If you think of wall calendars that sport smiling females stretched out seductively in swimsuits, your head is in the past, in the ‘40s and ‘50s when curvaceous pinups were all the rage. The 2021 calendar from the National Gallery makes clear that those days are over. You still get a female, but it’s her body of work, not her body: 12 paintings by French Impressionist Berthe Morisot.

Making history

The National Gallery pays tribute to Morisot by noting her place in history as a founding member of the Impressionists, as the only woman in the group, and as “an essential figure…painting some of its exceptional works.” Using quiet colors in a decidedly loose, unfinished way, Morisot focused on picturing women in their private moments - her mother, sister, daughter, nieces – but never in an objectifying way.

Leapfrog to abstraction

Yet, it was never what she painted, but how that distinguishes Morisot from her fellow Impressionists. Her brushwork was freer, almost to the point of abstraction. An Art News headline cited her as "Impressionist’s most relentless innovator" who is "finally receiving her due" for having “nearly leapfrogged Impressionism to abstraction.” Explaining her unfinished style, she said she wanted her painting to “capture something that passes.”

Paul Mantz, an art critic in Morisot’s day, touted her in his critique of an exhibit in 1877, naming her as the only “true Impressionist.” Not that such acclaim made a difference to the sexists of her day who characterized her work as “flirtatious” and “charming” - words absent from reviews of her male peers.

Boys’ club

Art News points out that sexist remarks are still flung at Morisot. As recently as 2018, her first one-person exhibit - held at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia - was subtitled “Woman Impressionist.” Imagine if an exhibit of, say, Salvador Dali was subtitled Man Surrealist. To this day, Morisot is less known than fellow Impressionists Renoir and Monet.

Art historian Carol Strickland, reviewing Morisot's show in 2018, pointedly asked why her reputation lagged behind “Impressionism’s boys’ club,” which gets one-person shows all the time.

Thanks, Edouard

It’s a wonder Morisot ever got off the ground given that she was barred from art schools. She had private tutors, including painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.

She also studied Old Master paintings at the Louvre where she met Édouard Manet. It’s not certain if they were lovers, but he hung three of her paintings in his bedroom. She also modeled for him and is the figure in his picture The Balcony. Even so, she married Manet’s brother Eugene who she painted playing with their daughter Julie.

“Feminine grace”

Manet continued to support Morisot’s abilities, inviting her to exhibit in the premier show of avant-garde painting – six artists turned down by the Salon de Paris. They called their show Salon des Refuses and were called “lunatics” in a review in Le Figaro by Albert Wolff, who alluded to Morisot’s “feminine grace.” His sexism aside, he deemed her the exhibit’s standout.

She died of pneumonia at age 54, In her first solo show three years earlier, she wrote of female artists, “Truly, we are worth something,” adding that if lucky and not impeded, “we shall be able to do a great deal.” She did a great deal, but luck had nothing to do with it.

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