Few female artists managed to infiltrate the boy’s club that were the French Impressionists. American painter Mary Cassatt was one. French painter Berthe Morisot was another. A bourgeois lady who led a charmed life, Morisot’s biography, unlike so many I often write about, is remarkably drama-free. No table-dancing, no promiscuity, no children out of wedlock, no alcoholism, no nervous breakdowns. Whoa, whoa, wait a second, this is Museworthy, isn’t it?
Berthe Morisot is largely well-known and recognized as a model subject for Edouard Manet. He painted her a total of eleven times, and the two forged a close friendship of mutual respect and affection. Manet mentored and supported Morisot although she was never his formal “pupil”. A unique French beauty, Morisot’s image is captured by Manet in this famous painting from 1872. I alternate between hot and cold when it comes to Manet, but I think that this work exemplifies portraiture at its finest. The eyes, the clothing, the brushstrokes, it’s as close to perfect as it gets:
Morisot and Manet moved in the same Impressionist circle, both becoming well-acquainted with Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and the gang. But Manet resisted the Impressionist label and refused to exhibit with the group. Morisot, on the other hand, was a true believer in the Impressionist mission, and exhibited with them regularly. A loyal adherent, Berthe promoted and participated in all the Impressionist shows, and even organized the group’s swan song in 1886.
An upper class bourgeois girl through and through, Berthe grew up in privilege and claimed an impressive bloodline. She was the granddaughter of the prolific Rococo painter Jean-Honore Fragonard. Her father was a prominent, high ranking government official who provided his three daughters with the best tutors, best homes, best of everything that 19th century Paris had to offer. And after all her education and advantages, young Berthe chose art as her life’s calling. Lucky for her, she had her family’s full support.
Morisot’s Hide and Seek:
Under the earlier influence of her friend Camille Corot, Morisot spent many years painting plein-air (outdoor) subjects. She then moved on to themes common for female artists of the day; picnics, domestic scenes, children, family members – all the tame, “safe” subjects expected of feminine “lady artists”. Men rarely appear in her work, and very few nudes. But it seems that Berthe was comfortable in the role, as she was a firm advocate of the philospohy that artists should paint the subjects with which they are most familiar, images of their daily life. So it’s no surprise that Morisot’s work reflects the pleasant, comfortable existence of a proper, bourgeois Parisian lady.
In 1874, Morisot married Manet’s younger brother, Eugene. They had a daughter, Julie, in 1878. Julie would become one of Morisot’s favorite models. In this painting, Morisot depicts Julie with her pet greyhound, and the open composition, bright colors, and loose brushstrokes typify the Impressionist aesthetic. Looks a lot like a Renoir:
Eugene Manet died in 1892. In her widowed years Berthe Morisot continued to paint, exhibit, and maintain her friendships with Monet and Degas. Her daughter was her closest companion until Berthe died of pneumonia in 1895. The respect she had earned over her lifetime was expressed by these words from her friend Camille Pissarro upon hearing of her death, “You can hardly conceive how surprised we all were and how moved, too, by the disappearance of this distinguished woman”.
As the beneficiary of her mother’s work and legacy, Julie Manet ensured that Berthe Morisot’s place in art history was recognized, as that of a faithful disciple of the French Impressionist school.