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Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

March 7, 2021 24 comments

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of Woman in Black by Dominique Bona (2000) Original French title: Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir. 

Berthe Morisot – The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona was our Book Club read for February. It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I was looking forward to reading it as it was a great opportunity to dive into the artistic Paris of the 19th century.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in a bourgeois family. Her father was a préfet, a civil servant and her mother was a lot younger than her husband but it was a love marriage. She had two sisters, Yves and Edma and a younger brother Tiburce. The three girls were close in age but Berthe was tight with Edma.

Madame Morisot had a lot to do with her daughters’ upbringing. She was the great-niece of Fragonard and was instrumental in Berthe and Edma’s painting lessons. She allowed them to devote a lot of time to painting, understood that her daughters were gifted and accepted that painting wasn’t just a hobby for them. She didn’t sacrifice their passion on the autel of bourgeois thinking. We owe her for Morisot’s paintings. Paul Claudel wasn’t as understanding.

Edma and Berthe followed different paths. Edma got married and gave up painting. Berthe kept on painting and married Eugène Manet, Edouard’s brother, in 1875. He always supported her career and helped organize exhibitions.

Dominique Bona places Berthe Morisot in her time, among her friends. And what a group of friends she had! Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé. She was an early impressionist, she remained faithful to her group and kept on working on her talent, following her path. Manet influenced her painting, especially at the beginning. They worked a lot together and she influenced him too. They had a close relationship.

Bona’s biography is chronological and shows Morisot’s personal and professional life. We see who were her teachers, her friends, where she painted and the history of the Impressionist exhibitions.

Morisot’s life is fantastic material for a book. She was the only female painter in a group of artists who revolutionized painting in a Paris. And yet, this biography is a disappointment. The style is flat, flat, flat to the point of boredom. I expected better from a member of the Académie Française.

In my opinion, Bona failed to bring the Paris of that time to life. I would have liked better descriptions of the ambiance, of the places these painters spent time in and more context about what was happening at the same time in politics, literature and science. I would have liked her to show in which society the Impressionist movement happened.

But the worst is the “secret of the woman in black” angle. It grated on my feminist sensibilities.

In the first chapters, Bona describes how many paintings of Morisot Edouard Manet did, points out that she was his most frequent model and hints that he was in love with her. She also hints that Morisot was in love with him. The last chapter of the book comments on the fact that the correspondence between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet is nowhere to be found. That’s suspicious and would mean that they exchanged love letters. Well, ok. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she loved him and it was unrequited love. Who knows? And more importantly, what does it matter? I can’t help wondering: if Bona had written Edouard Manet’s biography, would she have chosen this angle? Would the title be, Edouard Manet. The secret of the man with the beard? Probably not. It seems to me that women artists with close relationship with other artists are always seen as their sidekick. You know, like Camille Claudel. They are mentioned in relation to their male friend or partner.

And then, there’s this passage, page 205, that left me stunned, stricken by its sheer stupidity. (Sorry if the translation is terrible, I’m not fluent in astrological terms. I barely know them in French.)

Car Berthe ne sait peindre que ce qu’elle ressent, elle exprime ce qu’elle est. Or, qui est-elle sinon cette fille née sous un signe de Terre –Capricorne—mais qu’anime un fort ascendant d’Eau—Cancer. Son thème astral, selon les spécialistes, conjugue un Soleil en Capricorne—une forte ambition, apte à se réaliser—et une Lune en Balance conjointe à Mars –qui souligne les valeurs instinctives et de puissantes aspirations affectives. Les astres qui l’ont vue naître sont propices à une personnalité douloureuse et conflictuelle, qui est à la fois Ambition et Féminité ; mais aussi Passion et Colère. Conflit permanent entre la Terre et l’Eau –la réalisation concrète de soi et les appels lancinants d’une sensibilité exacerbée—, Berthe Morisot est très différente de l’univers qu’elle peint, des toiles aux tons joyeux et calmes, où irradie le bonheur. Les experts en astrologie complètent leur analyse en opposant la position de Neptune en Verseau (ces deux planètes de la sensibilité renforcent l’influence de la Lune, déjà importante dans le signe) et celle de Saturne en Sagittaire (autre moteur de la réalisation de soi.)

Berthe only paints what she feels. She expresses what she is. And who is she but his girl born under an earth sign –Capricorn—but animated by a strong water ascendant –Cancer. Her birth chart, according to specialists, mixes Sun with Capricorn—a strong ambition, likely to be fulfilled – and Moon with Libra, along with Mars—which underlines strong instinctive values and powerful emotional aspirations. The stars she was born under are liable to lead to a painful and conflictual personality, which is both Ambition and Femineity but also Passion and Anger. Berthe Morisot is a permanent conflict between Earth and Water – concrete self-actualization and the nagging calls from an exaggerated sensitivity. She’s very different from the world she paints, pictures with joyful and soothing tones, irradiating with happiness. Experts in astrology back up their analysis in opposing the position of Neptune in Aquarius (these two planets of sensitivity strengthen the influence of the Moon, already important in the sign) to that of Saturn in Sagittarius (another push towards self-actualization.)

See the astrological mumbo jumbo? First, it’s contradictory. How can she paint what she feels and then be very different from her paintings? Second, it’s more that stupid, it’s insulting for this extraordinary artist.

And again, I wonder: would anyone write something like this about Manet? Who would use astrology to describe a male’s artist style? Would anyone call Renoir a “boy”? Who would make Monet’s sensitivity sound like a flaw?

Just typing the quote made me angry. I see Berthe Morisot as a strong woman. She kept on painting despite the difficulties. She was gifted, smart enough to pursue her career without making any waves and yet never giving up her line of work. She didn’t marry young as it was customary in her social class. She chose herself a partner who understood her, supported her and helped her career. She was in the center of one of the most important painting movement of the century. She had her own style, she never wavered. Berthe Morisot deserves better that this astrological analysis.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this biography before going to the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. I would have appreciated it more. And now, I want to rush to the Musée d’Orsay, see again all the Impressionists’ paintings there but of course, it’s closed at the moment.

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