Guest post by Paula Butterfield, author of La Luministe and other works of historical fiction
Years after their brief affair, musician Evans Herman wrote a nostalgic poem for Joan Mitchell, A Gift of Violets. Mitchell reciprocated with a small drawing of violets. Not an earth-shaking exchange, except for how it parallels an event in Berthe Morisot’s life. After she modeled for a painting for Edouard Manet, he sent her a small painting of the violet nosegay she’d worn pinned to her dress that day. These minor episodes hint at how much Morisot and Mitchell, two women artists who lived and worked at a remove of one hundred years, had in common.
As I researched Berthe Morisot for my historical novel, La Luministe, I saw elements of this Impressionist artist’s work that hinted at Joan Mitchell’s future paintings. The brushstrokes on Morisot’s unfinished canvases, in particular, look like the work of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. (See the right side of Woman at Her Toilette, above.) As art critic Sam Smee has written, “In the 1880s, Morisot experimented with unprimed canvases and a lack of finish that looks radical even today — closer at times to Joan Mitchell than Paul Cézanne.” (Washington Post, August 21, 2018)
In turn, painter Joan Mitchell was labeled an “Abstract Impressionist.” It was a term coined by Elaine de Kooning, who conflated the Impressionists’ interest in the optical effects of nature with the Abstract Expressionists’ interest in the visual representations of emotional or spiritual states. De Kooning compared Mitchell to Monet in her use of watery surfaces and reflections of the sky. From the 1970s until the end of her life, Mitchell even lived in a house next to Monet’s former home in Vetheuil.
Morisot and Mitchell both lived in France, both came from well-off upper-class families, and both were involved in difficult relationships with well-known artists—Morisot with Edouard Manet and Mitchell with Jean-Paul Riopelle. And each artist had great feeling for landscape, especially trees. Morisot, as one of the founding Impressionists, painted en plein air. She felt sustained by trees.The Bois de Boulogne, “the lungs of the city”, was her refuge from modern Paris, and the forested park provided the setting for many of her paintings. Mitchell felt an affinity for trees, as well. When she was in the hospital recovering from hip surgery late in her life,
… they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly … I saw two fir trees in a park … and I was so happy. It had to do with being alive, I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint. (from an interview with Yves Michaud for catalog, Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, 1986)
Green blotches traverse a neutral background in both fauna-filled canvases, below. The pink figure on the right in Harvest à Bougival serves as an accent comparable to Mitchell’s perfect fuchsia-colored accent in roughly the same position in My Plant.
Do you see what I mean? In the paintings below, there are similarities in composition (emphasis in lower-left corner), brush strokes (as scumbled and breezy as the wind at the English seaside), and palette (muted blue-grays with accents of red in Morisot’s painting, with green and blue accents in Mitchell’s painting).
In 2014, an untitled work of Joan Mitchell’s brought $11.9 million at auction, the highest price garnered by a woman artist to date—supplanting the $10.9 million brought by Berthe Morisot’s After the Luncheon in 2013. It’s appropriate that Morisot and Mitchell topped the list of most valued women artists in two consecutive years. Separated by a century, the artists shared not only lives lived in France and devotion to their art, but also a way of seeing.
I hope you’ll now be looking for similarities in paintings you see by these Abstract Impressionists. Show me what you find—contact me, @pbutterwriter or at paula-butterfield.com.
After developing and teaching college courses about women artists for many years, Paula Butterfield turned to writing about them. La Luministe, her debut novel (Regal House, 2019) about Impressionist Berthe Morisot, won a first place Chanticleer Reviews Chaucer Award for historical fiction. Paula lives with her husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, where she is working on her next book about two rival American artists.
Recent Art Herstory blog posts:
Q&A about Judith Leyster (1609–1660), the protagonist of Callaghan’s 2018 novel
We notice an exciting new trend in publishing: real women artists from the distant past feature as protagonists in new works of historical fiction, and as subjects of scholarly studies. This post is the second installment of an occasional feature on the Art Herstory blog: interviews with book authors, whether fiction or non-fiction, about female artists from past centuries.
Although A Light of Her Own is a work of fiction, its main character, Judith Leyster, was an actual painter during the Dutch Golden Age. Her works—many of which still exist today, and can be viewed in museums and/or online—include genre scenes, portraits, and at least one still life. She is documented as one of the first women ever to be admitted to the Saint Luke’s Guild of Haarlem.
The Publishers Weekly review (November 2018) offers this description and accolade of the novel: “Callaghan skillfully balances both the intricacies of the 17th-century Dutch art world and the religious persecution of the time, making this a dextrously woven and engrossing historical novel.”
Here, author Carrie Callaghan discusses aspects of working with this female Old Master as a character in her debut novel.
How did you come to write about Judith Leyster?
I live near downtown Washington, DC, and I love going to the National Gallery of Art for a dose of soul-restoration and joy. One day some years ago, I was wandering around the Dutch galleries there when I came upon an exhibit of paintings done by a woman. A woman painting at the time of Rembrandt—Judith Leyster. My jaw practically hit the floor, and I was enthralled. How had she managed to paint so much and so successfully? I use my writing as a way to explore my questions about today and the past, so I knew I had to write Judith’s story.
How did you go about researching Judith Leyster and her time period?
Naturally, I started with the paintings and the scholarly work done on the paintings. When I was eight months pregnant with my first child, I went to the Library of Congress and pulled all the books they had on her, including a collection of essays written by leading scholars to support an earlier exhibit of Judith’s paintings. After what I learned about Judith, and how she managed to continue painting even after she had children of her own to care for, that first research trip seems fitting. Of course, beyond that, I relied on books, more paintings, and interviews.
What is your favorite painting by Judith Leyster, and why?
Judith has such wonderful, expressive paintings, and yet it’s easy for me to pick my favorite: her self-portrait, which hangs on the walls of the National Gallery of Art and graces the cover of my book. When I was writing the scene where Judith applies to the St Luke’s Guild, which she needs to join in order to work as a professional painter, I had to pick a painting for her to present as her “master piece.” The books noted that they didn’t know what she used, so I looked at her charming set pieces and genre paintings. None, however, had the bold spirit of her self-portrait, and that’s how I wrote the scene. Of course the bold Judith would choose her own face to present to this room full of men, sitting in judgment of her. Or so I imagined.
A year ago, I was chatting on the phone with the leading Judith Leyster scholar.
“You know,” she said. “We’ve recently identified which painting Judith presented for her Guild master work.”
I sucked in a breath. “Yes?”
“It was her self portrait.”
I had chills.
There’s a lot of description of painting technique in the novel. Are you a painter yourself?
No, though I miss the drawing I used to do in high school. My mother and grandmother are both painters, however, so I felt like I was honoring their legacy by writing about Judith. All three women struggled to balance motherhood, art, and livelihood, and I felt closer to my family after I tried to see the world through Judith’s eyes.
Since publication, has your book popped up in any exciting, artsy places?
I haven’t checked, but the book buyer at the National Gallery of Art said that A Light of Her Own is for sale there! That’s pretty much my dream spot. And I’ve been so thrilled to be embraced by the wonderful community of art-loving book readers. The enthusiasm has been a surprise, and so inspiring.
Have you had any interesting interactions with any of those art lovers?
Actually, yes. While the book was awaiting publication, I visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts with a friend. We walked up the stairs and the first painting I saw was, quite obviously, a Judith Leyster work. I ran over and stared. As I marveled, I noticed that another woman was equally enraptured.
“You must be a Judith Leyster fan,” I said.
“Oh yes,” she replied.
I mustered up all my courage, took a deep breath, and rushed out the words, “I wrote a book about her!” And then I blushed deep red.
“I wrote a story about her!” She grinned.
We both squealed, compared notes about our love for Judith Leyster, and then parted.
A few minutes later, she came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Carrie, I have to tell you,” she said. “I showed my friend the bookmark you gave me, and she had a confession. She had already pre-ordered your book for me.”
I blushed even deeper red, and told her I looked forward to seeing her writing on Judith published some day. And all the while, I felt like Judith was smiling down on us, this confederacy of her fans.
Carrie Callaghan’s A Light of Her Own was issued in 2018 by Amberjack. Publishers Weekly called it “a riveting debut,” and it was one of the Washington Independent Review of Books “Favorite Books of 2018.” Her second novel, Salt the Snow, about the 20th century American journalist and firebrand Milly Bennett, comes out in 2020. Carrie lives in Maryland with her spouse, two children, and two ridiculous cats.
More blog posts by authors of historical fiction:
Victorine Meurent, More than a Model, by Drēma Drudge
Gesina ter Borch: Artist, Not Amateur (Guest post by Dr. Nicole Cook)
The Protofeminist Insects of Giovanna Garzoni and Maria Sibylla Merian (Guest post by Prof. Emma Steinkraus)
For the complete list of Art Herstory blog posts, visit this link