A Woman Among Men – Berthe Morisot and the Impressionists

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? ūüėČ

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:

berthe-morisot-by-manet1

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:

hideseek-morisot

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.

Interior:

interior-morisot

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:

berthe-morisot-julie-manet

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.

6 thoughts on “A Woman Among Men – Berthe Morisot and the Impressionists

  1. Cecilia says:

    Don’t you believe in Manet (Eduard, I mean) being in love with Berthe Morisot and the following wedding of Berthe to the younger Manet as a “vicarious” one, sice Eduard was already married?

  2. artmodel says:

    Cecilia,

    Correspondence between Berthe and Edouard does suggest that the two were most likely in love, although no one seems to know if an actual sexual affair took place. Yes, Manet being a married man was certainly a complicating factor.

    I don’t know if Morisot’s marriage to Eugene was a sham of some kind, or a source of vicarious gratification for Edouard. I would hope that she wouldn’t enter into a marriage for a reason like that. But you are definitely onto something with your comments. With the lives of artists, nothing surprises me anymore!

    Thanks for posting.

    Claudia

  3. bearzimages says:

    Those were some extraordinary days 19th century Paris, the days of the impressionists. Berthe’s works all created with light brush strokes, embraced with poise & serenity…almost like some secret diary or love letter.

    Henri Matisse said: “Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul.”

    A newspaper I never grow weary of reading…especially one as beautiful & enchanting as Berthe Morisot.

    -Bjorn

    • artmodel says:

      Bjorn,

      That is beautifully stated. You described Morisot’s work so well regarding her brush strokes and “poise”. She was such a lady.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post, and thank you for posting a comment.

      Claudia

  4. Actually, Berthe did not participate in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in 1879, possibly because she had just given birth to her daughter Julie. Pissarro was the only one who participated in all eight exhibitions.
    The reason there were so few female Impressionists wasn’t because it was a “boy’s club;” the Impressionists were quite progressive and welcomed and encouraged both Cassatt and Morisot. The real reason was 19th century French society which discouraged and restricted women artists. For instance, it was against the law for a female artist to be alone in a room with a male that was not her husband or close relative.

    • artmodel says:

      academyofshem,

      Thanks for clarifying this. I wasn’t aware that it was against the law for a female artist to be alone in a room with a man who was not her husband. Does that mean that Cassatt and Degas were breaking the law when they were in a studio together? Crazy.

      Claudia

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