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Frame by Frame

Freedom of youth in an older woman’s picture

Smith College Museum of Art

NORTHAMPTON — This vibrant picture, which could have been painted by a young Edvard Munch, was in fact painted by Berthe Morisot, the great Impressionist, the year before her death in 1895. It hangs in the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton.

It shows Morisot’s daughter, Julie, playing Mozart on the violin, with Julie’s cousin accompanying on the piano. The interior, which trembles with musical vibrations, is illuminated by bright light coming in through the window behind, creating strong silhouettes of the girls’ figures, burning away the fat of facial expression, fingering, and even Julie’s bow, which seems to have disappeared without a trace.

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Morisot, who was 53, had lost her beloved husband, Eugene Manet (the painter Edouard’s brother), three years previously. For a time, she had been lost in depression. But she had Julie; she had dear friends (above all the poet Stephane Mallarme); and, since the last days of Eugene’s life, she had, for the first time in her life, after 33 years of painting, a studio of her own.

Her artistic ambition, she wrote, was “to capture something that passes; oh, just something! the least of things And yet that ambition is still unreasonable! A distinctive pose of Julie, a smile, a flower, a fruit . . .”

As Anne Higonnet writes in her biography of Morisot, she stopped working from nature and began using studio models. She directed her few students to the works of Delacroix and Manet, rather than the changing light of the countryside.

Like a dry leaf in fall, life seemed to be curling up around her. Her sister Yves died a painful death. Julie’s godfather died, too, prompting Degas to wistfulness: “How many memories are accumulating.”

Morisot went with Julie to Brussels, where she had work in an exhibition. They saw a concert by the violinist Ysaye. Several paintings of Morisot by Manet came up at auction; Morisot bought one of them, “Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets.” (The other one she wanted, “Le Repos,” ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art in Providence.) Renoir painted a double portrait of Berthe, in black, sitting with Julie.

In the midst of all this melancholy, Morisot began turning out paintings at an impressive clip, including this one. It is tempting to call it “a young woman’s picture” — it has an intensity and a freedom that suggest youth.

But life for the young and talented Morisot, as for other women like her, had in actuality been full of constraints. This painting, on the other hand, feels liberated, heartfelt, free.

An older woman’s picture, then.

How sad that it was also the picture of a woman in the final months of her life. Early in 1895, she contracted pneumonia. She wrote a final note; the girl in this picture had to read it:

“My little Julie, I love you as I die; I will love you when I’m dead; please don’t cry. . . . I would have liked to survive till your wedding. . . . Work and be good as you have always been; you haven’t made me sad once in your little life.”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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