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Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot

French impressionist painter
(1841 - 1895)


Berthe Morisot was a woman of extraordinary talents who carved for herself a career within the art world of nineteenth century Paris. She was one of only a few women who exhibited with both the Paris Salon and the highly influential and innovative Impressionists. Her work endures today as a major representative of the Impressionist school.

Study: at the water's edge, 1864
Study: At the Water's Edge, 1864
Private collection (one of her few early painting)

Morisot's art depicts the world of the bourgeoise , their clothes, their lifestyle, their surroundings, and her relationships. Through her unusual talent, the modern viewer can see the usual, everyday life led by the nineteenth century bourgeoises.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 (the same year as Pierre Auguste Renoir, her future colleague, advisor, and friend) to Edmé-Tiburce Morisot and Marie Corneille Thomas. Though her father had aspired to follow his father's footsteps and become an architect, Mr. Morisot was in the service of the government. No mere civil servant, Morisot steadily rose to become prefect of the Département du Cher by the time Berthe was born. After the family moved to the Parisian suburb of Passy during the revolutionary year of 1848, Berthe's father continued to work as a highly paid government official. His family was able to live a comfortably well off, haute-bourgeois lifestyle.

In 1858 Madame Morisot inspired her daughters to paint. She desired that the three girls take art lessons so that they could present a birthday gift to their father. She sent them first to the academic painter Geoffrey Alphonse Chocarne who focused his teachings on drawing, and soon afterward to Joseph Benoît Guichard, a former student of both Ingres and Delacroix. Though the eldest daughter quickly decided that she was not interested in continuing these lessons, Edmé and Berthe enthusiastically applied themselves to his instruction. Under Guichard's tutelage, the Morisot sisters began to journey to the Louvre in order to study the old masters first hand. This was a self-educational technique which Berthe would return to all of her life.

The harbour at Lorient, 1869
Le port de Lorient, 1869
National Gallery of Art, Washington

After three years of studio work under the supervision of Guichard, Berthe decided that she wished to study the plein air motif under master landscapist Corot. Edmé joined her sister with these weekly lessons. As part of Corot's instruction, the Morisots embarked on summer-long painting trips to picturesque locales. In 1862, they rode mules through the Pyrenees. In order to accommodate these expeditions, the Morisot family organized their holidays around Berthe and Edmé's art work for there was no question that the two would have set off on such an experience unchaperoned. The Morisots gave constructive support to the painting aspirations of their daughters. M. Morisot had a studio build in the garden for Edmé and Berthe to work in and Mme Morisot attended all of the exhibitions.

Edmé and Berthe maintained close, intimate ties as sisters and this closeness showed both in their personal and artistic lives. Though only two examples of Edmé Morisot's work survives, one is an 1863 portrait of her sister Berthe at work. In defiance of the fashion of the day, Berthe, who seems completely absorbed in her painting, wears no hoopskirt which would have gotten in the way of her work. Instead, she wears a practical skirt, blouse, and jacket. The position of Berthe's easel in relation to the viewer suggests that she and Edmé painted side by side. This painting only came to the public view in 1961--it was considered an intimate portrait and remained in the possession of Edmé Pontillon's descendants.

In early 1869, after twelve years of study and collaboration with her sister Berthe, Edmé Morisot married a naval officer, Adolphe Pontillon. Her marriage marked the end of her serious pursuance of painting. However, letters to Berthe soon after her wedding indicate that Edmé missed both the artistic challenge and the camaraderie engendered by working with her sister.

La lecture, 1869-70
La lecture, 1869-70
National Gallery of Art, Washington

When Edmé returned to the Morisot household in the winter of 1869-70 to await the birth of her first child, in a series of two paintings, Berthe depicted some of the most intimate portraits of bourgeois womanhood. In Portrait of Cornélie Morisot and Edmé Pontillon [Mother and Sister of the Artist], she portrayed her mother reading to her visibly pregnant sister within the family's drawing room. Its companion piece, entitled Woman at the Window [Portrait of Edmé Pontillon] has the still pregnant Edmé seated inside a room in front of the open verandah door.

Artist's sister at the window, 1869
Artist's sister at the window, 1869
National Gallery of Art, Washington

After Edmé's marriage and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in August of 1870, Berthe Morisot went through a period of re-evaluation. Though she was well regarded in artistic circles early in her career, she often doubted her work. It was at this time that she began to cast her lot with the impressionists whom she met through her influential friend, Edouard Manet.

The artworld of nineteenth-century France was dominated by the French Academy and its premier teaching institution, L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts which selected art juries, administered the art examinations, and sponsored the Salon, the annual art exhibition. The Salon, originally located within the Louvre, was held after 1857 in the vast Palais de l'Industrie. Here, artists' work was displayed in what was the single most important exhibition in France. The jurists were invariably academicians who frequently rejected artwork which did not conform to the established rubrics of the day.

Le balcon by Manet, 1869
Le balcon by Manet, 1869
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Edouard Manet was one of this new generation of artists who was dissatisfied with the Salon. His 1865 Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l'herbe were controversial enough for him to be excluded from the 1866 Salon. In retaliation, he chose to mount his own exhibition, whose centerpiece was The Balcony, an 1869 work for which he had persuaded Berthe to pose. In this painting, Manet makes clear his admiration for Morisot. Unlike the other two figures who seem benign and affable, Morisot has an almost gypsy-like fire.Though this painting made a lasting impression upon the viewing public, Manet's alternative exhibition was not a success. Nonetheless, he continued to encourage and support Berthe's contributions to the Salon. Through Manet, who admired her work greatly, Berthe Morisot became influenced by other artists whose work had gained some notoriety for their new interpretation of subject matter, and their incorporation of light, and color into their art.

Le berceau, 1872
Le berceau, 1872
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

One reason Berthe Morisot cast her lot with the Impressionists may have been the new revitalization by the Impressionists of the genre scene in their art. In the years immediately preceding her 1874 debut exhibition with the Impressionists, most of Berthe's work were indeed genre scenes. However, unlike most of the Impressionists, Morisot's works were favorably critiqued by the Salon. Her most famous, The Cradle, was a painting of her sister Edmé gazing at her new born daughter Jeanne, electrified the exhibition of 1872.

Edouard Manet who resolutely refused to join up with the Impressionists because he felt that their efforts against the Salon, perhaps after his own failed attempts to counter the art establishment, would be futile, tried to dissuade Morisot from ruining her good track record. Nonetheless, despite his efforts, Berthe Morisot began to exhibit with the Impressionists and did so every year until the last exhibition in 1886 with the exception of the year her daughter Julie Manet was born in 1878. Among this group, she voiced her opinion and gave advice to such up and coming artists as Georges Seurat. Indeed, his work Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte was included in the 1886 exhibition because of her sponsorship.

Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1875
Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight
1875, Private collection

Unlike her sister Edmé, Berthe Morisot (she continued to paint under her own name) was determined to continue her art after her marriage with Manet's brother, Eugene in 1874. Morisot's output, always prolific, never flagged. This was certainly helped by the fact that her husband both gave her the freedom to do so and was supportive of her efforts. Marriage gave Berthe financial, social, and emotional stability which encouraged her to expand her professional role. The Manet family fortune gave Berthe Morisot enough income to pursue her art.

Berthe Morisot worked out of her home. However, unlike Renoir, Manet, Monet, or Degas, her workrooms were not part of the public space of the house. She relegated them to the back of the house where at the end of the day, she would hide her paints and brushes. Though art was the dominating force in the lives of her male colleagues, Berthe Morisot was also a wife and mother. Two roles which, though not exclusive from her art, nonetheless were equally important to her.

Julie Manet et son lévrier, Laerte, 1893
Julie Manet et son lévrier Laërte
1893, Musée Marmottan, Paris

Between her 1874 marriage and her death in 1895, Berthe Morisot produced over 350 works of art, most of which featured either women or children. Two thirds of these paintings featured either her sisters, their families, or her own daughter Julie. Indeed, Julie Manet became a favorite subject of study. From the infant in Wet Nurse to the adolescent portrayed in Julie au Violon, or Julie Manet and Greyhound Laërtes, Berthe Morisot recorded her daughter's childhood in loving detail. After her husband Eugene's death in 1893, Julie and Berthe became very close. The two traveled and drew together. Julie seems to have inherited some of both her mother's and the Manet family's artistic talent. However, this was not to last long. After nursing Julie through a bout of influenza, Berthe developed pneumonia and quickly experienced a decline. She died on March 2, 1895.

Though the nineteenth century did not produce many women artists of Berthe Morisot's caliber and fame, those other women who were successful artists, such as Eva Gonzales, Marie Bracquemond, and Mary Cassatt, all came from similar backgrounds. This is not surprising for, the upper middle class was uniquely suited to producing educated women. Unlike women of the lower and working class, bourgeoises had the leisure and the financial support to pursue their interests, so long as they did not go against what was considered proper behavior.

Villa at the seaside, 1874
Villa at the seaside, 1874
Norton Simon Foundation

In the last decades, several art historians have focused upon Berthe Morisot's depiction of women within the clearly delineated roles and physical spaces which were acceptable for bourgeois women during the nineteenth century. Most of the physical spaces were either associated with the upper middle class home such as drawing rooms as depicted in Portrait of Mme Boursier and her Daughter, balconies, In a Villa at the Seaside, and private gardens as in Woman and Child in a Garden. Morisot also painted outdoor scenes, which were places that respectable bourgeoises frequented such as parks and scenic overlooks (View of Paris from the Trocadero, 1872), or modes of transport, which enclosed women such as boats, and carriages, A Summer's Day, 1879. These interiors and exteriors represented the settings in which most bourgeoise lived their lives. As a member of this class, Berthe Morisot would herself have spent time in these locales and there would have chosen to paint her subjects.

Before her marriage, Berthe Morisot's position as a respectable member of the haute-bourgeoisie impacted her ability to move within artistic circles. Though she had seen him at various art exhibitions and knew of his work, Berthe Morisot had to wait, in accordance with bourgeois etiquette, until a mutual friend (the painter Fantin-Latour) could introduce her to her future mentor and brother-in-law, Edouard Manet. Once married, Berthe Morisot could move more frequently within the artistic circle. Her house at 4, rue de la Princesse in Bougival became a social and inspirational center for the Impressionists. By 1885 she had begun to hold regular soirees for friends that were artists or writers, including Mallarmé. However, some social barriers could still not be crossed. Because of Morisot's sex and social position, she could not join her male colleagues at the cafes where they casually convened. Respectable women, married or unmarried, simply did not frequent these establishments.

Woman at her toilette, 1875
Woman at her Toilette,1875
Art Institute of Chicago

Although Morisot was unusual for her class and time in that she successfully pursued an artistic career whilst combining it with marriage and motherhood, she never forsaked her bourgeoise background. In her art and in her lifestyle, she reflected the standards of behavior and propriety required of the nineteenth century bourgeoises. Through her depictions of her sisters, their families, and her own daughter Julie Manet, Berthe Morisot portrays an intimacy between women within the realism of the feminine world. Her art remains as a record for the twentieth century and beyond of the feminine world of the bourgeoises.


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