Women Impressionists

  • by Michael Wood, BAR Contributor
  • Tuesday July 8, 2008
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Mary Cassatt, "Visitor in Hat and Coat Holding a Maltese Dog," ca. 1879, oil on canvas.
Mary Cassatt, "Visitor in Hat and Coat Holding a Maltese Dog," ca. 1879, oil on canvas.

Impressionism is often thought of as a great male fraternity, but there was a feminine side to the once-notorious movement that shocked the conservative academy, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Paris salons, in late-19th-century France. It's difficult to imagine that a style of painting now known for its accessibility as well as its luminosity, movement, innovative techniques, scenes of everyday life and reverence for natural beauty was a source of outrage and disdained by traditional art circles.

Although they didn't constitute a sisterhood, Eva Gonzales, Marie Bracquemond, Berthe Morisot and the American painter Mary Cassatt were a loose confederation of artists who shared common friends and aspirations of independence. Lesser-known than their male colleagues, they get their due and a formal introduction to American audiences in "Women Impressionists", a wide-ranging exhibition on view at the Legion of Honor through September 21.

Respected by their contemporaries, the women, who had successful careers, flouted convention by leading creative lives and producing a lyrical canon, despite the potentially crippling societal restrictions of the era. Through their work, they reached beyond the confinement society imposed upon them to connect with the wider world and establish a footprint outside the domestic sphere.

At once an art exhibition and a study of gender and society, an illuminating and troubling aspect of the show is its portrait of constrained lives and the repressive attitudes that severely limited professional and educational opportunities, and, on a practical level, access to subjects for painting. Unlike their male colleagues, they were restrained by propriety and cloistered at home, unable to go to theaters, brothels, cafes and bars on their own. By necessity, the content of their art was autobiographical, relegated to home life and rituals of the bourgeoisie; friends, relatives, especially sisters, were available models.

While this is a fine introduction to and survey of work produced by these talented painters, those who've come to expect a blitz of masterpieces at an Impressionist show are likely to be disappointed. In contrast to the Legion's 2006 "Monet in Normandy" show, where each successive work took your breath away, this is a padded exhibition with only a handful of knockouts, one of which is delivered by Eva Gonzales' "A Loge in the Theatre des Italiens," by far the most arresting painting here. In it, a lush, elegant woman, dressed in an alluring, low-cut blue gown, leans over the railing of her theater box. There's something contained about her, a hothouse flower yearning to escape the confines of the nursery. She regards the viewer as her male companion, posed in profile, stares out into the middle distance, barely taking her into account. How could he be so oblivious to such a magnetic presence? In "Asleep," ripe with languorous sensuality, a sleepy-eyed woman lying in bed is bathed in lavender evening light. Its companion piece, "Awakening," shows the same woman greeting a whole new day, awash in warm sepia tones. The marvelous yet direct "Chignon" is informed by a womanly sensibility. Sensual but not explicitly erotic, it captures the soft planes and curves of a woman's naked back, her upswept hair exposing the tender nape of her neck. Gonzales, who was the only formal pupil of Edouard Manet, whose influence is evident in works such as "Portrait of Madame Emmanuel Gonzales, the Artist's Mother," died prematurely, a shame judging from what she left behind.

Terrace party

Bracquemond's "On the Terrace at Sevres," in which three well-turned-out companions are posed in a pastoral setting, is reminiscent of Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" without the vitality, brilliance or sense of place evoked by that spectacular painting. Influenced by Gauguin, Ingres and Alfred Sisley, whom she painted seated with his wife at the dinner table, Bracquemond's artistic ambitions were stifled by her competitive husband.

Cassatt, who had a particularly independent turn of mind and never married, flourished. Close to Degas, with whom she shared a passion for art, she settled in Paris in 1874. Cassatt's compositions are highly descriptive, but it's her printmaking that's revelatory. After visiting an exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, she created the series of amazing aquatint etchings considered her greatest artistic achievement. "Woman Bathing," for instance, is astonishingly modern in aesthetics and conception, an antidote to the numerous pictures of mother and child one has to wade through. "Two Sisters" depicts a traditional Impressionist reverie, a boating excursion on a lake with two young women wearing hats and frocks, a lovely epiphany of a lazy summer's day.

A student of Camille Corot, the prolific Berthe Morisot shared the Impressionists' love affair with light minus the full-bodied, sculptural forms and weight. Distinctive, memorable and willing to insert a dash of black into her pictures, she held her own in powerful company.

Morisot and Cassatt often posed their models in front of mirrors. Like the goddess Psyche, they ponder their reflections, reassuring themselves that they exist.

For information: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.org.

Michael Wood is a contributor and Editorial Assistant for EDGE Publications.