The overlooked painting that unlocks Impressionism

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Berthe Morisot's The Cradle, which was key to Impressionism

While many have focused on Monet’s Impression, Sunrise as a key Impressionist painting, another image was pivotal to the movement that launched 150 years ago.

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In art, it’s all about the hands – those that make it and those that they create. Take, for example, the hands that weave the intimate narrative of young motherhood in the small canvas The Cradle, 1872, a masterpiece of absorbing gestures by Berthe Morisot, the only female artist invited to participate in the inaugural exhibition of French Impressionist work, which opened 150 years ago in Paris on 15 April 1874. A portrait of Morisot’s sister Edma, lost in contemplation as she gazes down on her newborn daughter, Blanche, The Cradle is an onion of a painting – its alluring, if unreachable, essence swaddled in layers of semi-lucent veils that our eyes can never fully unpeel.

With The Cradle, 1872, Morisot attempted a new representation of childhood – and motherhood (Credit: Getty Images)

With The Cradle, 1872, Morisot attempted a new representation of childhood – and motherhood (Credit: Getty Images)

Though less well-known than works contributed to that era-defining show by her male counterparts – including paintings by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne – Morisot’s The Cradle is key to appreciating just how revolutionary the consciousness of Impressionism was. The painting reveals the ways in which Impressionism’s temperament and techniques challenged the sensibilities of the powerful Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris that had routinely rejected many of the emerging artists’ work.

The apparent placidity of The Cradle, which, at first glance, exudes a nursery calm, is only superficially serene. Look deeper and it is lit from inside by an inner angst whose urgency was unprecedented in art. The divergence in Edma’s hands – one supporting the weight of her weary head while the other fidgets with the hem of a delicate voile that softens the light falling on her baby as she rests – creates an edgy energy in the work. The young mother’s hands are pulling her, and us, in two directions.

Like Morisot, Edma too had trained informally to become a painter before she married a naval officer, Adolphe Pontillon, and shifted her focus to starting a family. Edma’s misgivings about abandoning art to become a mother are evident from poignant letters she later wrote to Berthe, confessing that she often found herself slipping away to breathe the varnished air of the studio that they once shared together.

Morisot's portrayal of the mother and child was psychologically nuanced, rather than a straightforward depiction (Credit: Getty Images)

Morisot’s portrayal of the mother and child was psychologically nuanced, rather than a straightforward depiction (Credit: Getty Images)

It is difficult not to see in the tense twiddle of Edma’s fingertips a repressed urge to rip aside the veils that keep us from the possibilities of our latent selves. Morisot’s virtuosity in weaving variable densities of diaphanous fabric from the pigments on her palette, thereby sieving our eyes’ access to what lies beyond, is as captivating as anything that was put on display at that opening exhibition of some 31 Impressionist artists – an event celebrated for its radical revelation of the movement’s sketchy gestures, outdoorsy spirit, and love of light. Those qualities are there too in the 10 paintings, pastels, and watercolours contributed to the show by Morisot, but it is the psychological complexity of The Cradle, its commitment to capturing the challenges of motherhood, that is so modern and moving.

Early promise

Born into a bourgeois family (their father was a senior administrator of a prefecture in central France), the Morisot sisters were fortunate to have their interest in painting nurtured from a young age – a rare advantage for aspiring female artists of the time. When they weren’t honing their skills in a private studio that was provided for them, they were learning to translate the language of light outdoors from the celebrated landscape painter Camille Corot, who was retained as their tutor. It wasn’t long before word was out about the sisters’ remarkable promise. Édouard Manet’s early esteem for their ability is crystallised in his rather dispiriting comment, all too telling of its time, that “it is a pity they are not men”.

In Repose (1871), Manet showed Morisot in an unconventional, informal posture (Credit: Getty Images)

In Repose (1871), Manet showed Morisot in an unconventional, informal posture (Credit: Getty Images)

There is empathy in Manet’s lament that the sisters’ gender would work against them and unmistakable admiration in the dozen portraits that he would go on to paint of Berthe, whose hands, in particular, he handled with care. In 1871, the year before Morisot painted The Cradle, Manet caused something of a stir with his portrayal of her in a posture rather too relaxed for many contemporary eyes. In The Repose, Morisot’s hands are seen variously clutching the stiff extent of a closed fan and resting weightlessly on the inviting velvet couch on which she lounges.

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That same year, Morisot (who would go on to marry Manet’s brother, Eugène) would try her own hand at the mystery of hands in a solo likeness of Edma, her Portrait of Madame Pontillon, in which her sister is depicted wearing a dark, funereal dress and an inscrutable expression. The apparent placidity of the pastel work, which also featured in the first Impressionist show held in the workshop of the French photographer Nadar, is once again unsettled by the fidget of fingers. Here, her sister’s hands, formerly folded in her lap, are on the move, the right one starting to wriggle up her left wrist with a mind of its own. She has something up her sleeve – a secret that has our eyes eating out of her hands.

Morisot's Portrait of Madame Pontillon (1871) also hints at a restlessness in Edma's hands (Credit: Getty Images)

Morisot’s Portrait of Madame Pontillon (1871) also hints at a restlessness in Edma’s hands (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone was sold on Morisot’s dexterity with digits. The crotchety contemporary critic Louis Leroy, reviewing the exhibition for the satirical magazine Le Charivari, manhandled Morisot’s hands. “Now take Mademoiselle Morisot!”, Leroy wrote scornfully of the emerging artist, still in her early thirties: “That young lady is not interested in reproducing trifling details. When she has a hand to paint she makes exactly as many brushstrokes lengthwise as there are fingers and the business is done. Stupid people who are finicky about the drawing of a hand don’t understand a thing about impressionism.” It was Leroy, of course, who, in this same review, sought to smear the broken brushstrokes used by many of the artists in the show by dubbing them “impressionists” – an intended slur that backfired when the group proudly embraced the name.

Leroy’s mocking coinage of the term “impressionism” was inspired by the title that Claude Monet himself had attached to a glimmering dawnscape, Impression, Sunrise, 1872 – the painting that, to this day, remains the single-most adored and discussed canvas from that groundbreaking show. Unlike Monet’s better-known canvas, which arrestingly suspends the apricot shimmer of harbour water on the edge of his hometown, Le Havre, Morisot’s portrayal of the inspections and introspections of motherhood is without obvious precedent.

While Monet's Impression, Sunrise (1872) gave the movement its name and was praised as pioneering, it took inspiration from the work of JMW Turner (Credit: Getty Images)

While Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) gave the movement its name and was praised as pioneering, it took inspiration from the work of JMW Turner (Credit: Getty Images)

Though Monet had the audacity to present his fungible forms fragmenting into lyrical light as a finished work, rather than a study or sketch, the loose luminosity that vibrates from his canvas is not, in fact, without antecedent. Its inchoate incandescence is anticipated by the temper and tone of British artist JMW Turner’s late canvases from three decades earlier, works on which Monet meditated while living in London just prior to painting Impression, Sunrise. While there is no shortage of mother-and-childs in art history, however, Morisot’s is tuned to a fresh frequency.

Augmenting The Cradle’s impact on the fiery red walls of the first Impressionist show, if only by chance, was the shocking context in which the painting would have been experienced by visitors. Although the placement of works in Nadar’s converted workshop was decided by the drawing of lots by participating artists, the decision to hang The Cradle, with its all tensions and tendernesses of parenthood and infancy, side-by-side with a titillating portrayal of the instant that a prostitute in a bordello is unwrapped by a maid for the lewd pleasure of a leering man, must surely rank as among the most dubious in the history of exhibiting art. That said, the adjacency of Morisot’s work with Cézanne’s provocatively erotic A Modern Olympia – a reimagining of an earlier, scandalous canvas by Manet (which was itself a risqué reinvention of a painting by Titian), creates a fascinating friction of progressive visions.

Cézanne's A Modern Olympia (1874) was painted in response an 1863 painting by Manet that had caused a scandal at the 1865 state-run Salon (Credit: Getty Images)

Cézanne’s A Modern Olympia (1874) was painted in response an 1863 painting by Manet that had caused a scandal at the 1865 state-run Salon (Credit: Getty Images)

For their impact, both works rely on life’s theatre of endless veiling, and on presenting the painter as a daring discloser of deep truths. In the years that followed the first Impressionist exhibition, both artists’ hands would continue to experiment with stripping form of its formalism while reinventing the contours of colour and light. Cézanne’s achievements would earn him the adulation of artistic heirs, inspiring Cubism and much else, while Morisot’s would remain overshadowed. Though more recent years have seen, with the staging of thoughtful retrospectives, a concerted effort to draw back the curtain on Morisot’s genius, hers is a hand still plucking at the edge of cultural consciousness – still waiting fully to be grasped.

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