Books: When a Manet loves a woman

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BERTHE MORISOT: The First Lady of Impressionism by Margaret Shennan, Sutton Publishing pounds 25

Sutton Publishing, 1996. pounds 25.00

ERITAGE CRUSADE AND THE SPOILS OF HISTORY by David Lowenthal, Viking pounds 25

Berthe Morisot was one of the very few women artists of her day to win recognition as a professional painter and to do so without shattering the social conventions of her class. Her prodigious talent as a 16-year- old had led one of her teachers to warn her mother of the consequences of a woman taking up painting as a career. It would, he said, bring about a "social catastrophe". But if Morisot was fortunate to be born into the haute bourgeoisie and to be supported by family money and excellent connections, she was equally fortunate in having a mother intelligent enough to know how to steer a rather difficult and moody daughter through the constrictions of French middle-class society while respecting her determination to paint.

The author sets out to correct the position taken by early biographers, that Morisot's life was "like some very sheltered lake which no storms have ever stirred". She does not spring any dark surprises, but the account of Morisot's youth and her compliance with the social order (she was no George Sand), of the difficulties raised by her vocation and her depressive nature, allows a greater insight into the melancholy and introspection that set her images apart. The suggestion made here that she may have suffered intermittently from an eating disorder is very convincing.

Marriage for a woman of Morisot's class was unavoidable, but it was an unattractive prospect for someone who needed a certain amount of freedom in order to work, and who was, in any case, extremely attached to someone who was already married. The precise nature of Morisot's relationship with Edouard Manet has never been made clear, but even if they were not lovers there is enough evidence to suggest some sort of emotional entanglement. The solution, helpfully offered by Manet himself, was for her to marry his brother Eugene. At the age of 33, she eventually agreed.

In 1873, the year before her marriage, she had been asked by Degas, who was already an old friend, to become one of the founder members of the "Anony-mous Co-operative Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc". In pressing her to exhibit alongside Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and others, Degas was, in effect, inviting her to join a men's club. So it was that for 12 crucial years between 1874, the date of the first Impressionist exhibition, and 1886, the date of the last group show, Morisot exhibited regularly with her male peers, and on an equal footing. This meant that she was perceived first and foremost as a member of a distinctive group, and consequently she was subjected to much the same treatment from the critics as her fellow-Impressionists.

Just occasionally, the author suggests that the male critics were particularly condescending towards Morisot. But this is not so easy to ascertain, as the critics in question, particularly those who wrote for the right-wing press, tended to mock all new art fairly indiscriminately. Margaret Shennan quotes from a review of the 1874 Impressionist exhibition in which the critic from Le Figaro observed that Morisot "brings together the delightful art of the Parisian and the charm of nature; this is one of the characteristics of the new school, combining Worth and the good God ..." The suggestion that Morisot peopled her landscape with fashionably dressed women smacks to Shennan of male condescension. One might easily go along with that opinion, were it not for the fact that Zola attacked Monet on exactly the same grounds.

It's not easy to write about a successful woman without sounding condescending. Shennan's problem is her language. Here, Morisot is sitting to Manet for her portrait: "She revelled in his company. And Manet found her presence irresistible. In a state of breathless excitement, he reached for his palette and brushes. She turned her head; her hair fell in a dark cascade to her left shoulder." A few pages later, Morisot is back in the studio: "Before she knew what was happening he was sketching her there ... Manet was fired, his eyes aglow." To subject Morisot to this kind of romantic drivel does nothing to enhance her reputation (calling her "The First Lady of Impressionism" is no help either).

This is not just the lazy, second-hand language of the popular novel; it is a language used as a tool of condescension. And by falling into this trap Shennan fatally undermines the seriousness of her own endeavours. Her purpose was to do justice to a major woman artist who, having been appreciated in her lifetime as the embodiment of femininity, has tended to be (as Griselda Pollock points out in the Foreword) "damned by the very terms in which she had once been so enthusiastically acclaimed". The pity is that large chunks of this well-intentioned book turn out to be far more patronising than anything dished out by Morisot's male critics.