This Manet portrait of Berthe Morisot is ablaze with mutual attraction

This Manet portrait of Berthe Morisot is ablaze with mutual attraction

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Forty years ago, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote that “art love is attained, or contracted, through a series of epiphanies, or seizures.” His implication — that art love is like a disease, something before which you’re helpless — I’ve found to be true.

Most of the time, these epiphanies happen in front of artworks. But they can be brought on in other ways, too. I know this because I fell in love with this portrait of the painter Berthe Morisot by Édouard Manet, known as “Repose,” years before I saw it.

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I was a student living in Australia in the early 1990s when I read about the painting in Schjeldahl’s review of a 1983 Manet retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That review, published in “The Hydrogen Jukebox,” a collection of Schjeldahl’s writings on art, is still my favorite essay on art. What he wrote specifically about “Repose,” which I’ve since come to know on repeated visits to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence, still pulses behind my eyes, gently warming my enthusiasm for criticism whenever it threatens to cool.

Schjeldahl, who died last year, became a friend after I moved to the United States. He could be complicated (he told me his wife suggested he hand out business cards imprinted with “Peter Schjeldahl: Bridge Burner”), but he was deeply and magnificently human and, like many, I miss him. So forgive me if this piece comes across as much as a tribute to Schjeldahl as to “Repose.”

Manet, like his hero Diego Velázquez, was cool. His paintings convey a sense that nothing fazed him. But what Schjeldahl most loved him for was his ardor. “Manet responded to the sensuous charge in things and in paint, and to the sexual charge in people,” he wrote, “not as anything hidden and shadowy but as the very flavor of a civilized existence.”

You felt this responsiveness in everything Manet painted, whether it was a bunch of peonies, a brioche, a dead toreador or a turquoise sea. But his ardor was never more evident than when he painted Berthe Morisot.

Several of Manet’s depictions of Morisot, including “Repose,” are now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the “Manet/Degas” exhibition. In “Repose,” which is almost five feet high, Morisot is leaning back into a deep, wine-colored sofa. She wears a white dress with a black belt and gazes off to the right — a little fed up, you feel, with posing, perhaps eager to get back to her own easel.

On the wall behind her is a Japanese print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, in which a female pearl diver, Tamamo, is retrieving a stolen jewel from the Dragon King’s underwater palace. The print is all crashing waves and tumbling bodies, and its inclusion makes explicit an erotic tumult just below the surface of Manet’s painting.

“Beneath [Morisot’s] petticoats, twisting athwart their arrangement, her body is wild,” observed Schjeldahl. “Wild not with desire … but with the thoughtless animal energy that both desires and induces desire.”

People today often have trouble understanding just what it was about Manet that so scandalized France’s genteel public and its conservative art establishment. Most of the answers have to do with painting style and subject matter in the context of onrushing modernity. But I’ve always liked Schjeldahl’s simpler claim that Manet’s contemporaries “could not relax enough to appreciate his life-affirming joke: that in rendering the animal in the bonnet or frock coat, he conferred an integrity on living men and women that made them proof against whatever dehumanizing forces the world could inflict.”

“Without a whisper of doting,” he wrote of Manet’s “Repose,” the painting is “a lesson in how to love.”

Without a whisper of doting” is spot on, I think. I only wonder whether Morisot’s squirming body also has to do with a frustrated desire, at that time, to be doted on by Manet …

Alas, he was already married. Her eminently practical solution, when the disappointment subsided, was to marry his brother.

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