When Berthe Morisot met Edouard Manet

Brief Encounters

Friday 26 April 1996 23:02

On days set aside for copying, the galleries at the Louvre were a sea of easels, professional copyists vying for space with students. Berthe Morisot first went there, chaperoned by her mother, at age 16. A descendant of Fragonard and a pupil of Corot, she had by 27 spurned marriage for a life devoted to art. That was the year - 1868 - that fellow painter Henri Fantin-Latour brought Edouard Manet to the Louvre.

Morisot knew Manet by reputation - everyone did. His Dejeuner sur l'herbe had been the scandal of the Salon des Refuses in 1863, and his Olympia was almost hooted off the wall two years later. His family came from the haute bourgeoisie, like hers; he was handsome, witty, nine years her senior, and married - not that that concerned her, of course. On the day of the meeting she set up her canvas in the Grande Galerie and selected a delicious Rubens nymph to copy. Others, too, could draw a nude.

The introduction accomplished, Manet was intrigued by the dark-eyed beauty and asked her to sit for him. She found posing a novel experience: Manet strolled about the studio and conversed charmingly as he worked. Morisot sat for 12 paintings, always clothed, always chaperoned; her eyes gaze broodingly, or invitingly, out from the frames. One can only guess at feelings unexpressed - or at how Madame Manet, a stolid Dutch lady, might have viewed it. "He has made a portrait of his wife," Berthe's mother noted. "I think it was about time."

But the artist Morisot also challenged Manet; she curbed his obsession with style and urged him to paint outdoors. Her work, in turn, reflected his. As her self-confidence increased, however, so did her originality and artistic ambition. A distancing began. Degas wooed Morisot into the first Impressionist exhibition; Manet declined. A bond was broken. Morisot's engagement to Edouard's brother Eugene followed. Manet painted one last portrait of her: a gold band is prominent on her ring finger, and her eyes have lost their mystery.

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