Berthe Morisot circa 1870.
Photograph by Felix Nadar in whose studio the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874 was held.
In art historical terms Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) has unfortunately, in common with many female artists, been accorded a marginal place relative to the work of contemporary male colleagues. However, her work has to be analysed in its own right. Morisot’s art, it needs to be emphasised, was no less revolutionary than her male Impressionist peer group. The prevailing 19th century view of her art was that it was lightweight and insignificant, despite the fact that it consistently generated higher prices at auction. This myopic 19th century bourgeois outlook, according to Adler (1987), is still advanced in recent accounts of her art and life. Despite being a foremost and consistent disciple of Impressionism she is often disposed of with the “…stereotypical view of her work as the unmediated expression of an intrinsic femininity, delicate and charming in nature…” (Adler, 1987). Figure 1.
Figure 1. Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872).
Eduard Manet. Oil on canvas.
Morisot’s art cannot be understood in judgemental gender terms even though its appeal and acceptability was related to its gentleness. Morisot’s art cannot be seen in isolation from her social position and cultural milieu, not to mention her important role within the Impressionist movement as a whole. Morisot painted women and children set in may and various scenes, as well as landscapes and still-life’s. All display, in their poses, compositions, and painterly brushwork style, a sparkling spontaneity that inspired the contemporary critics Paul Mantz and Theodore Duret to describe her as the quintessential Impressionist.
Berthe Morisot was born the child of upper middle-class parents, Marie-Josephine-Cornelie and Edme Tiburce Morisot, in Bourges, the family moving to Paris when Berthe was seven. The granddaughter of the artist Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) she was reared in a highly cultured atmosphere and expected to be a skilled amateur artist. To this end Berthe and her sister Edma were educated and encouraged accordingly – being enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, from 1856 to 1859. Berthe received lessons in drawing from Geoffroy-Benoit Guichard (a pupil of Ingres and Delacroix) in 1858. In 1858 also they enrolled as copyists in the Louvre concentrating on works by Rubens and Veronese. However, in 1861 they were introduced to Corot (1796-1875), the landscape painter, and then advised by his pupil Oudinot (1820-1891). Through these painters they were familiarised with contemporary debates surrounding naturalism. As a result the Morisot’s began painting plein-air in Pontoise, and Brittany, though Berthe’s chief formative influence was the ‘painter of real life’ Edouard Manet (1832-1883) whom she met in 1868. Indeed, she reciprocated by persuading Manet to lighten his colours and experiment with Impressionist plein-air and the ‘rainbow palette’. However, Manet only advised Morisot and she never became his formal pupil.
Edma studied art from childhood and married a naval officer in 1869 and eventually ceased painting. In 1863 Edma produced the perceptive portrait Berthe Morisot Painting – an oil on canvas measuring some 39 by 28 inches and now in Yves Rouart.
Figure 3. Portrait of the artist’s sister Berthe Morisot painting (1865).
Edma Pontillon nee Morisot. Oil on canvas.
Berthe continued working after Edma and exhibited alongside her in the Paris Salons between 1864 and 1868. These regularly accepted pictures showed Berthe was nonetheless “…a strong opponent of conventional academic teaching and a champion of the Impressionist ideals…” (Chilvers, 1997). After ten years showing in the annual salons she reacted against what she concluded were conservative exhibitions and vowed never to participate again.
In 1867 or 1868 Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), a somewhat traditionalist painter but friend of the avant-garde that included Baudelaire, Whistler, Zola, Monet and Renoir, introduced Morisot to Edouard Manet. Not only did she marry Manet’s brother Eugene in 1874 she also modelled for Edouard in a number of paintings. An example if The balcony (1868-69). See Figure 4. In this work Morisot the model is depicted sheltering, even though somewhat alluringly, from the public domain and the prying eyes of the flaneur, the efforts of the viewer to penetrate the scene exasperated by the railing.
Figure 4. The Balcony (1868-69).
Edouard Manet. Oil on canvas.
Again, as we shall see in Morisot’s own paintings, women have become subjects in their own right rather than objects in a voyeuristic sense. Morisot’s friends included not only Manet, but also members of the Impressionist group Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, and Monet. Morisot was also written about by Zola and Mallarme. Her home thus became a meeting place for intellectuals and artists which also included the American woman artist May Cassatt (1844-1926). Morisot and Cassatt were unable to socially join their male colleagues at the popular artist’s resort of the Café Guerbois. Despite these social constraints place upon the women Impressionists Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales (1849-1883) and Marie Braquemond, the Morisot’s and their friends were regular participants at Manet’s Thursday evening soirees.
Morisot was a key figure in the group who initiated the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870’s and 1880’s. During this time she was, with Mary Cassatt actively involved with the Impressionist Exhibiting Society. Only the birth of her child prevented Morisot exhibiting in 1879. Moreover, she was the only woman artist represented at the first Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. One work was The Cradle (1872) which elucidated the comment “…nothing is more tender than the young mother…who leans over the cradle where rosy child falls asleep.” (Cited in Smith, 1955). Again, the painting was perceived in terms of possessing distinctly feminine qualities. In her View of Paris from the Trocadero (1872), see Figure 5, Morisot portrays Paris as a view from the suburbs.
Figure 5. View of Paris from the Trocadero (1872).
Oil on canvas.
The picture defines a barrier that separates the space occupied by middle-class suburban women from that of the metropolis. This suggests that Morisot did not have unlimited access to the public domain. Access to such social environments was denied by the constraints of the prevailing bourgeois cultural ideology. This effectively restricted Impressionist women painters to middle-class suburbs – an imposition on their outdoor scenes – “…that served as a kind of extended domestic interior, they were largely the preserve of women, particularly women raising children.” (Smith, 1995).
Similarly in a work of 1869 called The Harbour at Lorient, see Figure 6, which shows her sister Edma as model. Gifted to Manet the picture, later loaned to the First Exhibition of 1874, possibly stimulated his interest in plein-air painting.
Figure 6. The Harbour at Lorient (1869).
Oil on canvas.
The picture demonstrates Morisot’s interest in fleeting atmospheric effects and was originally shown at the Salon of 1870. It is basically the depiction of a tourist landscape – a rustic scene with the addition of a fashionable young woman. In 1878 Morisot painted her Young Girl by a Window which clearly shows her developed Impressionist technique of using lighter colours employing loose, undisguised brushstrokes. It is a portrait in gentle domestic environment with its ambience accentuated by delicate and feathery brushwork. Women painters were drawn to Impressionism because “…the new painting legitimised the subject-matter of domestic social life of which women had intimate knowledge, even as they were excluded from imagery of the bourgeois social sphere of the boulevard, café, and dance hall.” (Chadwick, 1996).
The majority of women painted by Morisot, as well as Mary Cassatt, were family circle friends and working class women in the form of household servants and nannies.. Drawn from contemporary life Morisot’s subjects, in common with Eva Gonzales and Cassatt, thus “…evolved within the boundaries of her sex and class.” (Chadwick, 1996). Morisot’s Psyche of 1876, see Figure 7, resorts to a pictorial convention of associating women with mirrors. Apparently a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a young woman’s self-awareness and awakening sexuality.
Figure 7. Psyche (1876).
Oil on canvas.
Not only does the picture allude to the myth of Venus’s son Cupid who fell in love with a mortal it is also a play upon the French word for a mirror – psyche. More accurately psyche describes a cheval-glass or tall mirror in a frame that can be tilted. The subject becomes the contemplation of her own image by an adolescent woman. The ambience is one of soft, non-voyeuristic , sensuality in contrast to a woman painted to provide a male spectator with a female object onto which he can project sexual desire. The innocent scene created by Morisot becomes an antithesis to those male artists who encourage the spectator to view a scene through the eyes of the flaneur.
Later, in 1886, Morisot painted In the Dining Room, see Figure 8, which was shown in the eighth and final exhibition. The picture shows a household servant and employs a rapid and bold painterly technique, sketch-like, almost hastily directed onto the canvas. Again, the picture shows Morisot’s tendency to work
Figure 8. In the Dining Room (1886).
Oil on Canvas
outwards towards the picture frame from a central pictorial nucleus. Berthe Morisot was also, on occasions, an accomplished marine painter. An example of this is shown in an adept watercolour of 1875, the Boats – Entry to the Midina in the isle of Wight, see Figure 9. Not only was she an accomplished water-colourist, but also a competent and
Figure 9. Boats – Entry to the Midina in the Isle of Wight (1875).
Watercolour on paper.
truthful draughts-woman. Her methods for female nude studies were varies and included pencil and dry-point, see Figure 10 and Figure 11, oil on canvas, and some exquisite pastels, see Figure 12.
Figure 10. Before the Mirror (1890). Pencil, 30 x 20 cm.
Figure 12. Jeune Fille aux Epaules Nues (1885).
Pastel on Paper.
Her drawings were simple sketches of young working class women, probably household servants, that possess sensitivity and honesty. Morisot’s drawings and water colours further reflects the lack of pretentiousness that exemplifies her oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot was an Impressionist artist to the fore of the movement to change the very nature of painting. It is further to her credit that her “…unwavering dedication to Impressionism eventually stimulated Manet’s interest in the style.” (Heller, 1997). She shared many features in common with her male and female impressionist contemporaries. These include luminous tonalities, use of an unprimed canvas, her painterly brushwork style, and sketchy surface nature of her finished works. Compared generally to the impressionists as a group, disparate in style as they were, Morisot was also concerned with achieving apparent spontaneity through direct observation. This is shown by her interest in her plein-air almost domestic painting, see Figure 13, employed to express a sense of
Figure 13. Woman and Child on a Balcony (1872).
Pencil and watercolour on paper
immediacy and capture the fleeting effects of light. Again, her work in the countryside allowed her freedom not attainable in the city. Morisot’s work in this respect, especially in the 1880’s, can be compared to Monet’s Nymphaeas. Her later career showed a technique using long brushstrokes that dapped at the canvas with more brilliant and strident colours. In common with other Impressionists Morisot demonstrated a “…casual immediacy, straightforward approach to subject-matter and feathery brushstrokes…” (Chadwick, 1996). In addition she shared generally with Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Cassatt, and Renoir, the Impressionist penchant for exploring new subject-matter and innovations in style.
Essay contribution for University of Oxford, Department of Continuing Education. Course about ‘Women in British and European Art’. Jan-March, 2000.
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