Who is the real you: the person in the mirror or the person in the pictures? Are you the author of your own story, or are society and commerce pulling your strings? Do you appear authentically of your time?
Snapchat-saturated teenagers broach these questions of self and image 100 times a day. But these are quintessentially modern problems, which began to take root in 19th-century Europe, when new markets and technologies swept aside old forms of knowledge and wealth, and when the border between reality and appearances started to get seriously hazy. Your clothes, your accessories and your expressions became signals of a new age — especially for women, who only sometimes were allowed to determine how others saw them.
That is the message this fall of fantastic exhibitions of two French painters on either side — teacher and student — of Modern art’s birth in 1860s Paris.
The more surprising is the teacher’s show, “Corot: Women,” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Camille Corot (1796-1875) is known almost exclusively as a landscape artist, and his paintings’ dappled light and atmospheric effects, made from observations en plein air (outdoors), set the stage for the coming of modern French painting.
Yet, to much less fanfare, Corot also made portraits, and the 40 that the show’s curator, Mary Morton, has gathered here map a transformation in the depiction of women in French painting. The stern “The Blonde Gascon” and the slumping “Young Woman in a Pink Skirt,” both from around 1850, face the viewer directly, and their large eyes make them appear more insistent than earlier academic portraits of female subjects. Still, these early women are archetypes rather than individuals, closer to the mythic figures of Corot’s Neo-Classical and Romantic forebears. His Romantic taste for rustic outfits, from Italy, Algeria or Greece, also places them in a limbo between present and past.
Soon, though — as France industrialized further, and as photography vitiated whole traditions of portrait painting — Corot’s women started to modernize. This show includes three versions of “Corot’s Studio: Woman Seated Before an Easel, a Mandolin in Her Hand” (all from around 1868), and in each a young woman stares intently at a landscape painting, while an instrument falls to the floor beside her.
They may echo the allegorical compositions of Vermeer or Poussin, and the model’s outfits are not unlike the country bumpkin get-up of “The Blonde Gascon,” which Corot has sketchily reproduced on the wall at the top of the later painting. But now the picture advertises its artifice. We are no longer rooted in rural France, but at play in the artist’s studio; the women are not archetypes, but models in a highly controlled construction, dressed up to be looked at.
It would take the next generation of painters, and maybe artists of the opposite sex, too, to picture modern women beyond the categories of nude, muse, peasant, saint. Depicting modern women as they were was an obsession of Berthe Morisot, who studied with Corot as a teenager, and whose achievement is revealed in “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” now on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. (This is the second stop of its tour; it was first seen in Quebec City and travels next to Dallas, then Paris.)
Where Corot’s models appeared in Italianate or “Gypsy” costumes, Morisot’s women, from hair to gown to makeup to expression, are Parisiennes. In “Winter” (1880), we see a young lady in a suit of military olive who scrutinizes us with a sidelong gaze, her hands inside a fur muff, her eyebrows two calligraphic slashes that echo the background’s hundreds of dashes. The dazzling “Woman at Her Toilette” (1875-80) dissolves model, room and mirror into a single shimmering field of lilac and gray.
Like Édouard Manet, her good friend and later her brother-in-law, Morisot devoted herself to the painting of modern life. (She also frequently modeled for Manet: That is she in “The Balcony,” leaning on a green railing with a look of typically bourgeois boredom.) Her women make social calls, read in the city’s new parks, head to the opera or the theater. They are inhabitants of a transformed city, redrawn by Haussmann in the 1850s and 1860s, and finding its way back to pleasure after the Prussian siege of 1870-71. They’re stylish, cultured, but also, like Corot’s women, a little distant. In a city that placed such a premium on appearances, you can only see so deeply.
Leisure time itself was a marker of the modernity of these Parisiennes, and that extended beyond the city and onto the coast. Morisot excelled at scenes of villégiature: the new, bourgeois practice of taking a holiday, which she often painted from perspectives between inside and outside, public and private. “In England,” from 1875, depicts her husband, Eugène Manet, turned in his chair at the breakfast table of a holiday rental home, looking out the opened window onto the harbor on the Isle of Wight. A woman and a girl walk by, their faces obscured by the window mullion, and marking their distance is a diaphanous lace curtain, which Morisot has painted with self-assured alacrity. At the start of the 19th century, such a picture would have been unthinkable; the seaside was for workers, not for ladies. Now they can see and be seen.
The Morisot show is subtitled “Woman Impressionist,” and it was indeed rare for a woman to reach such artistic heights in the years before 1900. But as this excellent show’s curator, Sylvie Patry, reminds us in the catalog, it was not “woman” but “Impressionist” that was the truly radical category in modern Paris. Morisot disdained the female artists’ groups of the time, who practiced a conservative, mythifying kind of painting. In the frankness of Impressionism — a style dismissed as “feminine” by critics of the day — she found instead the tools to represent women beyond the categories Corot pushed against but could not crack. Modern life comes fast and thrilling, and reveals authenticity as a busted flush. The challenge, in a world of appearances, is to control how you’re seen.
Through Dec. 31 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington; nga.gov.
Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist
Through Jan. 14 at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; barnesfoundation.org. The show travels to the Dallas Museum of Art on Feb. 24; dma.org. It opens June 18 at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; musee-orsay.fr.
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