Self-portrait: Berthe Morisot – ‘Shaping Impressionism’, Dulwich Picture Gallery

As this fascinating exhibition points out in its opening text panel, Berthe Morisot (1841-95) was an active participant in the Impressionist movement, fully-appreciated and successful in her lifetime. She presented her work in all but one of the major Impressionist exhibitions, missing only 1879, after giving birth to her daughter a few months earlier.

There are two themes (at least) running through the show. The more explicit of the two, flagged in the exhibition’s title, is Morisot’s adoption of motifs and techniques from 18th-century art – whether putting her own spin on specific paintings, or taking up materials like red chalk – to serve her own aims and vision.

However, that biographical detail I mentioned above lays the groundwork for an equally compelling narrative: that of Morisot providing a visual record of a 19th-century woman’s experience – from a 19th-century woman’s perspective.

While I wouldn’t claim that Morisot was an ‘everywoman’ as such – her monied family supported her studies privately, as women were still not admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts – she was still bound by the restrictions and expectations society placed on every woman. She had to choose her models and locations carefully, to minimise her time as an unaccompanied woman ‘out and about’.

These limitations inevitably influenced Morisot’s approach. As you progress through the galleries, her technical gifts and innovations are unmistakeable. But an image of Morisot herself emerges to accompany her self-portrait: the exhibition seems to bring her to life just as she did her subjects. Not every detail is crystal clear, but certain characteristics seem brightly defined: wit, curiosity and sensuality balanced with ingenuity and pragmatism.

By necessity, Morisot fashioned an ‘interior’ kind of Impressionism, quite distinct from any of her male counterparts. She built up professional relationships with only a handful of models, and repeatedly painted her daughter along with other family and friends. On honeymoon, she paints her husband Eugene – apparently a reluctant-but-compliant subject – surveying the scene outside their accommodation. I was captured by his off-centre, observer stance, the window creating the scene within a scene, and what feels like a sassy, deliberate obliteration of the passing woman’s head by the frame. That’ll teach Eugene – and us – to look at other women!

Two qualities in particular occur to me as giving Morisot’s paintings their strikingly modern air. The first is intimacy, in all its forms. Commercially aware, and as willing to produce highly-saleable erotically-charged work as her contemporaries, Morisot turned her female gaze onto her model with intriguing results. The sleeping woman painted by Boucher is in deep slumber, turned away, her hair miraculously retaining perfect curls, the foreground made up solely of breasts: pure objectification, voyeurism.

Morisot’s take on the image retains the alluring nudity (rendered imprecise from the Impressionistic technique) but transfers the sex appeal to the naturally dishevelled hair and fully-defined, parted red lips. Turning the model’s face directly to ‘camera’ in this way – is she sleeping / dreaming, and before or after what? – gives her power over the viewer, achieving the seemingly impossible feat of restoring her agency.

These informal, naturalistic moments appear in other contexts that highlight the personalities of other women in Morisot’s circle, such as this chalk portrait which is so relaxed, it could be a casual snap; or the attentive, listening face of the servant indulging the daughter of the house reading her a story.

Elsewhere, a woman looking at her mirror image is no mere cipher providing a tantalising double portrait – instead, she’s actually checking if her dress looks ok.

I’ve alluded to photography a couple of times, and that brings me on to my second ‘modern’ aspect of Morisot’s work: its realism, or perhaps ‘authenticity’. Many of her paintings – in a way that seems almost contrary to other Impressionists – remind me of photographs. I don’t mean that they are in any way photo-realistic; clearly they’re not.

But as I’ve pointed out, Morisot’s faces are defined well enough that attitudes and expressions feel properly conveyed, rather than merely suggested. Her interest in fabric, or a pattern on.a fan is precise. Then outside these features, the complex brushwork stands in for bokeh (the blurred background, normally a distinctive feature of portrait photography), emphasising the ‘focus’ on the subject. Add to this some unusual composition – cropped, tight angles or implied movement (such as the blur of a painting hand or a boat about to drift through the front of the picture – and the apparent Impressionism suggests something more forensic, the realism of reportage.

This combination of subject matter and innovative approach means that Morisot’s legacy is not only an extraordinary catalogue, but a visual autobiography, fusing her life and work. A must-see.


The exhibition is on at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 10 September 2023.

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