Monthly Archives: June 2014

Berthe Morisot 1841 – 1895. The Cradle 1872. French Impressionism.


The Impressionist movement in art had its origins in Paris, it developed as a reaction against the growing popularity of photography, also artists were no longer content with the restricitions imposed on them by the Ecole des Beaux Arts, who rejected their work and refused to exhibit it, at first the title Impressionism was used to decry these impressionistic paintings, later becoming accepted as these paintings did in fact express impressions of the subject matter rather than exact representations. Painters wished to portray light and its changing qualities and movement with its unusual visual angles, their work was filled with light, shadows were created by the use of complementary colours, yellow laid against violet, red against green, blue against orange and so on. Working outdoors was recommended to capture the play of light, it was an art of immediacy and reflections, small brush strokes achieved this using unmixed colours easy by then to buy in tubes.

Berthe Morisot was the first lady of Impressionism, she first exhibited in the Salon de Refuse in 1864 set up by Napoleon 3 to show work rejected by the Academy. Painters in the movement like Cezanne, Degas and Monet used the studio of the photographer Nadar to show their work in the early days. Berthe and her sister Edma trained together, they visited the Louvre to study, for three years they studied with their tutor Guichard. The young women wore pracical clothes when working, skirts with no hoops and a blouse and jacket. Berthe was to marry Eduard Monet’s brother Eugene, they had a daughter Julia, it was a  happy marriage, her husband supported her wish to paint until his early death in 1892, I think that she was able to combine her work and being a wife and mother in a balanced middle way, managing her time well. Morisot became a popular artist selling three hundred and fifty paintings, she had a famous grandfather, the painter Jean Honore Fragonard who must have been an inspiration.

The Cradle is a portrait of Berthe’s sister Edma with her baby daughter, Blanch,  oils on canvas are used – Edma had given up painting when she married. We see a tender portrayal of motherhood which evokes for me that wonderful time when my children were babies, here the mother gazes at the child with tenderness, her bent arm is echoed by one of the baby’s arms, whose eyes are closed in sleep, the atmosphere is one of calm and quiet, for me this painting is full of meaning, it portrays the close link between mother and baby, we see fewer paintings with father and child, which has failed to note the changed role of male partners in their children’s lives. The basket is draped by a white curtain with golden yellow light flitting across it, being attached from a bracket above, producing a beautiful sweeping wave, no bright colour disturbs the peace, the light diffusing the white cradle is balanced by the mother’s dark dress and the black band around her neck and the background wall, covering a window a curtain is depicted as though it moves gently in a breeze with hints of blue sky. I remember the basket my daughters slept in, lined with pretty material, twin sons needed more space!

Berthe Morisot led a priviledged life, she knew many other artists, Corot was a good friend, she had no desire to be unconventional, her main  restrictions were her class and gender, a problem I did not have to consider when I studied, she painted the world around her avoiding urban scenes, her subjects were mostly the bourgoise, the clothes they wore and their surroundings, her friends and relatives. I particularly like a painting Morisot did of the area on her propertry where washing was hung out to dry, a down to earth image of everyday life. In addition to working with oils she used water colours and made many drawings, her first solo show was in 1892. This painting did not sell and remained in the family until the Louvre purchased it in 1930. Morisot died in 1895 soon after nursing her sick daughter Julia, who had pneumonia which she also contracted. Morisot is a popular painter still and her work is highly prized, luckily for most who wish to own one there are gclee prints to buy.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 28, Nina Davies on her work in social care and on feminism

In this latest member profile Nina Davies tells us about growing up in Singapore, doing VSO in Malawi, Buddhism and her work in social care. She then goes on to talk about the importance of feminism in her life, her interest in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, and the work of Judith Butler and Donna Harraway. Finally, she explains what were the reasons that made her join the society.

MWS Podcast 28: Nina Davies as audio only:
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Middle Way Thinkers 5: John Stuart Mill

“It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves…unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement….In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself, ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions that you were looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.”

This is how John Stuart Mill, writing in his autobiography, tells us about the great crisis in his life: what we might now call a nervous breakdown. Mill is one of philosophical history’s great infant prodigies. Urged by his pushy utilitarian father, he was also intended as a living demonstration of the power of a rationally ordered way of life in pursuit of utilitarian objectives. Famously, John Stuart Mill started to learn Ancient Greek at the age of three. By the time of his breakdown at twenty, he had already been through a high pressure education and become a utilitarian campaigner. We can guess, however, that in this pressurised environment a great many other feelings were repressed. As repressed feelings tend to do, they made themselves unexpectedly, distressingly and disruptively manifest.

What makes Mill such an inspiring figure is the way that he dealt with this inner conflict. He neither tried to repress the inconvenient feelings further, nor did he entirely give way to them. Instead he learnt from them and modified his view of the world. He seems, in fact, to have integrated the conflicting desires, meanings and beliefs that lay behind this inner turmoil, by working through them in his philosophy. What had started off as a narrow, puritanical utilitarianism was broadened and modified in an attempt to recognise the importance of emotional and aesthetic experience. Mill became especially known for his essay On Liberty, the key founding text of liberalism and a hugely creative advance in the political thought of the time. In addition, with the collaboration of his wife Harriet, his essay On the subjection of women also became a key early text in the attempt to persuade the repressive male-dominated nineteenth-century world that women should also share men’s liberty as equal partners.

As with any other thinker one might identify as making an important contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way, Mill found a balance in some ways more than others. For example, Mill’s interpretation of Utilitarianism moves beyond the narrowness of his early mentor Jeremy Bentham, it still has the limitations of Utilitarianism in general.  Bentham wanted to reduce moral decision-making to a ‘hedonic calculus’, in which the pleasures and pains likely to result from different possible actions would be quantified and weighed up in a notionally mathematical fashion. In the scales of this calculus, Bentham argued that every pleasure weighed equally, and should be measured only by its intensity, duration and other quantitative features: in his famous phrase “Pushpin is as good as poetry” (pushpin being a fairly mindless game played in pubs at the time). After his breakdown and recovery, Mill began to argue that some pleasures were better than others. However, he did not really have a convincing account of why poetry was better than pushpin that went beyond the weight of social consensus. That poetry might have benefits in terms of the meanings it offers us is too intangible an idea to fit easily into a utilitarian framework.john mill

It is in  On Liberty that I find Mill at his best and closest to the Middle Way. The utilitarianism is nominally there, but fades into the background beside Mill’s passionate argument for the freedom of expression and action. If you allow people to express unorthodox views and behave in unconventional ways, Mill argues, society as a whole will benefit, because these people will be able to develop and test out new and better ways of thinking and acting. Adults should thus be allowed to act as they wish provided they did not harm others in the process. Mill challenged those who thought they knew the truth as to whether they thought themselves (and the socially accepted view) infallible: if not, he argued, the possibility of error needed to be tested out in a free discussion in which better justified views would become evident. Mill here gives a very practical expression to the Middle Way in the recognition of basic uncertainty, and draws out its implication of tolerance that allows people to reach their own autonomous, but justified, conclusions.

Mill goes on “Even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it be suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but…the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason and personal experience.”

Mill here puts his finger on some of the key features of metaphysical dogma. By repressing alternative views, it not only prevents debate and experiment that might help us address conditions more effectively, it also represses emotions and creates conflicting psychological states that inhibit creativity and well-being. Personal experience may give rise to new ideas and beliefs, but these potential innovations must be crushed at source in order to ensure social conformity with the dominant beliefs. Unhappy individuals and rigid, fragile societies are the result. So much of nineteenth century literature is about this: the struggles of individuals to find sustenance and fulfil their vision in a stiflingly conventional society. But before the nineteenth century society was no less dogmatic and conformist. It was due to people like John Stuart Mill that awareness of the possibility of an alternative began to spread in a way it had not existed before.

Perhaps many people in the twenty-first century take this as old hat. We take tolerance of harmless individual differences for granted, at least in theory. Mill’s liberalism in its turn has now become the basis of a kind of social orthodoxy, which sometimes just goes through the motions of supporting creative individual freedom, but sometimes also genuinely does support that freedom to great positive effect. The Middle Way has now become much more a question for individuals, because dogmas can be carried around with us inside as well as laid on us from outside. But the fact remains, that without that basic degree of liberalism, our ability to find a Middle Way is severely curtailed by social pressure and control. That, perhaps, is why modernity is a much better context to practice the Middle Way than the traditional and hierarchical societies of the Buddhist East, even though these societies transmitted the Buddha’s idea of the Middle Way for many centuries.


Link to index of other posts in the Middle Way Thinkers series

The MWS Podcast: Episode 27, Andy West on Transformative Mediation

In this episode Andy West, a transformative mediator talks to us about the transformative framework, the nature of conflict, what we should do about conflict and what we should do about conflict that can’t be resolved. We then explore the difference between transformative mediation and Non-Violent Communication and to what extent this relates to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 27: Andy West as audio only:
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