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Berthe Morisot--heavyweight Impressionist

September 20, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

WASHINGTON — Where did we ever get the idea Berthe Morisot was a lightweight? For that matter, where did we get the idea that lightweight nimbleness, subtlety and flex are bad things? Think about Sugar Ray Leonard gliding over the ring or Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Think about Stephane Mallarme evoking deep boredom with a line as simple as "Flesh is sad, alas, and I've read all the books."

It was probably Mallarme who described Morisot's brush strokes as resembling flurries of flower petals falling. They were friends for years. But there is still the question of our false impression of this Impressionist.

The easy answer is that there has never been a major retrospective of her work in this country. That gap is currently being filled by the National Gallery in a survey of some 110 paintings, drawings, pastels and watercolors assembled in cooperation with the Mount Holyoke College art museum. On view here to Nov. 29, the exhibition will not travel to California but will go to Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum in December. Even people who thought they knew all about Impressionism will make the pilgrimage. It isn't often we get a brand new take on a subject so beloved it has grown almost too familiar. Seeing this show is like falling in love with your wife all over again.

Berthe Morisot, who died untimely in 1895 at age 54, is always included in the long list of Impressionist pioneers. She was the only member of this loose network of revolutionary artists who participated in all eight of their epochal group exhibitions and the only Frenchwoman in the gang. Hearing that for the first time might create the impression that Morisot was some species of Gaelic Tom-Garcon Bohemian who liked to go drinking with the boys and have serial love affairs playing the village coquette. Wrong, she was neither the kittenish Marie Laurencin, the cigar-smoking George Sand nor Rosa Bonheur in drag with a six-shooter in her paint box.

She was the daughter of a proper civil servant permitted to take painting lessons along with her sister Edma despite the warning of an early teacher, Joseph Guichard, that the girls' natural gifts were so great they would probably become serious artists, "It will be revolutionary--I would almost say catastrophic--in your high bourgeois milieu."

Edma's career piddled out after she married but Berthe persisted to become a friend and colleague of all the great Impressionists, especially Manet. She married his quiet brother Eugene and had one child, Julie, who turned out a beauty that might be played by Nastassja Kinski blended with Brooke Shields.

Berthe's own looks were so striking she lost valuable painting time posing repeatedly for Manet, Renoir and others. There is a curious ambiguity in the way artists represented her. In Manet's "The Balcony" she is a brooding femme fatale , a kind of young Patricia Neal. Alfred Stevens saw her as a bit too strong in the jaw for her tender expression, and a photograph makes her look a proper neurotic.

Whatever that means, she was a dedicated painter. She lived quietly, the kind of outwardly uneventful life characteristic of artists and correct wives.

The most outwardly dramatic events of her life were privations suffered by her family in the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870 and the following civil war. Shortages of food and fuel affected her health and, according to a catalogue essay by curator Charles Stuckey, contributed to her early death.

None of it shows in the painting, at least not overtly. She painted the woman's world of the day: domestic interiors, girlfriends strolling in the park, views of the city harbor, scenes at bourgeois resorts in a bright pale-blond pallette. She rarely painted men.

Something about the exhibition sets one thinking that perhaps the fates held this artist back from us until posterity was ready to appreciate her properly. The women's movement has created a climate where she will be taken seriously and appreciated as a maker of paintings about a woman's experience of life in those days. Curious the visitors at the National Gallery were mainly women and absolutely rapt, but then so was the boy clearly falling in love with the portrait of Julie and the old gent with the acoustiguide who hummed out loud.

Two paintings of 1879 show a pair of friends first sitting by the lake in the Bois de Boulogne then gathering flowers. The canvasses are as remarkable as the beginnings of the series by Monet. They feel strikingly modern like freeze frames from a movie, sensual as early Agnes Varda, as sensitive to women's friendships as "Entre Nous."

Wait. Morisot was as close to being the pure Impressionist as anybody in the crowd. The paintings were concerned with visual effects not psychological ones.

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