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Berthe Morisot--heavyweight Impressionist

September 20, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Good point. But maybe one reason the fates held Morisot back until now was to allow time for the exquisite shadings of modern art to sink in. One of the best paintings here is the airy white polka-dotted "Two Women." Morisot started it in 1869 and went back to it until '75. It must have meant something to her. It shows the same woman twice in two poses. We wouldn't see anything seriously like it until the 1960s, when Larry Rivers did similar repetitions. The effect is twofold. The double pose says that the figure is just a motif and the artist was concerned mainly with art for its own sake. Paradoxically it also jerks time and space in a contemporary way, suggesting almost surrealistically the symbolic representation of someone alienated from herself.

Surrealism? Symbolism? Gimme a break. Morisot liked to paint what she saw, that's all.

Right. But in the meantime aesthetics have become concerned with a relationship between art and language. These pictures were all painted in French, a tongue famous for combining spirited simplicity with the most delicately nuanced shades of meaning. It is hard to decide if it is more fun to just look at these wonderful paintings or enjoy their poetic seepage. It's not a problem. You have to do both.

Morisot's quintessential subject was a seated woman. That can be the most ordinary academic motif for having something to paint but she got more out of it. She captured feminine reverie, the lurking ennui, the sulk, the slightly puzzled look of someone about to have an epiphany while sitting in the garden in the sun, the girl going to the opera in a black gown and realizing she is a knockout. The paintings are never languid because Morisot is so closely identified with them, with her high-strung brush work and a sensuality so ecstatic it is like a domesticated form of Expressionism. Sometimes she borders on being Toulouse-Lautrec or Edvard Munch.

It's a strange delight to add to one's list of favorite paintings after a lifetime of looking. "The Bath" shows a young girl arranging her hair. It combines loose painting and strong drawing so it looks utterly informal. We have just walked in on the girl in her chemise as she is about to realize she is a woman. She is pleased but a little scared. "Woman at Her Toilet" gives us a back like you see nowhere out of Watteau (a lot of Rococo lives in Morisot) but where Watteau's backs are filled with the poignancy of missed opportunity, Morisot's is so gracefully sexy it is self-fulfilling. Morisot was a worrier. Her main concern was that her art was no good. When she painted a harbor she worried because the boats moved around so much that nobody could capture them, but bustle is exactly what she paints. Her watercolor and pastel landscapes are so keyed up we can feel her nervous delight in nature, her witty response to quacking ducks. She painted everything as a continuum. Her women and their surroundings are parts of one another.

As years went by she worried that she and her husband were aging too fast. She was right. Eugene Manet died just two years before her, at 59. She had drawn herself wide-eyed with shock at the ravages of age on her face. Her brushwork began to thicken, and work took on an edge of expressionist allegory like that of her early suitor, Puvis de Chavannes. A painting of girls picking cherries has marked symbolic overtones. She painted Julie often in her last years. The final picture on view shows her daughter playing the violin. It should be tender but it is spectral like Munch's old-age self-portrait, "Between the Clock and the Bed." Lightweight art is not supposed to deal with tough truths but here the beautiful daughter of the aging beautiful mother is seen with the realization that she is both her mother's immortality and her death.

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