Visual Arts

Explore an Unsung Heroine and the Evolution of "Isms" at MFAH

Woman with a Fan (Femme à l’éventail), by Berthe Morisot.
Woman with a Fan (Femme à l’éventail), by Berthe Morisot. Photo by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. But being treated as a second-class citizen wasn't just an American problem; women in France didn't earn the privilege until 1944 so it's no surprise that French painter Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) had so much trouble being taken seriously in a male-dominated field.

Though often overlooked in the history books, Morisot is now recognized as the first female Impressionist and museum-goers will be able to judge for themselves in "Berthe Morisot: Impressionist Original," a traveling exhibit opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

In the press preview for the exhibit, MFAH Director Gary Tinterow said that the exhibit not only lets us appreciate anew the work of the artist, but that she often surpassed the talent of her colleagues. No small feat considering her Impressionist peers were Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.

Morisot had a few things going her way, including inherited talent (her mother was the great-niece of prolific Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard), her father was a prefect with a passion for architecture and had the financial means to pay for private lessons, and she met the right influencers early on: teacher Joseph Guichard, landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Barbizon painter Achille Oudinot, and sculptor Aimé Millet.

Viewing the 24 objects in the exhibit, the subjects represent the world in which Morisot was permitted access: women and children, well-dressed socialites, landscapes, and family members. The paintings, mostly oil on canvas, have a shimmering, pearlescent quality, while her portraits demonstrate an ability to capture a moment in time. Her Woman with a Fan (shown at the beginning of this story) is notable in that it's technically difficult to paint black clothing with such texture and shading.

Fun fact: Morisot is believed to have been in love with her friend and colleague Édouard Manet, though ended up marrying his brother Eugène Manet instead. Not a bad decision, as Eugène was supportive of her work and she did achieve some career successes, as well as the joys of motherhood with her daughter Julie. Morisot is buried in the same cemetery with both Manet brothers, so love will out.

While the Morisot exhibition has been shown at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Barnes in Philadelphia, as well as other venues, the Houston stop includes two objects from the MFAH's Beck collection and two on loan from a private collector.

click to enlarge The Bridge at Chatou (Le pont de Chatou), by Maurice de Vlaminck. - PHOTO BY THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON, © 2019 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK / ADAGP, PARIS
The Bridge at Chatou (Le pont de Chatou), by Maurice de Vlaminck.
Photo by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Morisot show is being paired with a concurrent exhibit titled, "Monet to Picasso: A Very Private Collection." Amassed by a prominent couple in the latter half of the 20th century, the objects represent a snapshot of what it means to be true art patrons.

Opportunities for acquisition, especially works by the most notable artists, come few and far between. So collectors like this couple waited for those windows to open up: an Alfred Sisley at Christie's, a van Gogh at Sotheby's, or an estate sale from another collection like that of Erna Wolf Dreyfus. So it's a gift when we're able to view these rarely seen objects, and it's enough to know that the family has done so out of their love for art, paying handsomely along the way in the form of acquisition, insurance, preservation, taxes and perhaps the loss of privacy.

With 33 objects ranging from an 1866 Paul Cézanne and an 1866 Winslow Homer, to a 1943 Henri Matisse and a 1955 Pablo Picasso, consider the exhibition a mini tutorial about the evolution of isms: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, Cubism, and eventually Modernism.

click to enlarge The Turning Road (La route tournante), by Paul Cézanne. - PHOTO BY THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON
The Turning Road (La route tournante), by Paul Cézanne.
Photo by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
From Vincent van Gogh there's an early watercolor done in 1882, The Roofs (Les toits), while the Dutch painter was still mastering the art of perspective. From Paul Cézanne we see the artist emerging from the dark and morbid subjects of his past to embrace the new structured, Impressionistic style in 1877's The Turning Road (L aroute tournante).

An early precursor to Modernism can be found in Claude Monet's 1889 Valley of the Creuse, Afternoon Sunlight (Vallée de la Creuse, soleil d’après- midi), one of a series where he painted the same subject in the varying light of morning, afternoon, evening, or cloudy day. That same technique emerged 75 years later with Andy Warhol's silkscreened celebrity portraits.

click to enlarge (L) Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Eugène Delacroix and (R) Woman Sitting in a Turkish Costume (Jacqueline), by Pablo Picasso. - PHOTOS BY MFAH, (R) © 2019 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NY
(L) Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Eugène Delacroix and (R) Woman Sitting in a Turkish Costume (Jacqueline), by Pablo Picasso.
Photos by MFAH, (R) © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

The final gallery space of "Monet to Picasso: A Very Private Collection," labeled New Directions, includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris and Pierre Bonnard. It was just last month when MFAH announced that it had acquired Eugène Delacroix's Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, painted in 1833-34. The MFAH's Delacroix is the first version of another painting currently at the Louvre, 1834's Femmes d'Alger, which itself served as inspiration for Picasso's Woman Sitting in a Turkish Costume (Jacqueline), on view in this exhibition. Same subject matter, two very different styles.

"Monet to Picasso: A Very Private Collection" and "Berthe Morisot: Impressionist Original" are continuing through January 12 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit Free to $23.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney