The Woman Impressionist

Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-1880, by Berthe Morisot. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY)
A show in Dallas presents a wondrous, comprehensive selection of Berthe Morisot’s work — and is just one of many stunning exhibits in the area.

‘Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist” is the beautiful and overdue retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art. Morisot (1841–1895) was one of the founders of the Impressionism movement when it was a bleeding-edge collection of mostly outsider artists. She consistently showed work in the Impressionist salons, or exhibitions of new, offbeat art unflavored in the official Salon, between the first in 1874 and the last in 1886, missing only one and consistently getting good reviews.

All the Impressionists were viewed suspiciously as eccentric, experimental, destabilizing, and on a planet far from the world of official taste. Some critics from highbrow art journals of record felt they were lunatics. Only critics with future-oriented taste and a feel for adventure responded well.

What was Impressionism in Morisot’s time? Impressionism is the impulse to paint scenes from everyday life, not history or biblical or narrative subjects, using a free application of paint to evoke immediacy in moment and the artist’s response. Natural light and its effects were central. A light palette reinforced freshness and sensuality. Each of the Impressionist regulars, among them Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Morisot, has different priorities. The show in Dallas presents a wondrous, comprehensive selection of her work alone, allowing her point of view to reign supreme.

Of the big Impressionist players, Morisot was the most informal and intimate. Her pictures are smaller, her subjects mostly women and landscapes, and her handling of paint so free and conceptual that whether a painting is finished or unfinished is often a question. It’s never a decisive one, though, in the fascination this painting or that inspired in me. She is the most abstract of the Impressionists, often composing a solid, fleshy, warm figure with a few brushstrokes, large and small, perfectly placed in pure color. Like all the Impressionists, she doesn’t emphasize the subject at the expense of backdrop. She distributes her painterly attentions with unusual evenness. If this prioritizes anything, it’s her fluency with paint and color.

Morisot has an architect’s vision of space. I loved the generous section of figures set by windows and thresholds. In England, from 1875, is one of them. These in-and-out spatial arrangements are enormously difficult and cryptic, more so when a figure is plopped in the middle. She balances the ephemeral and the transitory on the one hand with the physical and stationary. Her subjects themselves are the most prosaic. There are no grand boulevards, flaneurs in top hats, massive cliffs, crashing waves, or belching trains. Her spaces are modest passages of land and beach, tiny gardens, and domestic interiors. She is a painter’s painter. Big social, economic, or political issues are rare. It’s a brilliant move on the part of the curators. They’ve done an Impressionism show on the sheer beauty, fluency, and newness of Impressionism.

The lushness of Woman at Her Toilette from the late 1870s, each inch a free form but disciplined field of paint, shows Morisot at her best. Her minimalist self portrait from 1885 is a fascinating amalgam. It’s got the stateliness and hauteur that made me think of the best bust portraits David did late in life, and their directness, but also an electric shock of the Modernist-art liberation movement. It’s that contemporary in feeling. Lesson in the Garden from 1886 is about as good an example of Impressionism at its best that I’ve seen. It arouses all the senses, and after a few minutes I could smell the garden, feel the warmth of the air, and savor the feel of cool, dewy grass on my feet.

In the 1890s, her best work has a dreamy distance the show suggests was inspired by the new Symbolist movement. That might be true. She died suddenly, so we don’t know where she was going. This gallery seemed a tiny bit impaired by an overabundance of work. At points in the show, some subjects, mostly figures of young girls, seemed duplicative and dilutive.

It’s an important show for many reasons, drawing deserved attention to Morisot, who, by the way, was not the only Impressionist exhibitor to get a delayed or muted critical push in the ditch. The show sometimes, too often, assumes the whiny tone of the professional victimologist. Morisot has waxed and waned for many reasons, among them her gender but also her subject matter and her focus on concerns relevant to artists more than to social scientists. I’d accept the tone as a marketing gimmick were it not for its dogged persistence and its prominence in the beautiful and otherwise deeply informative and well-written catalogue. Make the point once. She was a woman in a man’s world. That had consequences. We get it. Doing it over and over devalues her and probably would irritate her greatly.

On a broader front, the museum scene in Dallas and Fort Worth is nothing short of amazing. The two cities are very different, but form part of a single metro area that will overtake Chicago soon as the country’s third biggest. I’ve followed the arts scene here for years. It’s a shining star of America’s cultural richness.

Texans have always supported the arts. They take enormous civic pride in what their collectors and donors have assembled. The public is blessed. It’s not just the Dallas Museum of Art, with a very fine collection and ambitious programs. The Meadows Museum is the art gallery on the campus of Southern Methodist University. It’s devoted to the art of the Hispanic world. The collection is focused but gorgeous, and its exhibitions are intelligent and inventive. It does international collaborations on the scale and ambition of our grandest museums. It’s a stellar example of an overlooked truth: you don’t need great riches to do good programs. Savvy and energy do fine.

Ray Nasher made his fortune in Dallas and became the best American collector of modern sculpture. He was from Boston. He told me once that as a young man in the 1940s he understood that an energetic and talented worker could best make a life’s work and lots of money in Southern California, Texas, or Florida. He chose Dallas. His collection of superb art now belongs to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Like the Meadows, it’s a perfect small museum.

Nasher and Ruth Carter Stevenson from Fort Worth were two of my favorite collectors. They had natural good taste and lots of money — truly unusual combinations — but cultivated the eye and knowledge of the very best curators. Ruth Stevenson’s father, Amon Carter, published the Fort Worth newspaper and assembled a good collection of what I call cowboy art. I’m not denigrating Remington or Russell, fine artists, and look at these things as I would look at collections of paintings of dogs and horses gathered by British aristocrats. A niche, I know, but the best ones are very, very good and compelling things.

The foundation of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth was the cowboy art, but under Ruth Stevenson’s leadership the place transitioned to a comprehensive museum of American art. It has many of the best American things as well as a great photography collection started before American photography became chic and expensive. Like Ray Nasher, Ruth knew the work in the collection, loved it as only a connoisseur could, and took great pride in opening a museum serving Fort Worth and the American arts community. The museum has a nice Philip Johnson building that’s now under partial renovation but still open.

Across a park from the Amon Carter is the Kimbell Art Museum, another unique endeavor showing what spirit, money, and taste can achieve. The Kimbells were a local family with a fortune and a dream in the 1960s to establish afresh a new gallery in Fort Worth, then a small city, showing the best of the best.

The collection and the museum are small. Every time I’m there, I have an otherworldly feeling, since the finest paintings by Caravaggio, Matisse, Picasso, Manet, Turner, Goya, David, Rembrandt, and others among art’s megastars have no relation to each other and no reason to be together — except for the ambition and beneficence of one family buying them for Fort Worth. The original building, designed by Louis Kahn, is a dream. An adjacent, new building designed by Renzo Piano is good, too. The Piano building was initially controversial — don’t mess with Texas, but don’t mess with perfection — but it works harmoniously with the Kahn building.

The Amon Carter does topical and clever special shows. Years ago, the Kimbell did, too, then stopped for a while, and now does again. These were generally Old Master shows on focused, challenging subjects, often connoisseur shows, borrowing things from all over the world. Smart art people, dealers and collectors with the best taste, often traveled to Fort Worth simply to see them. The museum changed its philosophy — I think the family felt the shows were too specialized — in favor of a long string of treasures shows from big museums in international capitals. The place lost its scholarly zip, its elan, and its unique cowboy chic. In the last few years, it has recovered these features, now even more unusual given the general museum trend in America toward safe, boring shows. A special show on the work of Bernardo Bellotto in Dresden is surely perfection. On this trip to Texas, I focused on Dallas. My own small personal tragedy on this trip is I did not have the day to go to Fort Worth.

Next to the Kimbell is Fort Worth’s Museum of Modern Art, again, a distinguished, gorgeous building. I saw the building right after it opened. It was designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando before Ando was famous. I’d never seen poured concrete used as a primary material. Concrete, to me, was a Brutalist material with much in its favor, but supple elegance did not spring to mind. Ando’s concrete has the texture and variousness of a Helen Frankenthaler painting, smooth as silk with dreamy, meandering, monochromatic gray forms on every surface. The collection is decent and growing. I don’t think of it as a player on the contemporary art scene, and I wonder why that is the case. I’d come over and over to see the building and gallery spaces.

Dallas and Fort Worth will soon, if not now, rival European cities like Milan, Frankfurt, and Barcelona, not capitals but brimming with distinctive energy and stunning, eclectic art. And they have the money to grow a heritage that might be new but shows every promise. The Morisot show is one more example of a region putting itself in the center of serious museum thinking and impressive art showmanship.


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