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.
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.
After doing two in gouache, there wasn't much time, so I did one fast, small watercolor just to have the day in my journal as well. I was missing line and wanted to play with my green ink a little too. The two gouaches are on freestanding Kraft brown paper. It's always fun to sketch Elizabeth in her nifty sketching hat.
The weather has been delicious for getting out and sketching lately. Memphis Urban Sketchers met at Elmwood, the historic cemetery in Memphis, which is one of my favorite places to go. I love the enormous magnolias paired with the angels and upright monuments. And then the Memphis Urban Sketchers exhibition started at Dixon, so for a third time, I have art in that beautiful museum. I went to check it out and see the large show of the usually in storage permanent collection there (they have much more than they can show regularly and still have traveling exhibit space). Of course I had to sketch While I was there. I’m always drawn to Ceres. I just can’t resist her graceful curves. And the tulips are fabulous right now.
My friend Melanie was visiting from France, and a huge part of Memphis history is the civil rights movement. The National Civil Rights Museum is a powerful and beautifully designed trip through that period. Last time I went through it had been redone, and I just digested it. This time I found myself wanting to sketch and bear a little witness to the brave people it celebrates. I worked in fountain pen with a brush pen that had a very light gray wash in it.
I think I need to go back again. I was still pretty overwhelmed at the whole experience and didn’t manage to sketch in the old Lorraine Motel section, the last part of the museum. I’d like to go on a quiet day when I wouldn’t be in the way and focus on that sometime.
A marvelous small gallery in Paris specializing in works on paper (always a fast way to my heart) has a marvelous exhibition of up American mid century prints. They had a fabulous selection. I’m a huge fan of Jim Dine, and I loved the pair of enormous etchings (enormous for etchings, anyway — there were plenty of even larger prints in the show), both from the same plate, with a number of extra brushes added in between printings. I love the way you simply draw into a plate and can change it so radically like that. For the prints I do, once you cut something away, it’s just gone. This is like magic to me. The other thing I totally loved about the Dine pieces is that he had two also enormous prints of his bathrobe that he titled self portraits. I have a profound relationship with my own favorite bathrobes (both winter and summer), and this was genius to me.
My 20th century art knowledge is considerably less than what I know about various other, earlier periods of art history, so I was unacquainted with Rauschenberg’s “Stoned Moon” series, done in the 60’s and based on the Apollo missions. I was blown away and will have to do more research into them. Rauschenberg, Dine, and Jasper Johns were all painters who got into printmaking by collaborating with print shops that could offer their expertise and large equipment and assistants to help these artists. I felt the same relief on learning that tibit that I felt when I learned that those exquisite floating world Japanese printmakers largely worked in watercolor and then had professionals to both carve and print for them. I feel like my work is clunky next to some of the professional printmakers out there, but doing it all by hand myself is satisfying. It may not be as perfect, but it is fully mine.
I saw other, more contemporary printmakers that I would like to learn more about, including Al Taylor, whose “Hanging Puddles” charmed me. I did a small study of it, and I also did one of Wayne Thiebaud’s exquisite sugared aquatint “Candied Apples.” The sugar technique adds a gorgeous texture in person. I’ve loved Thiebaud since college, and it was fun to see a couple of his prints in person.
These were all I managed to sketch on my first visit, but I think I may well have to go and see this show a second time before leaving Paris. I walked home feeling inspired to make more art, which is always the sign of an excellent show for me.
I was so inspired I did two pieces before I even got home. I started with one page in my smallest journal of the abstract sculpture by the Solferino metro station. This was what I had hoped. I kept the watercolor to a light wash and then mixed graphite and ink (the heavier tree branches) for the foreground. It was uncharacteristic restraint for me, and I was excited.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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