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Exhibition Review: Women Impressionists at The Legion of Honor, San Francisco

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The exhibition Women Impressionists currently showing at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco is really four exhibitions. Work by Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Braquemond is shown in such abundance that the viewer has a real opportunity to see what consistently fine artists these women really are. Organized by the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt’s director Max Hollein and John E. Buchanan, Jr., director of The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the show offers the most comprehensive view of four very important Impressionist painters ever mounted.

Mary Cassatt is justifiably famous, one of the greatest of all the Impressionists. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1844, Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and, in 1865, moved to Paris where she studied with the French painters Charles Chaplin and Jean Léon Gérôme. Because of her father’s success as an industrialist, Cassatt was a woman of some means, but she always prided herself on working at jobs that would bring in money of her own, however little. “The dignity of work,” she wrote in a letter to her sister, “enables me to earn my living, five francs a day and self-respect.”

Among many other things, Cassatt painted women and their children, which is one of the glories of her work. Her children are not always happy little cherubs, though, and her mothers and nannies are not always nurturing and serene. Indeed, the range of emotions that can exist between mother and child are always explored carefully by Cassatt, and this sophistication and honesty make her paintings of life at home often compellingly complicated. The little girl in a straw hat, frowning, is seriously unhappy, yet Cassatt’s view of her renders faithfully the humor of her anger. The little boy awakening from a nap on a hot afternoon is grumpy and a little condemning of Jenny, his mother. A young girl holding a blade of grass to her lips appears distracted, dismissive of her surroundings, and bored. All of these subjects are painted with verve, adventurous freedom in the brushwork, and clear knowledge of what these subjects are really feeling.

One painting in this show, “Summertime” from 1894, shows two young women in a rowboat watching some ducks on a pond. The setting is sunny, the ducks playful, the women light and colorful, and the water is threateningly dark, even soupy. One may wish to relax in this setting, enjoying the light on a pretty day, but I believe the water conveys the emotional difficulties that may await these two lovely women some day.

Berthe Morisot’s brushwork is famously sloppy – or so it was thought to be by some of her critics. One of these, Paul de Charry, asked, “Why, given her undeniable talent, does she not take the trouble to finish her pictures?” I myself worried about this when I first encountered Morisot’s work. It seemed to me dashed off, too quick, and a little thoughtless, but now I realize I had not seen enough of Morisot’s work, a lacking that this exhibition has resolved for me.

Who Morisot most reminds me of is that other great Impressionist painter, Franz Hals. Or at least that’s how I’ve thought of him. Preceding the Impressionists by a couple hundred years, he yet was a master of the quick stroke, the few little lunges of paint, the seeming imprecision of his intentions that seem so Impressionist, and were so effective in the portraits he did of the not-always respectable Dutch burghers of the seventeenth century.

In a painting like Morisot’s “Eugéne Manet and His Daughter in the Garden” from 1883, the sunlight, the leaves, the grass, Manet’s jacket, his daughter’s dress – everything is caught in a brief moment of blurring, moving intensity that makes the piece almost jump in front of you. All of this is enabled by Morisot’s free, open brushwork, and she does it time and again in many, many paintings. This woman was an adventurer with real talent. “Excitement” is indeed now the word that I would use first to convey what her work offers to me.

Eva Carola Jeanne Emmanuela Antoinette Gonzalès was the daughter of a French writer of Spanish origin living in Paris, and his French wife. Eva was befriended as a young woman by Manet, and sat as a model for him several times. He followed her career closely, and in 1880, after she had gained considerable notoriety as a painter to watch, he wrote to her, “Every day the papers are full of your praise. Forgive me if I, too, find this gratifying – for you did after all seek my advice from time to time.” She died at the age of thirty-six, just after the birth of her son, Jean Raymond, and a week after Manet’s own passing.

Of the four artists in this exhibition, I cared for Gonzalès’s painting the least, but that’s not to say I did not care for her work at all. Often her paintings are very beautiful, but I don’t think the emotional depth the other three artists show so frequently exists to such a degree in Gonzalès’s pieces. There are levels of feeling in the work of Cassatt, Morisot, and Bracquemond that bear second and third looks all the time. I searched for that complexity in Gonzalès’s work — the depth of emotion, the complexity of expression — and was not able to find it as easily as I could with the others.

That is, except for one painting, “Awakening Girl,” in which a young woman is waking up in her bed in fresh morning light. The sheets, her night dress, the pillows – all are white, and her fresh, youthful skin is painted with such a fine touch that I can’t imagine how much Gonzalès must have labored over it.

The book and flowers on the nightstand, and the nightstand itself, are details that convey the loving playfulness and spirit of inquiry that this subject possesses, and are painted with real care and affection.

Marie Bracquemond’s finesse as a painter, her true celebration of color and light, and the seeming ease with which she was able to render figures in drawing are all made poignant and painful by the troubles she had in her marriage. This artist saw into the delicacy of female beauty, and the pain of it.

Her precise mastery of color-choice and her ability to render the care she took to paint a dress, a jacket, or even a simple shadow with such brio, all brought to her work a kind of freedom of expression that even the three other women in this exhibition did not always achieve.

For me, Bracquemond is the find of this show. A little watercolor she did in 1880, called “Woman with Umbrella,” in which a young woman with a pleased expression on her face looks at us from beneath an umbrella intended to protect her from the sun, is a real star-turn. Her dress, in gray and white stripes, is restricted from the waist up by the stripes and buttons. Perhaps she’s wearing a corset underneath, but below her waist, the dress is free. The lightness of the material, the delicacy of the many levels of cascading cloth, and the sense of her body as being unhindered by the dress, even glorified by it, made me wish that I could ask her to sit with me a moment on a park bench to talk with me. The shadow she casts, a splotch of gray-black watercolor extending from her feet, is simple, imprecise and beautiful in its detail. All beneath a simple rose-colored umbrella.

This is only one of Bracquemond’s pieces in this exhibition, and a very small one at that. There are many others that are much larger and much more complicated, including her celebrated painting entitled “On the Terrace at Sèvres” from 1880, in which a woman’s white dress and bonnet simply radiate life and light. There are several of Bracquemond’s pencil drawings and prints here as well, all of them precisely done and filled with feeling.

We learn in this exhibition that Marie Bracquemond’s husband Felix was the director of the Atelier de peinture de la Manufacture national de céramique de Sevres and the manager of the Haviland porcelain factory in Limoges. He was an important man in the arts and in business, but he also disparaged his wife’s painting, almost from the moment they were married. In 1890, at his (I would imagine) hectoring insistence, Marie abandoned her work. She lived another 26 years and died a recluse. Her art is so good that I think of her husband as one of the real villains in French art of the Impressionist era.

Exhibition curator Ingrid Pfeiffer, in her lead essay in the very informative and finely printed catalog, writes about the “feminization” of Impressionist style. Much of the subject material of Impressionist painting had to do with women (ladies at the theater and in the boudoir, women at their baths, et al). The style of this painting (“the accentuation of the play of light, its bright sensuous surfaces, the liberal use of white, the visible brushstroke” and many other devices), according to Pfeiffer, gave it a reputation for being quintessentially feminine.

“Yet this characterization was also used as grounds for censure,” she writes, “and Impressionist art was accused of being capricious, nervous, irresolute, superficial, imitative, unfinished, naïve, weak, ephemeral, and of no lasting value – all attributes that were generally reserved for women.”

It’s difficult enough to paint well and to have your work exhibited well. Because women painters so often have to put up with the kind of headwinds that Pfeifer describes, I believe the four women celebrated in this exhibition are to be congratulated not only for being such fine artists, but also for being consistently rugged fighters. Mary Cassatt is quoted in the exhibition as saying “women should be someone, and not something.” These four women were someone, indeed.

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About Terence Clarke