The present canvas was painted in 1892 at Mézy, a small village in the valley of the Seine to the northwest of Paris. Morisot, her husband Eugène Manet, and their daughter Julie had spent the previous two summers in a spacious rented house at Mézy, the Maison Blotière, and in the fall of 1891 had purchased a home of their own there, the seventeenth-century Château du Mesnil. Eugène's health was failing by this time, and Morisot had become concerned that she and her husband were growing old prematurely; watching her daughter and nieces learn to draw and paint, she was nostalgic for her youth. In a letter to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé dated July 1891, she wrote, "Eugène told you, did he not, that we were negotiating to buy a château; we are carried away by the desire to be in a beautiful setting before we die" (quoted in D. Rouart, ed., Berthe Morisot, The Correspondence, London, 1987, p. 182). During the same summer, she wrote to her sister Edma, "I am constantly aware of the fact that life is moving on and that it is high time to reveal what is in one's heart. I very often think about our life of old, about all of us. I am at Mézy; it is raining almost incessantly; the place is too pretty to be spoiled" (quoted in ibid., p. 184). Eugène Manet died in April 1892, and the grieving Morisot retired to the Château du Mesnil to finish preparing for her first solo exhibition, which opened to great acclaim at Boussod et Valadon at the end of May. The present painting was executed during this visit to Mézy, and according to Charles Stuckey and William Scott, was the most ambitious work that Morisot made there in the spring of 1892 (exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 160). She never again returned, however, to the Château du Mesnil, opting instead to rent it out. As she explained to a friend, "During my husband's last days, his mind was haunted by this château, so that his memory is present here, evoking all the sadness of his illness" (quoted in D. Rouart, op. cit., p. 169).
The months that Morisot spent at Mézy were enormously fruitful ones. Fifteen of the nineteen canvases that the artist is known to have painted in 1890 and sixteen of her twenty-four paintings from 1891 date to her two summers at the Maison Blotière. After Eugène's death in 1892, she threw herself into her work, producing no fewer than ten oils, plus a group of watercolors and pastels, during her brief springtime stay at the Château du Mesnil. Although she depicted the occasional landscape at Mézy, she most often chose to paint idyllic visions of rural life, featuring her daughter Julie, her niece Jeannie Gobillard, and children from the village (in particular, a young model named Gabrielle Dufour). The girls are shown in the lush gardens surrounding the Maison Blotière or the Château du Mesnil, eating an apple, hanging a bird cage, playing the flute, feeding a goat, playing in a stream, or--in one of the most important projects from Morisot's late years--picking cherries (Rouart, Clairet, and Montalant, nos. 279-281; fig. 1). The present painting depicts two young redheaded sisters from Mézy, Jeanne and Edma Bodeau, posed with their pet cat on a windowsill in the garden of the Château du Mesnil. Jeanne (on the right) appears as well in Fillette au Mesnil (Rouart, Clairet, and Montalant, no. 301; fig. 2), while Edma modeled for an oil sketch of a young girl seated in the grass (Rouart, Clairet, and Montalant, no. 303). As Morisot wrote to her sister in 1891, "I have pretty models--local children; but all this cannot be described. I have projects, many projects" (quoted in ibid., p. 184).
Drawing had become increasingly important to Morisot in the late 1880s, and by the time that she worked at Mézy, she was regularly using pastel, watercolor, charcoal, red chalk, and colored pencil to make preparatory studies for her oil paintings. As a result of her new working methods, the contours of her figures became smoother and her forms weightier, in contrast to the loose, broken handling of her earlier paintings. In the present canvas, for instance, the brushwork in the background follows the outline of the two figures like a halo, especially around their heads and shoulders; the sill and window pane impose a gentle architectonic structure on the painting, which contrasts with the lush profusion of the foliage at the upper left. Kathleen Adler and Tamar Garb have written, "In 1891 Morisot's close friend Stéphane Mallarmé said in an interview: 'I think... that there should be only allusion. The contemplation of objects, the image emanating from the dreams which the objects excite, this is poetry... To suggest, that is the dream.' Morisot's later work has much in common with this ideal of suggestiveness. The sketchiness of handling which had characterized her painting since the early 1870s broadened into sweeping painterly brushmarks, and the debate about the sketch versus the finished painting, so important in the Impressionist years, was superseded by a concern with the evocation of mood and atmosphere" (Berthe Morisot, New York, 1987, p. 77).
Morisot's work from Mézy also reflects the artist's ongoing dialogue with Renoir, who had been one of her most trusted friends and ardent supporters since at least 1885, when Julie recorded in her diary, "M. Mallarmé and M. Renoir were the closest friends, the Thursday regulars" (quoted in B.E. White, Renoir, His Life, Art and Letters, New York, 1984, p. 192). Renoir painted Julie's portrait in 1887 (Daulte, no. 515; Dauberville, no. 1232; Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and a powerful double portrait of Morisot and her daughter in 1894 (Dauberville, no. 997; fig. 3). When Morisot died in 1895, her will named Renoir as one of Julie's two guardians, along with Mallarmé. Renoir stayed with Morisot and her family at Mézy at least once in 1890 and several times the following summer; in a letter dated August 1891, following one of these visits, he advised her, "Above all, finish the canvas with the cherry trees" (quoted in ibid., p. 192). During these years, Renoir--like Morisot--painted several canvases that depict young bourgeois girls seated in a garden, picking flowers, and otherwise enjoying the pleasures of the countryside. At least one of these paintings was made at Mézy using Julie Manet as a model (Dauberville, no. 987), while other examples may have been worked up in Renoir's studio back in Paris (Daulte, nos. 609-610; Dauberville, nos. 977-978; fig. 4). As in Morisot's work from Mézy, the figures in Renoir's paintings are woven into their surroundings by the repetition of similar colors throughout the landscape. John House has written, "The whole picture--sunlit landscape, young girls, and flowers-- presents the viewer with a vision of harmony and integration" (Renoir, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1985, p. 257).
The present painting was included in a vast memorial retrospective of Morisot's work that took place at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in March 1896, a year after the artist's death. The exhibition was organized by Morisot's Impressionist colleagues Renoir, Monet, and Degas, along with the poet Mallarmé, who wrote the preface to the catalogue. Although the works in the exhibition were drawn primarily from Julie Manet's legacy, the catalogue named no fewer than twenty-six other lenders; it thus stood as a testament to the public success that Morisot had enjoyed over the course of her career, as well as the private vision that informed her work. In a review of the exhibition in the April edition of Le Mercure de France, Camille Mauclair wrote, "What the public will retain of [Morisot] is in her paintings: the lively colors, the very sure yet very free composition, the ever-varied aspects of her figures and landscapes, the airy watercolors. These characterized her painting all along, through both hard times and times of triumph and recognition... and allow her to figure brilliantly in modern art, side by side with Manet, Renoir and Degas" (quoted in Y. Rouart, A. Clairet, and D. Montalant, op. cit., p. 104).
(fig. 1) Berthe Morisot, Le Cerisier, 1891-1892. Musée Marmottan, Paris.
(fig. 2) Berthe Morisot, Fillette au Mesnil, 1892. Sold, Christie's New York, 13 November 1996, lot 30.
(fig. 3) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot et sa fille Julie Manet, 1894. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 May 2000, lot 27.
(fig. 4) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeunes femmes cueillant des fleurs, circa 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.