Mark Harden's Artchive Morisot, Berthe
In the Garden at Maurecourt
c. 1884
Oil on canvas
21 x 25 5/8 in. (54 x 65 cm)
The Toledo Museum of Art

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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here. Text from "Impressionism: Selections from Five American Museums", by Marc S. Gerstein

Throughout her career Morisot often represented a woman and child in a park or garden, a popular theme both in Impressionist art and in modern life painting for the Salon. The motif figured prominently in her relatively limited repertoire of subjects taken from the world of the modern, upper-middle class woman, the sphere to which she restricted herself following the social conventions and constraints of her gender and class. Her subjects were chosen from her family and domestic circles and from the places familiar to her.

In this painting she depicted the well tended garden of the country estate of her married sister, Edma Pontillon, located at Maurecourt, twenty miles north of Paris. Morisot frequently visited her sister there and in the early 1870s had often painted her with her children in the garden or in the surrounding countryside. After that time Morisot had stopped portraying her, presumably at her sister's request. In a small watercolor of the mid 1880s inscribed "Maurecourt", on which she based this painting, Morisot appears to have depicted Edma, then about forty five years old, but this same figure appears rather younger in the painting. Although any identification of this figure is difficult and tentative, she may conceivably have become one of Edma's daughters (Jeanne, b. 1870, or Blanche, b. 1871), or perhaps the nursemaid of the child to her right, who is, almost certainly, Morisot's own daughter, Julie (b. 1878).

Whatever their actual identities may have been, their attitudes toward each other appear casual and detached, without signs of affection or even of attention, despite the suggestion of a maternal relationship that such a juxtaposition routinely conveyed. Instead, Morisot, as her brother in law Manet also did on occasion, drained from them the air of sentiment and sanctity the suggestion of the modern madonna so common and expected in images of a woman and child during this period, whether in the works of Salon painters or of her friend and colleague Renoir. She made no attempt to represent a relationship, or even an event, presenting only a loosely defined situation of aimless leisure. Her aim was not to indicate a legible narrative, but to express flux and immediacy in nature and experience.

The diffuse and flickering light, raised and angled view, and blurred and variable focus (fading out toward the corners and edges) suggest something of the fleeting and fragmentary in the appearance of the scene. It is Morisot's technique, however, that is most striking and effective in conveying the momentary and immediate. At a time when other Impressionists were seeking more deliberate order and durable values, Morisot continued to investigate the possibilities of the free and rapid oil sketch. Rivalling, or perhaps exceeding, Manet, Monet, and, she produced here a performance of extraordinary freshness and bravura. The paint was applied with remarkable fluency, agility, and spontaneity. The bold and vigorous streaks, dashes, and dabs seem to zip across the surface in animated and energetic rhythms, blurring forms, obliterating drawing, and weaving the pieces together. Unlike other Impressionists who painted landscapes, her tangled, ragged brushstrokes provide only the most rudimentary characterization of features and textures, and offer relatively scant indications of shape and modelling. But what she may have lost in the way of precise notation, she gained in verve and brio, in exuberant virtuosity.

Her improvisatory handling was the subject of frequent critical comment, none more evocative than that of the poet jean Ajalbert, who noted of her paintings shown in the 1886 Impressionist exhibition that "she eliminates cumbersome epithets and heavy adverbs in her terse sentences. Everything is subject and verb. She has a kind of telegraphic style." Here, on a warm tan priming, she roughly sketched in the figures in oil following the preliminary watercolor, then loosely blocked in their darker tones and the broader shapes of the setting in thin washes, and added the final layers in freely varied impastoed strokes. In her brushwork she developed contrasts of size, direction, and velocity, and elaborated darker and lighter accents and contrasting touches of color to express the sparkling play of sunlight and shadow. Morisot regarded this painting, although summary in its execution, as completed, since she signed it, which was something she did not routinely do.

This rhythmic surface conferred on the essentially calm and static forms of the scene an overall and continuous mobility. The apparent speed of execution became a sign for the tempo of change in the phenomena, incident, and experience represented. Through the vitality and abandon of her handling, she imbued this lush scene of confined and tranquil domesticity with a startling liveliness and freedom. But this peculiar match between subject and expression, between the physical and emotional restraint of the one and the vivid display of the other, adds an unsettling and perplexing note to this image of the familiar pastimes of bourgeois life.