Berthe Morisot: A Woman Artist in a Man’s World
Undoubtedly the most famous facial expression in the history of art is the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa in the celebrated painting by Leonardo da Vinci. However, a lesser-known artist, Impressionist Berthe Morisot, also painted enigmatic facial expressions to an even greater effect. Morisot painted landscapes, beach scenes, and gardens, but her most delightful paintings are of girls and young women. Her paintings make us wonder what the subject is thinking. Is she bored? Would she be rolling her eyes if she could get away with it? Is she wishing she could stop posing and go outside?
Berthe Morisot: Influential Impressionist Painter
Berthe Morisot isn’t as well-known as many of the other Impressionists, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and so on, but this isn’t due to a lack of talent or significance. She exhibited in seven of the eight Impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886, missing only one show because of the birth of her daughter. She was one of the founders of the Impressionist movement and should be better known. Her art is exquisite, for one thing, but it’s also revolutionary. Along with the other Impressionists, Morisot changed modern art forever by painting ordinary scenes with visible brush strokes, unexpected visual angles, and natural lighting.
Impressionism radically changed art at a time when it was being stifled by the strict rules of academic painting. Academic art was based on idealistic clichés. It taught artists to paint subjects from literature, mythology, the Bible, and history. The art appeared too polished and didn’t engage the emotions of the viewer. The Impressionists broke free from these constraints.
When the Impressionists got their start, art was also being challenged by the adoption of photography, which could accurately depict any scene, making viewers question whether artists were necessary. In the second half of the 19th century, advances in technology had made it possible for commercial photographers to produce and sell low-cost photos to the middle and upper classes.
Morisot began to collaborate with the avant-garde Parisian Impressionists after she met the painter Édouard Manet in 1868. She posed for Manet in many paintings and married his brother Eugène Manet. Although Manet didn’t accept the title of Impressionist, his early masterpiece, the controversial Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, served as a rallying point for the young painters who would create Impressionism.
It is often assumed that Manet was the “master” and Morisot the “student” in their relationship. It is arguable, however, that they equally influenced each other. For example, Morisot prompted Manet to take up en plein air painting (painting outside), a technique that Morisot had perfected in the early years of her career. Morisot’s 1873 Reading (the Green Umbrella) painting is a good example of en plein air painting. It was painted outside with natural lighting. It also showcases Morisot’s signature expertise for depicting upper-class young women engaged in leisure activities.
After Berthe married Manet’s brother, Eugène Manet, Édouard Manet stopped painting her, but before that he painted her twelve times. She was his most frequent subject. His most famous portrait of Morisot is from 1872. It shows her wearing a black mourning dress, after the death of her father. Her expression is ambiguous. She looks sad but also ready to return to life.
Berthe Morisot: A Woman Artist in a Man’s World
Throughout her career, Berthe Morisot had to fight against preconceptions about women’s roles in society and in the arts. She went against the norms of society and continued to work after marrying at age 32, which in those times would have been considered old for marrying. She also continued to work after giving birth to her daughter in 1878. Her art was often judged in feminine terms. According to this BBC Culture story, the paintings of her male peers were hailed as original or vigorous, while hers were deemed charming, gracious, and delicate.
Despite the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world, according to the BBC Culture story, by the late 1870s, Morisot was recognized in the press as holding a central place in Impressionism. She was respected by the critics and by her peers. She was also an encouraging influence for other female Impressionist painters who lived in Paris at the time, including Mary Cassatt and Eva Gonzalès.
Morisot sometimes expressed doubt about her own abilities in her diary and letters, but in 1890 she wrote in one of her notebooks, “I do not think any man would ever treat a woman as his equal, and it is all I ask because I know my worth.” Her 1885 self-portrait shows a confident woman, working hard at her craft. This is one painting where the subject does not have an enigmatic expression. The expression is of a woman who knows her worth.
Berthe Morisot Biography
Morisot was born in Bourges, France in 1841, and grew up in a bourgeois household. Her family moved to Paris in 1852 when she was still a child. Her father, Edmé Tiburce Morisot, who was a trained architect, worked as a senior administrator in the government. Perhaps Berthe inherited her artistic talent from her father as well as from her mother’s family. Her mother, Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas, was the great-niece of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a prolific Rococo painter. Berthe had a younger brother, Tiburce, and two older sisters, Yves and Edma.
Morisot’s parents made sure their daughters studied art and even built a studio for them. Berthe, Yves, and Edma were taught privately by Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichard. Their parents also enrolled Berthe and Edma in drawing lessons at the Louvre, and later helped them study under landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
Both Edma and Berthe aspired to become professional artists, but Edma ultimately gave up her art when she married Adolphe Pontillon, a naval officer, and gave birth to their baby daughter. In 1872, Berthe painted her sister with the baby in a cradle, in one of her most famous and most beautiful paintings. Critics at the time commented on the feminine grace in the painting. But notice that the mother might not be entirely happy. Is she wondering if she should have kept working at her art and not married? Edma wrote to her sister Berthe around this time “I am often with you in thought, dear Berthe. I’m in your studio and I like to slip away, if only for a quarter of an hour, to breathe that atmosphere that we shared for many years.”
Morisot’s first exhibition was the esteemed Salon de Paris in 1864, when she was only 23. She showed two landscape paintings. She went on to exhibit in six subsequent Salons. In 1874 she joined the rebellious Impressionists in their first exhibition, held at the studio of photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who was known by the pseudonym Nadar. The exhibit included works by Cézanne, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley. She exhibited in six other Impressionist exhibitions and was instrumental in recruiting artists to join the revolutionary Impressionists.
Morisot married Eugène Manet, the brother of Édouard Manet, in 1874. Eugène was also an artist, but he gave up his artistic practice and his work at the French Ministry of Justice to dedicate himself to Berthe’s career. Although historians speculate that Berthe was more in love with Édouard than her husband Eugène, her marriage to Eugène seems to have been a happy marriage. He is the only man depicted in her paintings, often with their daughter Julie.
Eugène suffered from ill health and died in 1891. In 1895, their daughter Julie contracted pneumonia, and Berthe nursed her back to health. Unfortunately, Morisot’s health suffered after this and she died of pneumonia on March 2, 1895, at the young age of 54. The year after Morisot’s death, her friends Degas, Renoir, Monet, and poet Stéphane Mallarmé organized the first retrospective of Morisot’s work. They showed 380 of her paintings and paid tribute to their friend and fellow artistic genius.
Berthe Morisot’s Style and Facial Expressions
Morisot painted in an Impressionist style. She was known for using a light brushstroke and for allowing the canvas to show through. Her most common topic for her paintings is a domestic scene of girls and women, posing either spontaneously or, in some cases, posing carefully, as if for a formal portrait. The subject of her paintings often seems to be ambiguous about being in the domestic scene. The girls in Le Piano, for example, are busy with the piano, but notice that the girl watching the piano player has an expression of ennui on her face. Parents with teenagers will recognize that expression. Perhaps the girl is reluctantly doing what she was told (help her friend with the piano) but she isn’t going to admit to enjoying it!
In 1890, Renoir chose the same subject, two girls at a piano. His painting is beautiful, but it is almost too sweet. The girls have perfect hairdos, unlike the more natural and believable hairdos in Morisot’s painting. The girls are enjoying themselves in Renoir’s painting, but the painting isn’t as appealing as Morisot’s version from a year earlier. Morisot’s painting tells a story. It causes the viewer to think about what the subjects are feeling. Renoir’s painting seems like a stereotype of what he assumed girls think.
Morisot’s subjects are often shown doing the typical activities of a girl or young woman of the bourgeoisie class. Critics might assume that Morisot was just painting what she knew, but the enigmatic facial expressions of her subjects help us realize that she had a stronger message. Women were supposed to stay home but that certainly didn’t mean that they always enjoyed it.
Even when the girls in Morisot’s paintings got outside or attended balls, they didn’t necessarily look happy. Shouldn’t they be excited about going to a ball? Or was going to a ball actually a chore, required by their mothers and by society? Was it something to be endured rather than enjoyed?
In her earlier work, Morisot practiced techniques she learned in school. Her earlier paintings have a finished feel to them, despite the use of obvious brush strokes and blurred details, typical of Impressionism.
In her later work, the outer edges of her paintings were often left unfinished, allowing the canvas to show through. This gives her art a feeling of spontaneity. The paintings resemble candid photos of today’s time where the subject turns around just in time to be photographed with a natural expression on her face.
Although her color palette was somewhat limited, Morisot’s fellow impressionists regarded her as a “virtuoso colorist”. (Stuckey, Charles F.; Scott, William P. Berthe Morisot: Impressionist. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1987.) Notice in her Jeune Femme painting how pleasing the colors are against the dark background. Notice also, though, that the expression on the subject’s face makes us wonder if she’s wishing she weren’t the subject of a painting.
Berthe Morisot and Japonisme
According to this article from Harvard Art Museums, Morisot was influenced by Japonisme, a French term coined in the 19th-century to describe the popularity of Japanese art in Western Europe. Morisot and the Impressionists loved the dazzling woodblock prints of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige and other Japanese artists. From the Japanese woodblocks, Morisot learned the technique of using an unusual visual angle. In her Julie Manet with Greyhound painting of her daughter, the airy brush strokes so typical of Impressionism are obvious. But we can also see a hint of Japanese influence with the diagonal line of the dog and the placement of the main subject to the side of the painting.
Morisot’s 1894 painting of Two Girls also shows Japanese influence, with its expressive lines and asymmetric composition. Also, notice how much of an influence Degas, who loved Japanese art, had on Morisot. The girls in her painting remind us of Degas’ dancers checking their feet.
Berthe Morisot’s Significance
Morisot’s paintings make us wonder what her subjects were thinking. The pastel colors, quick brush strokes, and alluring compositions delight our eyes, while our brains compose stories about what the young women in the paintings are thinking. Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they wishing they were somewhere else, perhaps in a new century where women’s movements wouldn’t be so restricted? Only an artist as talented as Morisot can engage her viewers so thoroughly.
Morisot was an influential artist and a founder of Impressionism. Her work changed art at a time when it desperately needed changing. Art’s relevance was being stifled by the strict rules of academic painting and by photographers who could accurately depict scenes with their cameras. Her work shows us that art is more than just an imitation of reality. The artist’s paint brush tells stories with colors and compositions that make us feel deep emotions.
Morisot’s artwork was well-received when she was alive and still delights art lovers. She may not be as well-known as her fellow painter of enigmatic expressions, Leonardo da Vinci, or as famous as her fellow Impressionists, but there’s no doubt that her talent and influence deserve full recognition.
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