Berthe Morisot, her Subjects and Reception

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) spent her entire adult life (except for vacations) living in the Passy district of Paris. She was one of the founders of Impressionism, one of its greatest practitioners, one of its greatest supporters and was one of the greatest female artists in history. All this despite living her life inside a gilded cage, partly because of the etiquette and customs of her rich bourgeois social background, partly because of French law. The Code Napoleon of 1804 had elevated women from the status of chattels to being mere second class citizens with limited rights. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were for men only. France was a patriarchal society with clearly defined gender roles.

Because of this Morisot was denied much of the subject material favoured by her male counterparts, she could not go for solo walks through the countryside, in forests and alongside riverbanks and cliffs. In fact outside her home she needed a constant chaperone. She could not frequent bars, cafes, slums, dance halls and brothels. So her subject matter was largely confined to the domestic and to family life on vacation and outings (where she sometimes painted landscapes) and her models were mainly her family (especially her daughter Julie) and servants. These constrains also meant that most of her paintings are relatively small. And whilst it was normal for men to paint women the converse was not true.

It was exceedingly common for young bourgeois women to learn to draw and paint in a modest fashion, more so than men did, it was considered to be a ladylike skill alongside music and sewing. But Morisot was deadly serious and considered herself to be the equal of male artists. So she had major obstacles to overcome in correcting the prevailing prejudice against and false perceptions of her professionalism.

One of the attractions of Impressionism to Morisot was that it abandoned the classical artistic hierarchy of genres and instead embraced Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay The Painter of Modern Life, which valued transitory images of everyday living. This fitted in very well with both the subjects afforded to her by her restricted lifestyle and to her artistic style and technique. But also she had a huge advantage, her easy access to domesticity and the boudoir was denied to her male counterparts.

Before becoming an Impressionist Morisot’s work had been chosen to be exhibited at seven consecutive Salons de Paris, starting in 1864, with little critical reaction. When she chose to exhibit nine paintings at the first Impressionist exhibition in April 1874 it was an intellectual decision to reject the Salon with her change in style. It was not because the Salon rejected her.

The exhibition was widely reported in the press with more than fifty articles or notices, the majority of which were positive, but some were very critical.

Louis Leroy, writing scathingly in the satirical magazine Le Charivari said “The secret of this art is that its lack of finish is intentional! Thus if Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand she gives it as many brushstrokes, lengthwise, as there are fingers, and the thing is done”. This intended criticism was probably taken as a compliment.

Joseph Guichard, one of Morisot’s art teachers wrote a letter to her mother: “One does not associate with madmen except at some peril; Manet was right in trying to dissuade her from exhibiting”….”she is to go to the Louvre twice a week, stand before Correggio for three hours and ask for his forgiveness”. He obviously didn’t get it.

Jules Castagnary wrote: “Berthe Morisot has wit to the tips of her fingers, especially at her fingertips. What a fine artistic feeling! You cannot find more graceful images handled more deliberately and delicately than The Cradle and Hide and Seek. I would add that here the execution is in complete accord with the ideas to be expressed”. A sentiment that many today would agree with.

In March 1875 the Impressionists held an auction of their work at the Hotel Drouot. Where Morisot was more successful than her male counterparts, fetching the two highest prices.

At the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 Morisot exhibited seventeen pictures (only Degas had more). This received far more press coverage than the first but this time more was negative.

Emile Pocheron writing in Le Soleil said that Morisot couldn’t draw and stopped painting a work before she had finished. Charles Bigot, writing in La Revue Politique et Litteraire said that she was a victim of the Impressionist “system” which resulted in imperfect colour sense. Criticism that only exposed their authors’ failings.

The third exhibition was in 1877 and Morisot exhibited 12 works. With approximately 50 press reviews there was a change in that most were fair and neutral, understanding what the Impressionists were doing and explaining it to their readers.

The critic Paul Mantz wrote: “There is only one Impressionist in the whole revolutionary group  – and that is Mlle Morisot… Here it is truly the impression felt through a sincere eye and faithfully recorded by a hand which does not cheat”

Morisot missed the fourth Impressionist exhibition in1879 after giving birth to her daughter Julie, but she then went on to exhibit at the fifth in 1880, sixth in 1881, seventh in 1882, then the eighth in 1886. By then the Impressionist group had pretty much broken up. But throughout the whole series only Pissarro exhibited at more of them than she did.

It is interesting that throughout her painting career very little criticism was made of her being a woman, or of her being a rich and privileged member of the bourgeois. The criticism mainly comes from her being possibly the most impressionist of the Impressionists, catching the light of fleeting moments in work which to traditionalists looked sketchy and unfinished. Those who understood Baudelaire and what the Impressionists were trying to achieve loved this. Those who were wedded to the traditions and principles of the Ecole des Beaux-arts and the Salon hated it.

In 1894 the French state bought Morisot’s La femme au bal to add to the Caillebotte bequest then in the Musee du Luxemourg. She had become the art establishment.

A near contemporary account (1904) of Impressionism in Paris by the British Impressionist painter Wynford Dewhurst is revealing “She excelled above all in two branches of her art – an exquisite draughtsmanship and a most luminous and poetic sense of colour”. He then goes on to quote the novelist George Moore “Her pictures are the only pictures painted by a woman that could not be destroyed without creating a blank, a hiatus in the history of art”.

Theodore Duret, art critics friend and supporter of the Impressionists wrote a book about them (1906) with a chapter dedicated to Morisot: “She was, without question, an artist of real accomplishment”…“Whatever she did came straight from the heart, and was full of the charm and sensitiveness of her spirit. There is a perfect accord between her and her work”…“She developed simultaneously with the others, partly working out her own ideas, partly borrowing from Claude Monet and Renoir, in accordance with that practice of interchanging methods”

After her death Morisot’s fame faded, especially compared with her male counterparts such as Monet, Degas and Renoir. This can be attributed to several factors, firstly her works weren’t widely publicly visible. With her domestic commitment she had painted far fewer works and with her wealth she had not needed to sell them, so most were held by her family. The works are small, designed for domestic hanging, so lack impact in a museum or gallery. Her style is among the most “unfinished” of the impressionists, so is demanding of the viewer and her gentle, domestic compositions lack frisson.

In recent years Morisot’s fame has grown with bequests, starting 1993, from the family to the Marmottan Museum in Paris, who now have 81 pieces of her work. This collection has featured in exhibitions, catalogues and books. In 2013 her oil painting Après le déjeuner realised nearly seven million pounds at a Christies auction, a world record for a female artist.

That Berthe Morisot was an artist of genius is indisputable. She overcame proscribed gender roles by a number of tactics, taking advantage of the new artistic freedom offered by Impressionism was one of these. As was using her position in society to paint subject material unavailable to the men. Being a kept bourgeois woman throughout her life allowed her to follow her career with no regard for having to earn, unlike most of her male counterparts who were often grindingly poor. Steering a fine course between acceptable domesticity and a high profile career took great judgement, persistence and a steely resolve, that she did so unerringly is remarkable.


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