Saturday, February 27, 2010

Berthe Morisot, the chaperoned young painter

Not for the well-bred Berthe Morisot was the vigorous, bohemian life of the Café Guerbois where painters such as Monet, Manet, Renoir and Cézanne (all male, please note) gathered around a table to argue art and technique. Berthe would not have been allowed anywhere near those joyful meetings; she was a woman and of good family.

The daughter of a rising civil servant, Berthe lived in two worlds: her painting with which she was never satisfied and the
suitable dinners and salons where her socially ambitious mother made certain that her three beautiful unmarried daughters were introduced to eligible men. So no cafe life for Berthe, no learning how to draw a figure in a drafty, dusty art class. Either her mother accompanied her and her gifted sister Edma to copy paintings at the Louvre or for art lessons with the genial, elderly Corot, or she and her sister went modestly together, chaperoning each other. A young woman could not go anywhere alone; her reputation might be compromised. It was not done.

But the world of the men who would be known as the Impressionists opened to her anyway. Manet's mother, Madame Manet, was socially desirable. She held a weekly Salon and it was likely there that the beautiful Berthe encountered the red-haired dandy Manet and became his colleague and model. Who knows what else she felt? Certainly she was a complex young woman.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

a photograph of Claude Monet at just 20...

Well, here is our Claude at about the age of twenty, perhaps a little younger. To me he looks a little uncomfortable to find himself in a photographer's studio, a little uncertain as to how he will appear. He is delightfully handsome. If he was twenty, he had been experimenting with landscape painting for three years and accumulated a good portfolio of chalk sketches of boats. (A book called The Unknown Monet has a great number of these.)

Looking at this picture now, we know the end of the story: the vast gardens at Giverny, the six stepchildren and two sons, the great fame. Who was he then, not wanting to go into his father's grocery business but escaping to Paris to follow art? We know how his story concludes and that even now, eighty-four years after his death, his art, which no one wanted at that time, is some of the most beloved in the world. We know this...but to the young man in this picture, the future with all its difficulties and joys was utterly unknown.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sisley: a beloved, less famous Impressionist

Alfred Sisley is known today as one of the minor impressionists and how dear he is to me! He was born to an English couple living in Paris and painted alongside Renoir, Monet and their generous friend Bazille. One of the fortunate painters, he was supported by his father, but the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 brought down the family silk business, and Alfred — who was no salesman— struggled for income until his death at not yet sixty. Claude Monet promised to look after Sisley's children, and shortly after his friend's death, organized a sale of Sisley's paintings which brought a great deal of money though the late artist could get little enough for his work before! The gentle Sisley exhibited at the first Impressionists exhibition in 1874 and was never disillusioned with the movement. One critic wrote “.. in the small, hard-working and carefree group made up of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille, in Fontainebleau, he represents cheerfulness, spirit, imagination."

I love this description of this painting by art historian Debra N. Mancoff: “Flood at Port-Marly — with its nuanced, blue-gray palette — serves to illustrate Alfred Sisley's command of the heavy, moisture-laden atmosphere and the clear reflections on the high, trembling waters.”

A print of one of his paintings of a snowy rural path hung by my writing desk for a long time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Claude's ravishing love Camille

Again, we have a portrait by Renoir who was their close family friend and often stayed with Claude and Camille in one of their brief periods of prosperity when they lived not in a few dingy rooms but in a proper house in the suburb of Argenteuil only a little outside Paris.

People called her "la volaille Monet" (Monet's bird) or "La Monette." According to a friend, everyone was charmed by her...except of course Claude's father who chose not to meet her as he was against his son's involvement with any woman until Claude's income was steadier. She was a ravishing creature, the friend said, full of kindness and grace. Surely though it was hard for her to never know if she would be have fine wines and lovely dresses one month and be facing water and the pawn shop the next!

I saw her as very complex. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the most complete study of her to date is by Ruth Butler in her book "Hidden in the Shadow of the Master." Another study will be published late summer: "Monet and His Muse: Camille Monet in the Artist's Life" by Mary Mathews Gedo. I feel Claude never got over her early loss and, in his own way, searched for her all his life. He kept a portrait of her in his bedroom until he died. We will see what Ms. Gedo says!