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Berthe Morisot took a while to find her confidence in using oils, but once she found it she worked with confidence and aplomb, painting fast and assuredly.
This speed of paint application can be seen in her oil paintings, with firm brush strokes sweeping rapidly across the canvas, skilfully detailing the curve of a jawline, sweep of a cheekbone and perfect placement of an expressive eyebrow. Girl on a Divan is not a large painting, measuring a mere 50 by 60 centimetres, and it depicts the upper half of a young girl seated on a green couch. She is at leisure, leaning on the backrest with one arm – her right – resting on the armrest. However, there seems to be some tension in her pose, as though she has been scolded or is awaiting similar fallout from an action of hers.
This tension is mainly seen in the neck, where the tendons are taut and her chin tucked in defensively. The reason for this tension is not explained by the known facts. According to the artist's grandson, the girl was neither a friend or a relative to the artist, but instead a paid model who had sat for Morisot a few times before. Some cite the casual pose as evidence of friendship between the two, but to accept this is to ignore the slightly raised – and combative – eyebrows, that resistance in the neck and the subtle compressing of the lips...
The girl is wearing a light wrap with a lacy lapel, which can clearly be seen when the painting is viewed from a moderate distance. However, up close, it becomes clear just how much of a genius Morisot was: all that lace and subtle colour is made up of seeming random squiggles and splashes of colour. This skill is evident in other areas too: the shadow behind the girl's head, the depth of field portrayed showing that the couch is behind the girl. Morisot's speedy paintings were probably so successful because she spent a long time in preparation, drawing and planning the painting obsessively before touching her brushes.
In this way, once she was ready to begin, she knew every step that she would take, from first touch to finishing signature. The painting, oil on canvas, was inherited by the artist's daughter who, at some point in need of funds, sold it on. From there it found its way into the hands of the Tate Gallery, London, who are the current owners of the work. However, the piece is hanging in the National Gallery, where it is on loan for a time.