The Impressionist Art of Seeing and Being Seen

The still of the seaside, away from the noise and gossip of the city. Lapping waves, gentle breeze.

It's a bit overcast, but why complain? We’re on vacation.

Impressionist paintings, after decades of auction records and print-on-demand posters, have become the most reliable crowd-pleasers of European art. Pretty light. Happy haystacks.

Believe me: In 1875, they were hardly so soothing. They were views of a society rocketing through modernization, and losing its bearings as it accelerated.

The movement’s name was originally a critic’s insult. “Impressionist” came from a venomous review of an 1874 exhibition of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro — and one woman.

She was Berthe Morisot, and she may be the most underestimated of all the Impressionists.

This is her painting “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight),” which you can see today at the small Musée Marmottan in Paris.

Morisot painted it in 1875, while she and Eugène were taking a seaside honeymoon.

It’s a very rare thing in art history before the 20th century: a painting of an artist’s husband.

But it’s not a portrait of her husband.

Not exactly an interior scene either.

It’s a scrambled, unstable picture, which is all about how we look — at women, at landscapes, at other pictures.

Look at the details here, and you can see how Morisot paints the seaside as a new stage of modern life, defined through its pleasures and pressures — the pressures, above all, of being watched.

The painting hinges on the gaze of Morisot’s husband, whom we see wearing a casual white jacket and a straw-boater hat. He’s turned in his chair, twisting himself to see the scene out the open window.

In his right hand he’s holding what appears to be a pair of binoculars, represented by two dashed white circles.

A moment ago he must have been aiming them out into the distance. You can make out sailboats bobbing in the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the British mainland.

But he’s put the binoculars down. At this moment Eugène’s gaze is directed at a woman walking on the quay, in a pink summer dress and a small black bonnet.

We can’t see her face, but from the placement of the hat we can surmise that she’s not looking back.

She’s looking, it seems, at this girl — whose own hat and hair imply that her own gaze is directed out on the water. Perhaps she’s 8 years old? Ten?

Compared with the woman’s, her own position feels freer and more relaxed. The privilege of youth. And a bourgeois insouciance, maybe, which the older woman lacks.

Can’t be sure. My guess is that the woman is not the girl’s mother, but her chaperone. Bourgeois life needed servants; Morisot, when younger, had an English governess.

Three gazes: girl toward the sea, woman toward the girl, man toward the woman.

And then a fourth gaze: the painter’s own. Not just any painter: une peintre, feminine.

That makes “In England” a very curious, very uncommon picture. It captures a woman’s perception — but a perception of a man’s perception.

It’s a work of double vision: a painting about looking, and about what it means to be looked at.

“Why have there been no great women artists?” the art historian Linda Nochlin asked in 1970.

(This is Morisot’s self-portrait, by the way.)

Male critics in the 19th century said the reason was temperamental, even hormonal.

But the real cause was structural.

Being an artist of the first rank meant negotiating a system of institutions that women couldn’t fully enter.

Women couldn’t enroll in Paris’s leading art schools. Life drawing, with nude men on a pedestal, was unthinkable.

That shot any chance of painting grand, historical tableaus — then the most highly esteemed sort of art.

Yet numerous Frenchwomen still found success, mostly as portraitists. And girls of Morisot’s class could take private lessons, and copy after the masters in the Louvre.

Morisot had several painting tutors, including the landscape artist Camille Corot. In 1865, at 24, she got this Corot-esque landscape with a mythical maiden accepted to the Salon, Paris’s most important art exhibition.

It passed without comment. That year another work stole the spotlight.

That would be “Olympia,” by Édouard Manet.

Two years previously, the Salon bosses refused Manet’s paintings. This time they let him in, and his unsparingly direct scene of a common prostitute, her maid and her cat precipitated the greatest art scandal of the 19th century.

Instead of pastoral beauty, Manet gave the public flat, unvarnished modernity — a frank depiction of life in contemporary Paris …

… and was greeted with ridicule. The painting needed armed guards, since visitors kept trying to slash it with their umbrellas and walking sticks.

But a few young artists saw, in Manet’s slab-like pictures, the germ of a new kind of painting, which would put modern life at its heart.

Later in the 1860s, the Manet and Morisot families became friends.

The parents liked one another. They had comfortable, though not giant, fortunes. Morisot modeled for Manet, with her family’s permission.

That’s her there, looking out from Manet’s “Balcony.”

Manet painted Morisot a dozen times over the next six years.

She eventually married Manet’s younger brother, the dilettantish Eugène.

But she did more than model for the painter who would become her brother-in-law. They respected each other as artists.

They corresponded frequently. And by the early 1870s, building on Manet’s example, she too had become a painter of modern life.

She couldn’t access parts of modern Paris that men painted in the 1870s. The café-concerts. The opera backstage. Most obviously, the brothel.

What Morisot proved, with startling confidence, was that a sitting room or a garden could be painted with just as much ambition.

Interiors and domestic scenes became a specialty, as did images of motherhood.

Like this painting of her sister, shown at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

The women she depicted were usually stylish Parisiennes …

… dressed in up-to-the-minute clothing …

… and rendered with open strokes of paint that made them feel even more immediate.

They appear in fancy boudoirs or chic resorts — or, often, at the mirror. Morisot knew what it was to be both model and artist, looked at and looking.

“You have to be absolutely modern,” the poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote in 1873. Morisot was more polite about it than him, but she was just as cutting-edge.

Though, for Impressionism’s haters, Morisot’s subjects were all too suitable. To these men, committed to academic rules, the new movement seemed too focused on outward appearances, sensuous surfaces, material goods.

In short, too feminine.

In the 1870s, Impressionism regularly got bashed as unmanly. Morisot got a slightly better press than the men, though a belittling one: her free brushwork was immediate, spontaneous, with a delicacy “proper” to women.

And she was certainly a sensualist. Morisot went further than any of the Impressionists, at least in the 1870s, in leaving the movements of her brush visible.

But her lack of finish captures more than just a visual sense. It’s part of a careful choreography, which heightens the picture’s artifice — and pushes its social meaning to the fore.

Look at how she renders the windowpanes. A century earlier, these would have been crystalline. Hers are brushy and opaque, little fugues of active composition.

You see that here, too, in the hotel room’s curtain. She captures its translucence through thick slashes and backslashes. It’s a tour de force of open white brushwork, blocking almost a third of the canvas.

Or look here, at the small garden outside the hotel room, marked off by a green wrought-iron fence.

Do you notice something a little off about the splotches of red and pink? Especially this one, a little higher than the rest.

Those daubs seem to be flowers on the potted plants on the windowsill, though it’s hard to distinguish exactly.

Something funny is happening, here, at the border of inside and outside. Morisot has made the hotel interior disorientingly indistinct from the garden and the quay.

The curtains, windows and flowers are blurring into a freer, more transient impression of this seaside resort. Which was, after all, its own novel thing.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but the seaside had not always been a place for a holiday.

Before the 19th century, the shoreline was considered insalubrious. Few Europeans ever went there, and artists depicted it as, at best, a place of labor or commerce.

In the Romantic era, artists painted the sea as an awe-inspiring force: dangerous, human-dwarfing.

It was certainly not a place for ladies.

But first in England, then in France, aristocrats and doctors started making trips to the sea. Initially it was for therapeutic treatment. Soon it became a fashion of its own.

France in the 19th century developed a new geography of seaside resorts: Dieppe, Deauville, Biarritz.

The once seamy air was now considered salutary, and the once commercial seaside became elegant.

Wealthy Parisians who once went to the mountains or to inland spas now came to the coast.

Whole economies arose to serve them, particularly in Normandy.

By the late 19th century, trains were making daily runs to the seaside. The locomotive — another Impressionist passion — turned a once aristocratic privilege into something middle-class Parisians could afford, too.

The railroads catalyzed a boom for seaside tourism, and the new forms of leisure associated with it. Hotels, holiday rentals, beachfront restaurants. Lighter dresses. Bathing costumes.

If you were especially fancy you might even go abroad; Wight could be reached in a day, or not much more.

For Morisot’s generation, the historian Eugen Weber wrote, “holy days turned into holidays: weeks or months of nothing but Sundays.”

And these ambitious young painters often pictured the seaside as a supercharged site of modern encounters. As in this painting, by the 30-year-old Claude Monet.

(He painted it right on the beach; there’s sand mixed into the oils.)

Or this painting by Manet, of a woman and a man looking out from the beach at a new resort near the Belgian border.

That’s Eugène, Morisot’s future husband, there again.

And so when Morisot painted her new husband looking out onto the coast of England, she wasn’t just painting the sea — not exactly.

That patch of blue anchors an entire social world.

Look again at Eugène’s view.

Their hotel room looks out to sea, but the space beyond the window has almost no depth, no vanishing point.

Sky and sea are flat expanses.

And do you see how she’s packed almost all the color into one dense, square zone?

Morisot has given us hard horizontal lines at the window and its sill, and vertical boundaries defined by Eugène’s white jacket and the curtain’s white lace.

All the picture’s brightness lies within those boundaries.

It’s a charge of color, which makes no effort to simulate depth. This painting-in-a-painting has been compressed and flattened out — almost like a poster, or an advertisement.

It’s therefore not, or not merely, a visual impression. Morisot has gone out of her way to accentuate the artifice of the English view that she and her newlywed husband have paid for.

She’s not just recording her senses. She’s contemplating the outside world as a commodity — one that encompasses the sea, the landscape and the passersby.

Modern life brought new freedoms, especially for women.

But Morisot’s painting tells of some of the costs that came with the new, accelerating, bourgeois France.

The Belle Époque was dawning. The social order would be defined not by god or king, but by signs and appearances.

And there’s an ennui in these pictures that goes hand in hand with their half-finished form.

The world she observes seems to be dissolving. All that is solid melts into brushstrokes.

For all their modernity, Morisot’s women frequently look distracted, anxious, or lost in thought. And Morisot’s evident sympathy also had within it a certain reservation.

Her subjects are forever appearing on balconies, at windows, in mirrors. Vistas that let you take in the world, but keep you apart from it.

And on view yourself.

The age’s new gratifications came with a price, Morisot always seems to show.

It’s a point she captures in the one detail that always gets me in this painting: the governess’s face.

Or, rather, her absent face. It’s slashed out. A definitive cross, a solid black line through the strawberry-blonde daub of her hair.

If this English vista is a story about the female gaze, we are given it and denied it at once.

A woman’s view is not her husband’s. Only Eugène can see the governess — and we, in Morisot’s position, cannot.

We’ll never perceive this woman fully. She’ll always be another person’s impression.

Looking and being looked at: These are the building blocks of painting. Morisot saw them, a century and a half ago, becoming the fundamentals of identity, too.

You can leave the city for the seaside, but you cannot take a holiday from modern life. In this world there will always be an audience.

Produced by Joshua Barone, Alicia DeSantis, Nick Donofrio, Gabriel Gianordoli and Jessie Wender.