Rodin’s statues.
I feel like I’ve been neglecting my sketchbook this trip, since I’m working both on the still life show and also on a possible graphic essay about Paris that’s in a bigger watercolor book. So I’ve been trying to lock back in a little lately and do some sketches just for me. It always feels good to come home with a visual record of at least the lovely bits of a trip that I don’t want to forget. In that vein, I sketched at the Rodin Museum where I met my friend Mavis yesterday. It’s one of my favorite places in Paris, but I hadn’t made it there yet this year. We had a lovely catch up, sketched, had tea, and then I stayed a bit after and did more sketching. It’s hard for me to walk out of there having done only one. I’m saving the graphic essay images for later, but here are a couple I did in my journal.
I also went back for my favorite curry at Kapunka, got a sidewalk table a second time, and did another sketch.
Good memories in Paris seem to be a lot about eating. Here’s the galette stand at the Bastille Market.
I came to Paris with the intention of doing a series of gouache still lifes for my September show at Playhouse on the Square. (The opening is lucky Friday the 13th for anyone planning ahead.) I like the depth I can get with gouache, but I’m still learning how it works, and often I find myself thinking it was better two layers ago. I’m going to have to pay attention and try to keep from over fussing. Somewhere along the way, I did a couple of watercolor studies in my sketchbook as studies before doing the gouache, and I really liked the lightness and airy-ness of them. So I’ve ended up doing four watercolors for the show as well.
It’s easy to default into the familiar and comfortable, though, and there was a time when watercolor was incredibly hard going for me. It still is sometimes, but I’m glad I pushed through and got it into my regular tool kit. I gave up on gouache two summers ago and don’t want to do that again, but I am still struggling. I want to do some forest studies with it when I get home, and hopefully that will keep me excited about using it. You can see the two side by side here and decide foe yourself. I think the gouache needs a little more blue in the purple shadows. I’ve got a couple I’ll do a small bit of balancing/retouching on next time I get the paints out. Right now I’ve shifted gears a bit and am painting more out in the city again.
I’ve been doing gouache still lifes for my fall show while I’m here, and then I did a couple of watercolor studies for them in my sketchbook and really liked the looseness and light of the watercolors. I decided to do some free standing ones I can put in the show, so here are several from the last couple of days. I really liked the vanilla eclair above, both in sketch and in taste, even though the bakery lady had to correct how I asked for it in French. It turns out “vanille” is not that intuitive to pronounce, even though I had several years of French (well more that several years ago, however).
The macarons were what kicked this off, so I did a couple of them. They’re fun to play with in those bright colors. I need to look at all these, gouache plus watercolor, and figure out which ones I want to order frames for. I’ll put in an order this week so they’ll be built and ready for me to work on when I get home. Math work is looming too, to figure out the sizes. That may be this evening’s project so I can walk out and sketch more tomorrow.
The weekend was rainy, and I had a lovely time anyway. I went to the market to buy my favorite tomatoes, and then I had tea in my favorite cafe right next to it, which has a totally fun Art Deco mural inside. Just as I was finishing up, the heavens really opened, so I settled back in and did a second, quicker drawing.
I had a lovely, unhurried day yesterday. I painted all morning at the house, working on the still life show again (colored macarons are totally fun to paint!), and then I just walked out into the city and followed my nose for the afternoon and evening. I went into St. Eustache, which I’d walked past for years, and enjoyed doing two loose sketches in my bigger sketchbook there. I kept the palette super simple and just used French ultramarine blue and burnt umber, mixing all the grays from warm to cool between those colors.
Then I walked on to Ile de la Cite and found an adorable bicycle crepe stand, complete with stove going, at its tip. I got a crepe and sat on the bridge to eat it. By the time I’d finished, I wanted to sketch the view I’d been looking at.
I ended up having dinner at my very favorite place here, with the most delicious yellow curry you can imagine. I got a sidewalk table, drew as I ate, watched the world go by, and had three different people tell me “bon apetit!” as they walked past. Just lovely. I brought the rest home for my dinner tonight, catching the metro home after I’d finished. It was a lovely day.
I went to call on Notre Dame the other day. I had drawn and painted her so much in my early trips to this city, and watching the news about the fire really gutted me. I’m grateful it isn’t worse, and I’m also hoping more damage doesn’t come with further collapse. Recent news about lead poisoning have halted the work, and the summer heat took a toll on the already damaged building. There is scaffolding holding up all the flying buttresses, and the nave windows, except the huge rose ones, are gone. I think they’ve been removed instead of all of them damaged, at least I hope so. It’s disconcerting to look through the side of the nave and see sky. I walked all around, up the north side just along the church and then over the Ile St. Louis, where I did this sketch, and then on around the south side looking from the Left Bank. I process things, and also look more closely, by drawing, so here is my sketch, which tends to fall into the recent category of “reportage sketching.” I’m also adding a couple of photos below once I got around to the south side and a little closer, for anyone wanting a better look at how things stand now.
It’s been raining some here, keeping the weather thankfully cool and giving me a chance to do some painting indoors. I went to two big flea markets I love over the weekend, but I also came home after each one and did a small painting or two. Here are the still life ones. I’m very happy with the Mille feulle one, and pretty happy with the peach. At the bottom is the Cherokee purple tomato. My oil at home of several of those is my favorite of all the still lifes I’ve done so far, but this gouache totally bombed. I got it way overworked, and I don’t think the composition was that strong to begin with. I also struggled with the teapot one and walked away, but I may go back into that one again and see if I can spruce it up just a bit. A couple of artists I really admire on fb sent me encouraging words about that one.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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