A Snowy Day in Paris

05.06.2014

In the winter of 1886, the neighborhoods of Paris were transformed by an unusually heavy snowfall that lingered on the branches of trees and captured the imagination of the artist Berthe Morisot. A founding member of the independent painters’ collaborative a critic had dubbed the “impressionists,” Morisot shared the group’s interest in painting scenes of modern life in a style distinguished by broken brushstrokes, flattened spatial relationships, cropped points of view, responses to fleeting light and atmosphere, and an absence of academic drawing and modeling. Each of these techniques is visible in Child in a Red Apron, which Morisot painted on a 24-by-20-inch canvas, a modest scale that accommodated her practice of working in various rooms in her home in Paris. To capture this scene, she set up an easel in her bedroom, looking out on the rue de Villejust (now rue Paul Valéry) in a quiet neighborhood not far from the Bois de Boulogne. 

Detail of a map of the Paris, 1889, showing the location of Morisot’s home on the rue de Villejust.

The snowfall offered Morisot the opportunity to combine two favorite themes: an intimate portrait of domestic life and the optical sensations of natural light on landscape. Additionally, it beckoned her to partner her preferred palette of pinkish and orangey reds, and various shades of blues and greens, with the whites that she loved best and used liberally–both for their own sake and as carriers of sunlight and shadows. Child in a Red Apron gives the impression of swift execution, but it was the result of Morisot’s slow process in which marks were carefully laid and rarely altered. Her touch is light but deliberate: in single brushstrokes–a red slash of lips or the black dot of an eye–she precisely depicted expressions. Use of the white ground of the canvas was another strategic and radical component of her art, as it reflected rather than absorbed light and heightened the effect of the unmixed pigments that were placed upon it. For Morisot, who also worked in pastel and watercolor, its brightness permitted her to achieve equal effects of blur, rapidity, and transparency in oil painting.

Home of Berthe Morisot and her husband, Eugène Manet, in 1886. Child in a Red Apron was painted in the room behind the curved window below the lower balcony, at left. Photograph courtesy of William P. Scott.

The subject of Child with a Red Apron was Morisot’s 7-year-old daughter, Julie, a frequent and willing model who often played and read in her mother’s bedroom. Accompanied by her favorite hobby horse, Julie is seen here from the back, wearing a bright red apron over a navy blue dress and gazing intently at the wintry transformation outside. She lifts her hands close to her face, perhaps to trace the snowy view on a sheet of paper held against a window pane. Her concentration is undisturbed by the gust of air that lifts her apron strings and causes the sheer curtain panels to billow in blue and grey spirals. 

View of the window of Berthe Morisot’s bedroom, in which her daughter Julie posed. Photograph courtesy of William P. Scott.

Although household drafts were blamed for a variety of ills in 19th-century Paris, this one seems to be an invited guest.  Morisot loosely interweaves curling and slashing brushstrokes, enclosing Julie in a web of independent lines that convey stillness surrounded by subtle movement. Soft lavender arcs fill the lower left corner, seemingly random yet in fact consciously colored and placed. Mother and daughter had often practiced naming the hues found in shadows, but in this instance Morisot’s choice recalls an observation made by her brother-in-law, the painter Edouard Manet, that one can produce open air in a room by painting blue in the morning, lilac in the day, and orange in the evening. Morisot draws attention to a bright spot of yellow representing the brass knob attached to the latching rod of the French windows. A slight angle at the bottom of the panels indicates that they are unlatched, allowing just enough breeze to stir the air and animate the composition with the cool sensation of the snowfall.

Maureen O’Brien
Curator of Painting and Sculpture