Berthe Morisot’s ‘Young Woman Watering a Shrub’ is a modest masterpiece at Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts

If every American museum still open were to shut down next week but we all, in compensation, got to choose one museum work to hang in our homes until the vaccine arrived, I think I might choose this little-known painting by Berthe Morisot. A gift from Paul Mellon, it’s owned by Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, and it was painted in 1876, the year of the second impressionist exhibition. There’s something about it — a tenderness, a modesty, a matter-of-factness — that, like a good martini, crosses my blood-brain barrier as soon as I see it.

The painting shows Morisot’s sister, Edma, watering a plant on the terrace of the Morisot family home in Passy, on the outskirts of Paris. She’s wearing a white housedress intended only for indoors. So Morisot’s decision to place her, thus attired, out in the open air against a backdrop of city buildings feels like a marker of sisterly intimacy.

Of course, artists never do things for one reason alone. The impressionists were in love with the artists of the Rococo. So Morisot’s rendering of the cascading folds of Edma’s dress feels like an homage to Watteau’s indelible, 18th century pictures of young women in loose gowns seen from behind.

Edma’s dress also meets a challenge which for more than a decade had preoccupied avant-garde artists, from Whistler and Courbet to Manet and Monet: how to paint white in a way that captures volume and movement. White dresses were the favored vehicle for the challenge.

But Morisot’s decision obviously wasn’t just technical.

Berthe and Edma were from an upper-bourgeois family. Though well-off, they had endured real trials. The sisters had spent the 1860s wrapped up in each other. Encouraged by their parents, both had taken up painting as girls, and in their 20s they met with considerable success, both having paintings accepted by the jury of the annual Paris Salon. Edma’s 1865 portrait of Berthe as a painter at work leaves you in no doubt as to their seriousness.

But to be a young, unmarried woman painter in Paris in the 19th century was to be in a predicament that no one expected would last. Sure enough, when Edma met and married a young naval officer, moved to a town on the Normandy coast and had a baby, she put down her brushes for good.

Berthe kept on, but losing her confidante and comrade-in-arms plunged her into a personal crisis, which the outside world then did its best to exacerbate. The Prussian army surrounded Paris. Berthe stayed in the city with her parents during the four-month siege (she suffered greatly through this prolonged trauma) and for part of the ensuing Commune, which ended in appalling mayhem and bloodshed.

Five years later, when she painted this work, life looked very different. She was at the top of her game. She had resolved a tension between her artistic ambition and society’s expectations of her sex by marrying the brother of her friend, Édouard Manet. She participated in all but one of the eight, epoch-making impressionist exhibitions, between 1874 and 1886. And her brilliance was acknowledged and encouraged not only by Monet, Renoir and Manet, but by such writers as Émile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry.

She remained close to Edma and knew her face intimately. So it’s interesting that Morisot, who rarely showed anyone from behind, depicted her sister facing away, watering a plant. Those we love, she seems to imply, are always involved in something else; always, to some extent, unknowable; always just out of reach.

If something like this was her insight, she didn’t press down on it too hard. That wasn’t Morisot’s way. She was frank. But she had a light touch. And as the years went on and she lost more and more loved ones, it got lighter and lighter.

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.” He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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