What Was Her Name?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2017

Today I went to a lecture on Berthe Morisot by Dr. Pamela Gerrish Nunn at the Dixon. The whole time I kept telling myself to remember those two names, practicing them in my head. But later that afternoon when friends asked me what I did today I had forgotten both names. That is very frustrating.

Woman and Child on a Balcony by Berthe Morisot 1871

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a French women Impressionist painter who’s work was concurrent with all the other Impressionist painters we now think of as famous, and she showed in nearly all of the famous Impressionist exhibitions. I’ve probably heard about her before, seen her paintings, and just don’t remember. Of course, I’ve seen the one the Dixon owns.

Here are 30 paintings by Morisot to view online at good resolutions and color reproduction.

What troubles me about my poor memory is I remember just enough to know I’m accumulating a bit of knowledge about Impressionism. But those memories are just a vague pile of blowing leaves. I’ve seen many exhibits of their work, read novels and books about their lives, watched movies that fictionalized their times, attended lectures on the movement, but I just can’t hold all the details together in my mind. As Nunn spoke, things she said would make me recall other facts I had once encountered, but only in the vaguest of ways. For example, I knew I had heard a lecture on another female Impressionist, but I couldn’t recall her name until Nunn said it – Mary Cassatt. And I’ve seen some of her paintings, so it’s a shame I can’t remember her name.

During the lecture I even wondered if I should create flash cards about Impressionism to see if I could burn the essential details in my mind. Last year I wrote “Why Read What We Can’t Remember?” for Book Riot about this frustration. Why spend so much time learning when I can’t retain what I study? Would it be of any value to study facts at night, in hopes I could retain them? I wonder if I made up a pile of cards of everything I’d want to remember how many cards would I have?

The answer to why study what I can’t remember, is for the hour during the lection, and an hour creating this essay, I was focused on Berthe Morisot (I have to look the name up every goddamn time). There’s pleasure in those moments, even if I can’t retain the data that describe them. I might not even remember this tomorrow. But someday I’ll attend another lecture on Impressionists, and maybe I’ll see one of Morisot’s paintings, and I’m remember I had seen a slide of it at the lecture. Or just have a vague sense of déjà vu.

I was able to remember one thing from the lecture, and I’ve very glad I did. I guess I can trust my mind a tiny bit. After the lecture I spoke with Nunn and she mentioned one book, The New Painting. Kirkus Reviews says, “Quite possibly, the most important art book published in this decade; certainly one of the most impressive.” So I ordered it. (It looks familiar, but I don’t think I own it. But I might. I can’t find it at the moment. Damn my memory! I do remember the painting on the cover, and who knows, I might have seen the original.)

The New Painting


10 thoughts on “What Was Her Name?”

  1. Hi James

    I share your frustration, I want to continue to learn things but find I can read a science article and have to keep going back because I have trouble retaining things from paragraph to paragraph. I have almost given up trying to understand physics which I would love to study. The same with my Great Courses I suspect I will have to watch them many times, but I am determined to get thru Weather and retain something. Every week an older friend and I get together to talk about news, science fiction, science, history and archaeology and we end up suppling the word the other has forgotten (when we are lucky) today there was one I think we could almost visualize but we gave up, I think we forget what we were doing, sigh. It is mostly names and specific details, I still retain the gist of some parts of what I read or hear most of the time. Still we soldier on.

    I tried to capture this frustration some time ago in a poem. I will provide a link in case you are interested.


    All the best

    1. I hope others reading this comment go to Guy’s site and read his poem. Guy, you truly are a kindred spirit. I love the lines, “Words I do not wish to lose have migrated to some farther lobe” and “which errand has slunk silently away with more of my confidence” and the ending, “And if this is aging, along with sleepless nights and stiff hands let’s hope I reach some equilibrium amid loss and gain, and when I finally go, let it not be like an aged cat calling from room to room, let me drop like a leaf in due season, sere and quiescent, rising only to dance in the wind.”

  2. “Would it be of any value to study facts at night, in hopes I could retain them?”

    Jim, I rarely comment here, because I read your posts by email. But I thought I’d make an exception when I read that question.

    IMHO, facts are the least important things to learn. We have the internet now. If you want to check a simple fact, it’s the easiest thing in the world to google it.

    That doesn’t mean that learning isn’t important, of course. And we all need some basic facts about the world. But you learn a lot more than facts when you read and study. As I say, facts are probably the least important of what you learn.

    PS. Just one of the things we need to learn is how to find facts when you need them and otherwise compensate for an unreliable memory (and memory is unreliable in all of us).

    1. Bill, I take great comfort in Google. In recent years I’ve studied how unreliable our memories are, for recalling events. I’ve given up on trusting my memory of my own history. But I’d like to keep as many words and names as I can, the ones that help me talk in a coherent fashion. We need a limit number of words to speak clearly, so it’s handy to be able to recall them without reverting to Google.

  3. Saw a bunch of Morisot paintings at the Marmottan museum in Paris. So beautiful! And as I long as I remember my impressions of beauty and the happiness it brings me, I am not too worried about forgetting facts and details.

  4. Two of the best books concerning impressionism I’ve found are “World Impressionism” edit by Norma Broude — a big format book that opens up the whole world of impressionist painters, not just the most famous French impressionist, and “Impressionism” edited by Ingo F Walther a smaller format book, but with lots and lots of color paintings, again from many countries.
    And if you are thinking of painting, you can’t go wrong with adopting an impressionist style — you just need to follow your eastern, Buddhist side — and paint you feel more than what you see. Painting an impression saves several decades of learning how to paint something sort of like what that a smartphone captures in 1/2000 of a second.

  5. James, keep doing what you do: keep attending lectures and keep formalizing your thoughts on your blog as beautifully as you’ve done here. There are many kinds of memories, the best are the ones shared.

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