Berthe Morisot

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Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was one of the influential painters of the French Impressionist school of art. Her delicate and subtle style won her the respect and praise of her colleagues, but she was denied international recognition until long after her death.

Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot was born on January 14, 1841, in Bourges, France, into an upper class family. Her parents were married in 1835 when her mother, Marie Cornelie Thomas, was 16. They had two daughters, Marie Elisabeth Yves and Marie Edma Caroline, before Berthe was born. A son, Tiburce, was born between 1845 and 1848. Her father, Edme Tiburce Morisot, was a high-ranking civil servant in the French government. He had studied painting and architecture as a young man. Her grandfather was Jean-Honore Fragonard, an important artist of the Rococo school, who painted aristocratic gardens. Their artistic influences were a major part of Berthe's upbringing. Blessed with a talent for art, she decided at an early age to become a painter. Throughout her life, Berthe's closest relationship was with her sister Marie Edma, who was also an artist. She relied upon her older sister as her strongest critic and best friend.

In 1851, when she was only ten, Morisot moved to Paris, where she was given classical art lessons by Joseph-Benoit Guilchard. Initially, the works of classic French landscape artists such as Jean Baptiste Guillement influenced her. As her skills developed, her artistic choices changed also. By 1860 she had become dissatisfied with the teaching of Guilchard.

From 1862 to 1868 she continued her classical studies under the guidance of Guilchard's friend, noted landscape artist Camille Cordot. During this time Morisot began to exhibit her work, with her first show at the Salon in Paris in 1864. Cordot was pleased with his protege's work and allowed her to sign her paintings as a "student of Cordot." Morisot went on to exhibit her paintings at Salon shows in 1865, 1866, 1868, 1870, 1872 and 1873.

The Influence of Manet

In 1868, Morisot was introduced to artist Edouard Manet and soon became his pupil. His influence drew her away from classical art and into a new form of art that would come to be known as Impressionism. Manet and Morisot complemented one another, expressing mutual admiration as well as influencing each other's style. Morisot, who was a beautiful woman, frequently appeared in Manet's work. His most famous portrait of her is Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets. Among others are The Balcony and Repose.

Morisot was influential in arousing Monet's interest in outdoor painting. She encouraged him to abandon the use of black and experiment with the Impressionist "rainbow" palette instead, even though Morisot did not emphasize color as much as most of her Impressionist colleagues. Her paintings continued to show the influence of Manet even after they stopped working closely together.

From the moment she met and began studying with Manet, she followed the Impressionistic style. Her subjects, however, differed from those of her colleagues. She shunned the brothel scenes that were popular with Degas and avoided locations where respectable women would not be found alone, such as train stations. Renowned artists such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir accepted her as an equal.

The Morisot Technique

Morisot pursued a style that, while unquestioningly Impressionistic, was also uniquely her own. She applied large touches of paint to the canvas in all directions. This technique produced a transparent quality in her work. She omitted detail if it was unnecessary to the overall subject, thus producing a truly impressionistic work.

Her work portrayed scenes of everyday life, often with women and children. She also painted landscapes, again incorporating women and children. Her mother and sister made frequent appearances in her paintings. Morisot worked in various mediums, including oils and watercolor. She is best known as a watercolorist. She integrated figures into the design of her paintings using a pastel hue. Her subject, style and frequent use of these pastels produced an intimate atmosphere in her work. Some of her best known works include The Artist's Sister Edma and Their Mother, (1870) The Cradle (1873), Madame Pontillon Seated on the Grass (1873), In a Park,Hanging out the Laundry to Dry,Girl with a Basket,Woman at her Toilet, and La Lecture (1888).

A Late Marriage

Through her relationship with Edouard Manet, Morisot met his older brother, Eugene, in 1868. She married him in December 1874. Eugene Manet was a writer and political activist who encouraged her to continue with her work. Their home at 4 rue de la Princess in Bougival on the Seine soon became a gathering place for artists and the literary lions of the day. Among her closest friends was the Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme.

Morisot and Manet had a daughter, Julie, born in 1878. As a result of her marriage and motherhood, she began focusing increased attention on domestic and family scenes in her paintings.

An Impressionist Leader

For the most part, the Impressionists recorded garden and landscape scenes. While the classical artists such as Jean-Honore Fragonard, Morisot's grandfather, had been drawn to the elegance and grand scope of aristocratic gardens, the Impressionists took to public parks, common gardens and everyday locations.

Initially, the public and the press rejected the Impressionists as a band of renegades and revolutionaries. Among the Impressionists, only Degas and Morisot were accepted each time they submitted works to the prestigious Salon exhibition, while others, such as Frederic Bazille, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Paul Cezanne were often rejected.

The Salon exhibit of 1868 resulted in many favorable reviews for the Impressionist artists despite the decision of the hanging committee to place many of their pictures in unflattering locations. There were still detractors, however. By 1870 there were still mixed reviews for the Impressionist artists.

After the Franco-Prussian war, funding for artists evaporated. This, coupled with disenchantment for the Salon system, encouraged the Impressionists to formulate plans for an independent show. On April 15, 1874, the "Premiere Exposition" of 165 works of art opened to the public. This was a corporation composed of artists funded the exhibition. Morisot was one of the charter members of the group. Although the group included artists of the Academic style, the Impressionists were the driving force. Morisot's paintings were featured in the show. Except for 1879, she continued showing her works annually until the last group exhibition in 1886.

A small group representing the Impressionists, including Morisot, Renoir, and Monet, organized their own auction to sell their work. On March 24, 1875, 72 paintings went on sale. The auction was a dismal failure, as was a similar sale in May 1877. It took time and continued effort before the Impressionists gained acceptance.

Belated Recognition

Morisot's style continued to develop in her later years, Her brother-in-law, friend and mentor, Edouard Manet, died in 1883. After his death, Berthe Morisot came under the influence of Renoir.

Morisot's husband died on April 13, 1892, after a lengthy illness. In 1895, while nursing her sick daughter, Morisot developed a fatal case of pneumonia. She died in Paris on March 2, 1895 and was buried at Passy cemetery next to Eugene and Edouard Manet.

Morisot believed in the capabilities of all women. "I don't think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal and that's all I would have asked, for I know I'm worth as much as they," she once said. But she lived in a time when equal treatment was rare. Even though she produced more than 860 paintings, her death certificate states she had "no profession."

Morisot left her collection of Degas, Monet and Renoir paintings to her daughter, Julie Manet. After her death, she became known more for being a friend and model of Edouard Manet than an artist in her own right. Although Morisot's work was generally well reviewed when it was exhibited, she did not become known internationally as an artist until 1905, when the London Impressionist exhibition displayed 13 of her paintings. It took almost a full century before Berthe Morisot's work received the credit it deserved.


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Morisot, Berthe

views updated Jun 27 2018


MORISOT, BERTHE (1841–1895), French artist.

Berthe Morisot was one of the core members of the French art movement known as impressionism. Born in 1841 into an upper-middle-class family, she received a traditionally feminine education. Trained at home and with private tutors, her curriculum included drawing.

By the time she was in her late teens, it was clear that she and her sister Edma were exceptionally gifted and ambitious, qualities noted with some trepidation by her teachers Joseph Guichard and the famous Barbizon painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. In the mid-nineteenth century, respectable young ladies were not supposed to appear in public alone, but because Berthe and Edma Morisot painted together, they managed to work consistently for about twelve years, out-of-doors as well as in their home. Tapping into a strong amateur feminine image-making tradition that had been gaining momentum since the late eighteenth century, they painted scenes of everyday feminine life, primarily portraits, domestic interiors, and family vacation spots. As the Morisot sisters astutely understood, this imagery corresponded to a program for pioneering, avant-garde art, famously formulated by Charles Baudelaire in his The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863. Baudelaire called for art to abandon academic standards of history painting in favor of modern urban subject matter.

Through their painting, Berthe and Edma came into contact with the circle of young Parisian artists and writers who were putting Baudelaire's ideas into practice. In particular, they became close friends with the brilliant leaders of a new generation, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Manet painted several beautiful portraits of Berthe. Barred by bourgeois convention from participating in the café encounters during which the principles of realism and impressionism were debated and developed, the Morisot sisters nonetheless assimilated the latest trends through their personal network.

Between about 1869 and 1872, Berthe went through a crisis, initiated by the obligation felt by her sister Edma to give up art in order to marry and have children, and deepened by the military and political events shaking France, and especially Paris, during 1870 and 1871. Berthe Morisot emerged from this crisis with a decision to become, in effect though not in name, a progressive professional artist. She also decided to marry Eugéne Manet, brother of the painter Édouard. Against Edouard Manet's advice, she accepted Degas's invitation to join an 1874 exhibition intended to circumvent the authority of the French Academy of Fine Arts. This exhibition, later known as the first of eight impressionist exhibitions held over the course of twelve years, launched impressionism.

In the first impressionist exhibition, Morisot showed a painting that epitomized her early work: The Cradle, painted in 1873. It shows a mother and baby, painted with light, varied, and expressive brushstrokes to render a time-honored subject in a thoroughly modern way. The image, scaled for a middle-class interior, is at once secular, tender, and analytical. Mother and baby each occupy their own areas of the image, one in full light, the other veiled, but are connected to each other compositionally, as well as by the mother's gaze and gesture.

Although critics noted the participation of a woman in the impressionist movement, their reaction was rarely negative, and indeed Morisot's colleagues seem to have never questioned her right to belong at the heart of their group. Instead, critics tended to praise Morisot's art for what they perceived as its femininity, which they saw in its subject matter, as well as in its delicate, scattered, and brightly colored style. As impressionism matured, Morisot's work evolved along with the movement. Gradually her style became more sinuous and strongly colored. She experimented with self-portraiture, and with a series of portraits of her only child, Julie, born in 1879. In these later

works, Morisot explored her child's progress toward autonomy, and the melancholy of loss, especially in paintings made after the death of her husband in 1892.

Morisot also participated in the impressionist movement through her and her husband's personal, administrative, and financial support. She continued to be a close friend of the impressionist painters Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir for the rest of her life, and earned the admiration and friendship of the great symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Morisot died at the age of fifty-four in 1895, from influenza caught while caring for her daughter.

Many of Morisot's works remained in her family at her unforeseen death, and many others remained in private collections. This seclusion of her work, compounded by a bias in art history against women, caused Morisot's reputation to decline until textbooks no longer even included her in their account of impressionism. Morisot's reputation has also been plagued by recurrent attempts to cast her primarily as the painter Édouard Manet's muse and mistress. Beginning in the 1980s, feminist contributions to art history, together with a growing general respect for Morisot's subject matter and achievements brought about by changing attitudes to gender, have restored Morisot to the place of honor she occupied in her own lifetime. The single largest collection of her work is to be found in the Paris Musée Marmottan.

See alsoCorot, Jean-Baptiste-Camille; Degas, Edgar; France; Impressionism; Manet, Édouard; Painting.


Berthe Morisot. Catalogue of an exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille and at the Fondation Pierre Giannada à Martigny. Martigny, 2002.

Higonnet, Anne. Berthe Morisot: A Biography. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Anne Higonnet

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