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Feb 25, 2019

Berthe Morisot and her Brushwork...

I received an email today requesting me for a quick take about how Berthe Morisot painted. I thought my reply might be interesting to you readers, so here it is...

On Feb 25, 2019, at 11:36AM, Malcolm wrote: 
19911537896_483614173a_b.jpgMr. Kitts,

I received your email this morning about the micro and macrocosm of your painting brushwork and enjoyed the video. Very nice surfaces!
This evening I will purchase, and watch, your ‘Sergeant' video and hopefully that video will answer a question that I have about gestural brushwork.

But in case it does not I am also sending you this email to ask: in the attached image of the Berthe Morisot painting the brush work is very loose and superimposed over other brushwork, what medium (if any) would she have mixed with her oils to achieve those flowing strokes? They are fluid and almost translucent in areas.

And my reply...

Hello Malcom. Thank you for your email.

First, the recent Video Demonstration you mentioned focuses exclusively on Sorolla, not Sargent. Just want you to know that before you purchase it. But that Sorolla demo is more in line with the way I painted the Micro/Macro Five Palms painting than any Sargent methods. In fact. I was sticking pretty close to Sorolla’s mature technique as I painted it. And yes, there will be a comprehensive Sargent DVD demo as some point. I just haven’t scheduled it yet.

I don’t consider myself an authority on Morisot per se but I can make a few educated guesses based upon what I know about the materials and methods in use at the time. Although, it is important to understand that very few artists worked the same way, with the same technique and materials, over the entire course of their lifetime. So the conclusions I draw here should be considered merely quick generalizations, and not encompassing in how Berthe always worked…

Berthe Morisot, The Artist's Daughter Julie with her Nanny
click to enlarge

First, I have attached a large jpg of a different Berthe Morisot painting (above). It was probably executed close to the time of the painting you shared. You should be able to zoom into this file and see distinct layers of paint, which may help answer your questions. (I have even larger files, but this image should suffice.)

And please remember, the following observations I have offer below refer to the image above, not the one you attached to your original email to me...
1. In both of these examples, Berthe was painting on a tightly woven linen support. The linen would likely to have been ‘gessoed’ with a lead oil ground, a common practice at that time and it is a nice surface to paint on even today. Try it yourself. Your ground will dictates what happens with your brushstrokes. 
2. The prepared ground was stained with a pigmented earth color, likely a burnt umber from the look of it. The wash would have been applied thinly using a solvent, likely turpentine, and left to dry before starting the painting. I say dry because there is no softening or diffusion in the lower layers of paint that sits directly on the ground. 
3. The paint pigment itself can contribute to the character of her brush work. Berthe is painting with a palette used by most of the original French Impressionists of this period. Cad Yellows to Reds, and I am guessing Prussian and Colbalt Blue, a Viridian or Emerald Green, and a few assorted earth colors such as Umbers, Ochres, and Siennas. And she was definitely using a Lead White. No black. There may be additional pigments involved as well, but if so they aren’t obvious to the eye and it would require some lab tests to determine what else is there. But largely, it is the lead white that is facilitating the thick ropey impasto character to Berthe's marks, and the drags, pulls, and the way the paint breaks at the edges and ends of her strokes. 
4. Look at how the paint is applied. Either as a few thin washes (underneath), with little attempts to model form (except in the hair), or it has been applied is thick and full-bodied, with each stroke retaining its individual character and gesture. Not a lot in between. I see no visible slumping of the impasto as it set so there probably isn't any fatty oil or medium incorporated beyond whatever may already be in the paint itself. Again, this would be a common way of painting for the French Impressionists because most of the leaders of that movement eschewed a glossy surface or overly mixed their colors. They felt such practices detracted from the optical partitive effect they were pursuing. They liked to allow flecks of pure color sparkle amongst the other mixes, sometimes analogous, sometimes complementary, unlike the academic painters of the same time who tended to mic 'dead' color and or glaze over underlying hues. The French Impressionists, such as Berthe, also likely to push one wet pure color into another on the canvas, rather than mixing everything with a knife on a palette. (Variations of this abound.) And, in the child's lacy collar you can see a ‘double-loading’ where Berthe picks up two colors on her brush before dragging it across the surface. An entirely different kind of blend. This was also common to impressionists of the period. 
5. Berthe is using a stiff haired brush, likely hog hair, and even more likely, a combination of few different-sized filberts or short stubby flats with grounded corners. She applies restrained touches of color with small round every now and then for the fine details, such as the eyes and eyebrows, but she isn’t using the small round to render out or ‘detail' things like hair or drapery. All of that are big gutsy pulls with a loaded brush. 
6. And finally, look at the directional gesture of her strokes. She often pulls them in alignment, sometimes changing the direction to follow along the surface planes of her subjects – look at the shoulders of both figures – and sometimes simply pulled along the side of a flat shape, like the side of the mother’s face. Other times her strokes are short and multi-directional. Both contribute to the activity you feel on the surface. The French Impressionists often used such brushwork to convey the crisp sparkling of light. 
Conclusion: So on a quick review, based on this painting and others I have seen first-hand, I don’t think Berthe used much painting medium at all, beyond a little turpentine at the outset. I don’t see any evidence that turps were used towards the end since the nature of the strokes on top belies it. With one exception being the isolated brilliant cobalt or ultramarine blue strokes representing the nanny's left wrist cuff. That is clearly an improvisational turpentine wash of pure color on top of dry paint below.
And in your opinion would that painting be completed in one sitting or over many days? 
Both paintings look as though they were executed all prima, or completed within a single session. Perhaps there may be a few areas that were further worked after the initial paint layer had dried, maybe as corrections, but given how the layers of paint ‘break’ and overlap those re-workings would be minimal. And there is no sign of Berthe working fresh paint into or on top of an ‘oiled out’ area, which is how some painters of this era made multiple session paintings look as if they were a one-shot wonder...

Malcom, I hope this information is helpful as you continue to study Berthe Morisot. But be sure to look at as many original paintings by her as you can find. 

And of course...keep painting! 



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2 reader comments:

Unknown said...

Hello Thomas,
Thank you for the extremely thoughtful response to the reader Malcom's letter.

I was knocked out by the technical expertise you shared with us readers. I just love knowing all the geeky details, whether or not I actually employ them. I am so impressed by your store of knowledge and even more by the time you take to share it with the public. I always look forward to the new information you have to share.


Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Thank you Cedar.

I have spent a long time at this, and studied a lot of artists methods and materials. But I bet someone with more knowledge of Morisot's work can either add to, or clarify what I've shared.

It's funny how artists paint in similar ways, with similar tools and techniques, yet end up with entirely different results. That is one reason I love oil paint as my primary medium.

I look forward to working with you this September in two of my 2019 workshops: Drawing for the Plein air Painter, and Painting for the Plein Air Painter.

I think you will learn a lot...