Show Notes for Episode 414: Berthe Morisot an Artist who Defied Conventions

Categories: Arts & Architecture, French History

Discussed in this Episode

  • Orsay Museum
  • Marmottan Museum
  • Fondation Bemberg
  • Met in New York
  • Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia
  • Mineapolis Art Museum
  • Boston Art Museum

Berthe Morisot, the Impressionist Artist who Defied the Conventions

1841 – 1895

The painter, Berthe Morisot, was one of only two women, and the only French woman, to be recognized as equal by most of the group of artists called the Impressionists. Talented and determined, she was a great artist whose real glory came after her life.

Who was Berthe Morisot ?

Berthe was the third child, and third daughter, of an upper class family with surprisingly liberal attitudes for their time. She was born in 1841. Her father was a Prefet, which is a very high administrative position, and the family moved around a lot with his posts in different cities. When Berthe was 8, they moved to Passy, part of chic Paris, when her father was made a councilor to the Cour des Comptes. And except for vacations, the rest of her life was spent in and around Paris.

How was her education different from other young ladies of good society?

Her mother was someone who regretted all her life that she had not had the freedom to have a good education particularly in the arts. So she encouraged her daughters to learn music and take art classes.  Not “just” to be accomplished wives”. The daughters were enrolled in an excellent private school and were not stuck at home with a tutor.

Berthe got a taste quite early for a certain amount of freedom: coming and going to school and taking art classes from a painter in his studio, not in their house. Berthe and her sister Edme showed a lot of artistic talent and so their first tutor suggested they go and study with someone who had been a student of Delacroix and Ingres, both very famous artists who were part of what was considered to be “modern” art at the time. Their mother didn’t worry about the fact that they did not have a lot of supervision ; the family had a reputation for being a bit “free-thinkers” and quite liberal.

Soon after Berthe and Edme began studying with the new art teacher he wrote to their mother and said this:

…with their (both sisters) character, and their talent, these art lessons are not going to result in pretty pictures for them to show their husbands as a hobby. These classes are going to turn them into “real artists”. Do you want that? Do you realize what that will mean? In your milieu that will be a revolution – a scandal. Are you certain that one day you will not curse me and Art, because it will become their Master” ? For Berthe this was true.

Destiny Calls

Soon after this, both Berthe and her sister started going to the Louvre to copy the Masters’ works, since they, as women, were not allowed into the Beaux-Arts. And there, in the long galleries of painting, they met and made friends with two artists,  Fantin Latour, and his friend Eduoard Manet, both young aspiring artists, also from “good families”.

They become friends and Manet, who was 9 years older than Berthe, found her fascinating as a woman, and also talented as an artist. He asked her to pose for him. She was very pretty but thin, with a strong determined face and it was her intense look that inspired Manet. In exchange for advice and lessons from Manet on painting, she gladly accepted to pose. They quickly became good friends and worked together on some of their paintings. In the course of their lives and their friendship, Manet painted Berthe or used her as a model 14 times !

Berthe Morisot and the Manet Family

Over the next few years, as Manet began to sell his works and develop a reputation, Berthe painted and sold her works as well. Through Manet, she met and made friends with most of the painters who would, in 1874, be called  “the Impressionists”. She was friends with Renoir, Degas, and Monet. She worked very hard to prove to these young men that she was a “real” artist, not just a young woman enjoying herself while she waited to find a husband.

In fact, by this time her sister, Edme, who has sworn she would also be a professional  painter, got married, and stopped painting altogether. So Berthe was on her own. But interestingly, her family did not at first, make a big fuss, because the Manet family, which included three brothers, was also from the upper class, and through their friendship the two families started to socialize. Somehow this made it more acceptable to Berthe’s mother that she continued to paint. But still, that did not keep her from trying to get Berthe married.

Berthe entered her works in the Salons with the other artists she knew, and some of them were accepted. Starting in 1864 she began to sell. Often her paintings were placed alongside  Manet’s and it was always assumed, wrongly, and to her great dismay, that he had helped her finish her work!. Henri de Fantin-Latour, who had introduced her to Manet, even had the nerve to say about her work, ‘too bad she isn’t a man…” meaning that her work and reputation would advance more if she were.

By the 1870’s, Berthe was painting full time. Already over 30 she had no interest in getting married. She had to fight all the time to be included in exhibits and to have her work looked at with the same critical eye as the men’s. She is quoted as saying, ‘the only purpose of my life is my art.…”

Berthe – ART first, then Mariage and Motherhood

In 1874, the year that this group of artists was designated – insultingly, as Impressionists, by an art critic, Berthe married Eugene Manet, Edouard’s younger brother. They knew each other for years by then, as their families were close and she spent so much time painting with Edouard. Eugene had been in the navy,  was a dilettante painter, but a rich man who had fallen in love with Berthe. He married her knowing that she would continue to be a painter and that that was the most important thing in her life. He devoted his time, and his money, to supporting her and her work.

In 1878 she had her only child, Julie, who became her favorite subject to paint. Julie, who lived a very long life, was a beautiful child, and she, as well as her father, were often the subject of Berthe’s work .

A Woman’s Art?

Berthe Morisot always signed her work with her maiden name: there was no question that her identity would be taken away. But at the same time, she limited her work to scenes of domestic life, of portraits, of gardens with flowers and people in interior family scenes and many, many pictures of children playing.

Part of the reason for that is simply that she painted what she saw, where she was. She was not an adept of taking her canvases outside to the river (although she did paint some river scenes). Her work reflects her interest in technique and expression ; using paint, often pastels, sometimes watercolor and drawing, she kept the subject matter to what was around her.

This however, added to the critiques who said her work was “feminine, women’s art”. Morisot was daring in her research of technique, and in her choice of lifestyle, but she chose to not transgress what were considered to be the typical subjects for women artists. But her talent and her dedication to her art impressed those who were her friends, many now famous artists, as well as some poets like Mallarmé, who was a very close friend, and then Valéry.

Her husband Eugene devoted his life to encouragine her and  helping promote her art. In her 50’s, in the 1890’s, she had started to experiment even more radically with the subject matter, and she followed all the latest developments of other artists like Monet and Seurat who were starting to dissolve the image.

But she was not destined to live long enough for her art to become truly radical. First, in 1892, her husband died at the age of 59. Berthe, whose daughter was 14, made Mallarmé her daughter Julie’s tutor. Then, in 1895 Berthe, died of the flu at the age of 54. She had just begun to try some very new techniques and imagery, and painted right up to the very end.

Berthe Morisot, who had sold many of her works to private collections, left behind : 423 paintings, 191 pastels, 240 watercolors, some engravings and over 200 drawings.

No work was in a French museum at the time of her death, and so Mallarmé, who became executor of her estate, made sure the Museum of Luxembourg, which had just received a huge collection of Impressionist work from the painter/benefactor Caillebotte, bought one of her works to add to that collection. The ultimate insult to Berthe Morisot came when, on her death certificate, it was written “no profession !”. She is buried along with the Manet brothers in the cemetery of Passy, where all that is said is that she was the wife of Eugene Manet. How sad.

Immediately after her death, the art critiques relegated her to the status of “minor Impressionist” painter. But first Mallarmé, and then her daughter Julie, worked all the rest of their lives to bring her art to the attention of critics. They wanted to show just how important and innovative and creative her work was. After a retropective in 1896, in Paris organized by Mallarmé, Berthe Morisot did not have another complete retrospective until 1983 in Washington DC. Almost 100 years later.

It was thanks to women art historians, who mostly began writing and becoming important after WW II, that her work was “re-discovered”.  She is now recognized as being one of the most interesting and innovative of the Impressionist artists.  Her work is in museums and private collections all over the world, with a large part of her work in American and Japanese collections.

The Orsay Museum of Paris has some of her works  and the Marmottan Museum in Passy, in the 16th arrondissement, has a big collection of her work as well, as do other museums in France, including the Bemberg Foundation in Toulouse. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Washington, also have many of her works, as do a lot of other American museums.

The poet Paul Valery, who was a friend, and who married her niece, wrote this about Berthe Morisot : “ …the uniqueness of Berthe Morisot was that she lived her painting and painted her life: it was natural and necessary, vital to her existence….”

She was a true artist.






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Categories: Arts & Architecture, French History