The image of a woman before a mirror intrigued diverse artists of the nineteenth century, including Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Edouard Manet, and Mary Cassatt. At first glance, Berthe Morisot’s Woman at Her Toilette appears to conform to typical examples of the subject. A woman, seated at a dressing table in the privacy of her chamber, is lost in a reverie; she seems to contemplate her reflection before her. However, a closer examination of Morisot’s composition, following the angle of the woman’s inclined head, reveals that she gazes downward rather than into the mirror. And the reflection shows not her features but the sheen of the cosmetic containers and the pale petals of the flower on a nearby table. By denying us a glimpse of the model’s face, Morisot broke with the convention of using the mirror as a means to double the voyeuristic pleasure of glancing at a woman unawares. As a result of this unexpected complication, we are made to consider the state of being looked at, even while engaged in the act of looking.
The painting’s sensuous quality resides as much in Morisot’s technique as in her subject. Every tone of her subtle palette—silver gray, pastel pink, pale blue, and pearlized white—shimmers with a rich opalescence. Applying her creamy paint in feathery brush strokes, Morisot dissolved the surface of the wall behind the figure, whose gracefully curved back and columnar arms appear as the only solid forms in the room. Whereas Cassatt’s images of women are descriptive, the result of keen observation and firm draftsmanship, Morisot’s are suggestive, implied by nuance of color and lightness of touch.
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