EVEN without the light dress and parasol to shade the face of the young woman seated on the seawall, we would know that this is as much a painting of an early morning in summer as it is a harbor view. Not only do the blue sky and blue water sparkle but the air itself is fresh and clear. The many subtle iridescences of the water reflecting the sky, the boats and buildings are painted with an easy and natural brushing. The buildings and boats themselves have a solidity which counterpoints the fluidity of the water and sky.
The sketchy rendering of the young woman, the artist's sister, reminds us that Berthe Morisot was an early and consistent member of the Impressionist group. Many critics undervalue her work and role in the development of art in France in the second half of the 19th century. Sometimes she is only mentioned as 'Edouard Manet's sister-in-law or his pupil. Actually, she had had more consistent success in having paintings accepted in the annual Paris salons than he had for several years prior to their meetin g. Those salons were the official exhibitions that made a painter's reputation. Her enthusiasm for open-air painting so impressed Manet that he had to experience it for himself. It may have been this very painting which influenced his decision, since he praised it so highly that she offered it to him in a characteristically generous and gracious gesture.
Berthe and her sister, Edma, had been studying painting with a minor artist named Guichard who insisted on working in the studio. Berthe's strong-minded desire to work outdoors was so great that she finally prevailed upon him to introduce them to Camille Corot. This master landscapist's counsel was, ``Let's work hard and steadfastly and not follow too closely papa Corot; it is better to consult nature itself.'' He also advised his pupils to choose subjects that harmonized with their own particular impre ssions, considering each person's soul a mirror in which nature is reflected in a particular fashion.
Assiduously heeding his advice and example, the sisters Morisot were out painting very early to catch the delicate morning tints. Such was Berthe's diligence and ability that three years later she had two landscapes accepted for exhibit at the salon. She was then but 23 years old. Thereafter, her paintings were regularly accepted. She met many of the other painters as they all gathered in the Louvre to study and copy famous paintings. It was there that she met Manet, introduced by Fantin-Latour, and th eir art association began.
However, as she met Degas, Monet, Renoir, and others who were to make up the Impressionists, she found their ideas on art greatly to her liking. Against Manet's advice, she threw in her lot with them in their first independent group exhibit, relinquishing her right to send paintings to the salon. Showing as many as 19 works at one time, she exhibited in all the successive Impressionist exhibits except one when, after having married Eug`ene Manet, she was pregnant with their only child, Julie. She even j oined the group in the unfortunate auction of 1875 (a year after their first show) at which her paintings commanded higher prices than Renoir's or Monet's.
In fact, the only participation she eschewed was the discussions at the Caf'e Guerbois, as such surroundings were ``off limits'' to a daughter of a wealthy magistrate. But her friends undoubtedly filled her in on the latest art theories, opinions, and gossip when she attended the musical Thursday gatherings at the Manets. Berthe was not one to disregard what was ``proper.'' When she sat for Manet, as she did for several paintings, she was accompanied by her indulgent, art-loving mother. The Manet
portraits show a dark-haired, elegant, even languid-looking, beauty and do not indicate the energy and determination that must have been hers to keep up with such vigorous companions.
With an unassuming grace, Berthe Morisot once wrote, ``My ambition is limited to my desire to capture something transitory, something, the smallest of things.''
In ``The Harbor at Lorient'' she does indeed capture the transitory with swift and direct vision -- the young clouds forming in the morning sky and their reflection in the still water; the way the fishing boats lean against the quai; a sail being hoisted; the quick glint of light on the edge of buildings; the white flower on Edma's tiny hat; the warm-colored shadow cast by her peach-pink parasol; the rose decorations on the collar and hem of her dress.
As in most other Impressionist paintings, a brief but lovely moment is caught in passing and will endure as long as paint and canvas can.