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Berthe Morisot, Shaping Impressionism at the Dulwich Picture Gallery review: a phenomenal show

Detail of At the Ball, by Berthe Morisot, 1875 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)
Detail of At the Ball, by Berthe Morisot, 1875 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

Berthe Morisot was that remarkable phenomenon, a woman artist who was right at the centre of the action in the Paris art world at its most exciting.

She exhibited successfully both in the establishment Paris Salon and at the very non-establishment Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886: she jumped on the Impressionist wagon right from the start.

One picture of two young women in a boat on a river, Summer’s Day, all fleeting light effects, is pretty well the quintessence of what the movement stood for. She was close to all that circle – hell, she was Manet’s sister in law – and was highly regarded by them. And if she and her sister weren’t able to learn to paint in the usual art schools, well, her parents were wealthy enough to get the best painters to come to tutor them.


What this exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery sets out to do, and succeeds triumphantly, is to place Morisot in an important context, that of the art of France and England of the 18th century. England? Eighteenth century?

Yup. Morisot spent her honeymoon in 1875 in the Isle of Wight (nicely timed for the Regatta) and in London; indeed, she considered settling down in London, before deciding that society here was a little too cliquey. But before she left, she took on board the achievements of Gainsborough, Romney and Reynolds in particular, not least their way of placing figures in landscape to the point where landscape is itself part of the action.

Julie Manet with her Greyhound Laerte , 1893 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)
Julie Manet with her Greyhound Laerte , 1893 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

She put her encounter with them to good use: here we see her study of a young woman in a muff, Winter, looking sideways at the viewer, side by side with Romney’s Mrs Mary Robinson, also with muff – you see what she took from him.

But the connection that her contemporaries instantly registered was her resemblance to Fragonard who, with the other greats of the 18th century, had been embraced afresh by the art world. It was their feminine colour palette, but also the loose brush strokes that mark Fragonard at his most fluid.

There are some fascinating juxtapositions here: Fragonard’s Young Woman, loosely painted, next to Morisot’s picture of a young woman with a frilled collar, Girl on a Divan, with its rough brush strokes; or the exquisite (but slightly pervy) Fragonard painting of the New Model – where the painter lifts the skirts of a young model with his rod to examine her ankles – and Morisot’s The Mirror, where a woman in a shift admires her own ankles.

She herself considered Reubens the great master of the human form but admired Boucher intensely, as well as Fragonard and Watteau. One of the most exhilarating pictures here is her copy of a section of Boucher’s Venus Asking Vulcan for Arms, which is pretty well Boucher as an Impressionist, with the prettiest, airiest colours and delicious lightness of touch. Boucher’s Young Woman Sleeping is juxtaposed with Morisot’s Resting, both showing a woman sleeping and bare-breasted, but while Boucher’s is erotic, Morisot is introspective.

At the Ball, 1875 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)
At the Ball, 1875 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

There is indeed a lot more here besides Morisot – a fabulous Chardin, The Scullery Maid, and Fragonard’s very impressionistic The Laundresses, make the point that these masters too focused on domesticity.

But what emerges from Morisot herself is both complete assurance – see the confident self-portrait  –  and an interesting feminine sensibility. Her daughter Julie was a favourite subject – there’s a lovely pastel of her in a tree as a young girl in the characteristic 18th century medium, red chalk, and a charming study of her with the concierge’s daughter, playing with fishing rods – and so were her nieces.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is the perfect setting for this exhibition: step outside and you’re looking at Gainsboroughs and Reynolds that Morisot may conceivably have seen, and it has, of course, exquisite 18th century pictures. An excellent show in an excellent place: what more can we ask for.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, from March 31 to September 10;