Morisot, Berthe (1841–1895)
Morisot, Berthe (1841–1895)
French painter who was one of the most talented and prominent members of the Impressionist movement. Born Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot on January 14, 1841, in Bourges, France; died in Paris on March 2, 1895, of pneumonia; daughter of (Edme) Tiburce Morisot (a civil servant) and Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas; studied privately under a number of artists, including Camille Corot; married Eugène Manet (a landowner), on December 22, 1874 (died April 13, 1892); children: daughter Julie Manet (b. November 14, 1878).
Moved to Paris with family (1855); began drawing lessons with her sister Edma (1857); registered as a copyist at the Louvre (1858); exhibited with her sister at the Paris Salons (1864–68); exhibited alone (1870, 1872, 1873); participated in the first Impressionist exhibition (1874); participated in second exhibition (1876), third (1877), fifth (1880), sixth (1881), seventh (1882), and eighth (1886); exhibited with Les XX in Brussels, and was included in Durand-Ruel's New York Impressionist exhibition (1887); held first solo exhibition (1892); exhibited with Le Libre Esthetique in Brussels (1894).
The Harbour at Lorient (1869), Mother and Sister of the Artist (1870), The Cradle (1872), Catching Butterflies (1873), At the Ball (1875), Psyche (1876), Summer's Day (1879), In the Dining Room (1886). Works contained in over a dozen collections in major museums, including Chicago Art Institute, Tate Gallery (London), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Musée du Louvre (Paris), Doria Pampli (Rome), National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). Signature: Berthe Morisot, sometimes BM.
On April 15, 1874, an exhibition of artworks opened at 35 boulevard des Capucines, the premises of Nadar, a prominent Parisian photographer. It was a rare occasion. The artists were exhibiting their works themselves, rather than through the Salon, the state-sponsored exhibition. Some critics applauded them for their initiative, others panned them. But it was the innovative style of some of the paintings which drew the largest and most hostile response. Although 30 artists exhibited a variety of styles, a small core of artists, who were challenging traditional conventions of representation, became the target of much abuse. This group, which became known as the Impressionists, altered forever the way Western culture regarded painting, and prominent among them was Berthe Morisot.
Morisot was born in Bourges on January 14, 1841, but before she was 12 her family had settled in Passy on the outskirts of Paris; it was to remain her home for the rest of her life. Passy was still a country district, and did not become officially part of Paris until 1859. Over the course of Morisot's lifelong residence, the town evolved into a lively suburb, while still retaining something of its village-like atmosphere. Victor Hugo called it "the capital of Paris."
Her father Tiburce Morisot was a civil servant during a period of almost constant bureaucratic confusion in France, and the family moved several times during her childhood. She was one of four children; her sisters Yves (born 1838) and Edma (born 1839) were older, while her brother Tiburce was younger, probably by seven years, but possibly by four. Her mother Cornélie Thomas came from a family of civil servants, and it was through the influence of Cornélie's father that Tiburce Morisot was able to secure a position as subprefect at Yssingeaux in the Haute-Loire a year after their marriage in 1835. Several promotions and moves followed, until
Tiburce's bureaucratic career was essentially ruined by his opposition to the nationalization of royal property by the Second Empire. He was relegated to a minor post in Passy, where the Morisot family, nevertheless, enjoyed a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle.
Like all middle-class young women, the Morisot sisters were encouraged to take an amateur interest in music and art, and they took lessons in both. Such art lessons were always distinct from those in which men were trained to be professional artists; women were encouraged only to dabble. The Morisot daughters first studied painting around 1855, under the tutelage of Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne, whose strict adherence to Neoclassical principles of style bored all of the Morisots, and apparently drove Yves away from painting permanently. Edma and Berthe, however, continued to study art under Joseph Guichard, who, while trained as a Neoclassicist, had to some extent abandoned the style of David and Ingres for the new Romantic style exemplified by Delacroix and Géricault. The warning which Guichard gave Mme Morisot about her daughters, reported in Armand Forreau's 1925 biography, is often quoted: "With natures like those of your daughters, my teaching won't end with giving them pretty little drawing-room accomplishments: they will become painters." Guichard expected this possibility to be alarming to the bourgeois Morisots, but instead Berthe and Edma continued to study, and registered as copyists at the Louvre by 1858. Guichard would later be one of those who considered Morisot the finest watercolorist of her time. During the early 1860s, the sisters made the acquaintance of many other artists, mostly at the Louvre, among them Felix Bracquemond, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Alfred Stevens.
[Morisot was] the magician whose work … stands comparison with that of anyone, and links itself, exquisitely, to the history of painting during an epoch of the century.
The Morisots, perhaps influenced by other artists they met at the Louvre, eventually requested, in 1860, training in plein-air painting (painting outdoors in natural light), which Guichard himself was not particularly inclined towards. As a result, the sisters would be introduced to both Achille Oudinot and Camille Corot, although it is not entirely clear in what order. While it is certain that they studied under both artists, to what extent Corot actually taught the Morisots is unclear; he was opposed to formal training in general, and in particular did not often allow observers while he was working himself. Armand Fourreau reports that the sisters produced copies of Corot's work, in which task Edma was deemed by Corot more skilled. In any case, the sisters followed Corot's example of learning through plein-air painting, sometimes under the guidance of Oudinot, making summer trips to Ville d'Avray in 1861 and the Pyrenees in 1862 to do so. Of particular importance was the summer of 1863, spent at Le Chou, where the sisters painted under Oudinot's guidance. In 1864, the results of this summer's work were submitted to the Salon, which annually exhibited paintings under the sponsorship of the Fine Arts Ministry. Berthe's two exhibited works were entitled Souvenir of the Banks of the Oise and Old Roadway at Auvers. The same year, the Morisots built a studio for the sisters in the garden of their home.
In the summer of 1865, the family stayed on the Normandy coast, and also visited Brittany, where Edma painted a view of the Rance estuary. Berthe's first major work was executed during this summer, her Thatched Cottage in Normandy, one of the earliest examples of the developing Impressionist style as practiced by Morisot. It was exhibited at the Salon of 1866; at the 1865 Salon, she had showed Study and Still Life. Her first notice from a critic (Paul Mantz) noted her fine use of light and color, while emphasizing that still lifes were simple to paint, not requiring Academy training, and thus ideal for women. Despite frequent encounters with such attitudes, Berthe and Edma both began to place works on consignment with Alfred Cadart, a dealer who had also dealt with Édouard Manet. Berthe's efforts to be regarded as a professional were always hampered by the degree to which women were excluded from the overt marks of professionalism—the commissions, medals, prizes, and particularly academic qualifications. While there were no rules excluding them, tradition kept women from attending the École des Beaux-Arts, for example.
In 1868, while copying a Rubens in the Louvre, the Morisots were introduced by Fantin-Latour to Manet, who would become Berthe's closest colleague for many years. That same year, Edma became engaged to Adolphe Pontillon, an acquaintance of Manet's (Yves was already married, leaving Berthe as the only single daughter, much to her family's concern). After Edma's marriage in 1869, Berthe began to seek the company of other artists more frequently, among them Manet, Edgar Degas, Alfred Stevens, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. While visiting Edma in Lorient during the summer of 1869, Berthe produced two more of her finest early works, The Harbour at Lorient, which shows Edma seated on a parapet in the foreground, and Young Woman at a Window, which is also of Edma.
The relationship which developed between Morisot and Manet was one of professional loyalty. Morisot was often irked by Manet's treatment of her; to him, as to many of the era, she was a woman first. In 1870, an incident occurred which might have ruptured their friendship, though in the end it did not. Morisot was preparing
a portrait of her mother and sister for submission to the Salon, and her frustration with it led Manet to offer to view it for her. To Morisot's surprise and horror, Manet proceeded to alter the painting a little at a time, until he had gone over virtually all of the figure of Mme Morisot. The painting was submitted to the Salon, recalled, and resubmitted, the whole process being agonizing for Morisot. In all likelihood, Manet would not have felt free to alter the work of any painters as well established in style as Morisot had they been male. A number of letters written by Manet, although of an earlier date, tended to marginalize the Morisot sisters because of their sex. This inclination was evident in all the male artists of the day to some extent; women artists were not included in the fashionable cafe debates, and were more likely to be asked to act as models than to be consulted as peers. It appears, in fact, that a busy schedule of posing for both Stevens and Manet left little time for Morisot to submit any of her own work to the 1869 Salon.
Also in 1870, the Morisot family witnessed the outbreak in July of the Franco-Prussian War, initiated by France over a diplomatic matter largely to provide glory for the Second Empire; instead, the war would lead to its fall. The conflict continued until January 1871, during much of which time bombardments took place not far from Passy, where Berthe continued to live with her parents. She was unable to work in oil, due to the militia being quartered in her studio, and it was during this period that she turned increasingly to watercolors, which suited her style well. Both watercolor and pastel (which she began to use frequently in 1871) strongly influenced her palette of oils. During the siege, hunger and cold took their toll; Morisot suffered from health problems for the rest of her life, and this period is often cited as partially responsible for them.
When, after the French defeat, the Prussian occupation began, the Morisots moved to the western side of Paris in order to be away from the expected vicinity of further conflict; the area just below Passy was the scene of Parisian resistance to the new national government elected under German supervision. The Commune, the independent Parisian government, was supported by Manet and Degas, while Tiburce Morisot was in the service of the national government centered at Versailles. Morisot, finally fed up with not being able to work, left in May to stay with Edma, intent on producing paintings that would sell. Working in both oils and watercolors, she began to produce the work of a fully mature and independent artist. Her drive to become a professional was fueled by the end of the civil war, which apparently left her mother free to take up again the twin practices of belittling Berthe's art and seeking her a suitable husband.
Morisot finally sold her first four works in July 1872, to Paul Durand-Ruel, Manet's dealer. One of the first to realize the money to be made from dealing in the avant-garde, Durand-Ruel was also one of many to identify Manet and his circle as the next wave. Morisot's work gradually began to sell, for respectable sums, both to Durand-Ruel and to the public. In the summer of 1872, she made an important trip to Spain, studying the work of Goya and Velázquez, much as Manet had done. One of her best-known works, The Cradle, dates from 1872; it shows that Morisot had emerged as an independent artist, but also that she was producing work which was commercially viable. When the family moved in 1873 (still within Passy), Morisot found herself once more without a studio. She never bothered to have one again.
The Salons of 1872 and 1873 both reflected the conservative taste of their juries, and Morisot was among the entrants turned down. A number of artists, who like herself had been exhibited by Durand-Ruel and identified by him as "The Society of French Artists," determined to exhibit their work under their own control. Consequently, the Societé Anonyme Coopérative d'artistes-peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs was formed late in 1873, with Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri Rouart as the key figures. Morisot became formally associated with the group early in 1874, at the request of Degas, who had supplanted Manet over the years to become her closest colleague. Manet himself was not willing to exhibit with the Societé and advised Morisot against doing so. Morisot, the only woman of the 30 artists included in that exhibit at 35 boulevard des Capucines, showed ten works, possibly more, including The Cradle (1872). As noted, she was identified by critics as one of the core group of painters working in the new and unorthodox style which was labeled "impressionism" after a work of Monet's shown at the exhibit. Louis Leroy wrote in Charivari: "That young lady does not waste time on reproducing a host of boring details. When she has a hand to paint, she simply applies as many brushstrokes as there are fingers and the job is done!"
Morisot vacationed with Edma and her family in Normandy during the summer of 1874. While there, she and Eugène Manet, the artist's brother, became engaged; they were married on December 22. Eugène, like both his brothers, was not compelled to work, being comfortably taken care of, and apparently was not driven to. He was a member of his brothers' circle of artistic and political friends, and himself painted (Degas invited him to participate in the exhibit of 1877, but he declined), but as far as is known his only profession was "landowner." In 1889, he published his novel, Victims!, which expressed some of the convictions of his family which had been revealed during the war, although it is set during the 1851 insurrections. The couple settled in the Morisot apartment, where Berthe took care of her mother, widowed the same year, until Cornélie's death in 1876.
Despite marriage, Morisot continued to pursue her career, placing herself in the forefront of the Impressionist movement. She was deeply committed to the efforts of artists to exhibit and sell their works without government control; this meant that she no longer exhibited at the Salons. In 1875, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Morisot organized a public auction of their works, a controversial event that was marked by violent disruption. While Morisot's work, in fact, fetched the highest price at the auction, the figures in general were quite low. At the second Impressionist exhibit, at the gallery of Durand-Ruel, the work of Morisot was singled out by hostile critics as being most representative of the horrible new style. However, by 1877 and the third exhibition (the first to be called Impressionist by the artists), the critics were also taking note of Morisot's genuine talent, what Georges Rivière called "an eye of extraordinary sensibility." Morisot's eye for the way light shapes color is considered the hallmark of her style, as well as that of Impressionism.
With the birth of her daughter Julie Manet in 1878, Morisot found her principle model for the rest of her life. That same year, Les Peintres Impressionnistes by Théodore Duret, the first history of the Impressionist movement, was published. In it, he identified the core members of the movement as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Morisot. In general, this view has never been challenged, but over the years the role of Morisot has been substantially downplayed in many accounts. She did not participate in the fourth exhibition of the group. It is often suggested that the recent birth of her daughter was the main reason for her absence, and perhaps it was; but, at the same time, the fourth exhibition was the first one at which the increasing divergence among the artists was made apparent. Renoir, Sisley, and Cézanne did not participate as a result of Degas' insistence that they renounce the Salon.
In 1879, Morisot and Mary Cassatt were largely responsible for the organization of the fifth Impressionist exhibition, at which Morisot was the main target of critical comment, in part because Monet, Renoir, and Sisley were not involved. The split between those Impressionists who still preferred the Salon and those who were committed to independent exhibition was essentially permanent, leaving Monet, Renoir, and Sisley outside the Impressionist core which would be represented by Degas, Pissarro, Morisot, and Cassatt, and a second generation which would include Paul Gauguin and the pointillists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Morisot was also the focus of critical notice because she was the artist who had most fully developed a truly Impressionistic style. This trend continued in the sixth exhibition, at which Morisot and Cassatt were the obvious champions of Impressionism, along with Pissarro. The success of Morisot and Cassatt contrasts sharply with the case of the other well-known woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, Marie Bracquemond , whose career was cut short at the insistence of her husband. The only other woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, Jacque-François , remains virtually unknown.
The seventh Impressionist exhibit, in 1882, saw an effort to reconcile the original members of the group; Pissarro actively sought to have Monet and Renoir participate. The result was mixed; while works by Monet and Renoir were submitted by Durand-Ruel, Degas and Cassatt withdrew. Renoir had refused to exhibit with Degas. Pissarro also asked Édouard Manet to participate, but, as always, he preferred the Salon. Morisot's participation in this exhibit was somewhat haphazard. She was staying in Nice, while Eugène handled her submissions in Paris. Only one of her works was in place at the beginning of the exhibit (the other major artists had from 17 to 35), and only around nine by the end. As a result, she was not a strong presence and received little notice. The following year, she was devastated by the death of Édouard Manet; she and Eugène organized a retrospective exhibition and sale of his work.
That same year, Morisot and Manet moved into their newly constructed home at 40 rue de Villejust, where Morisot still did not maintain a studio; both worked in the living room. Increasingly after 1885, Morisot made preparatory drawings for her works, contrary to the supposed spontaneity of Impressionist method. Late in 1885, she began preparations for what would be the final Impressionist exhibit, selecting artists to replace Renoir and Monet, who again would not take part. In exasperation, Morisot wrote to her sister: "It seems to me that I am about the only one without any pettiness of character." Among the new exhibitors were Seurat and Signac, who developed pointillism. By this time, Impressionism was no longer the avant-garde; it was being replaced by a variety of styles which would come to be called Post-Impressionist, for lack of any term which better connected them. Morisot was widely seen as the last artist still working in a recognizably Impressionistic style.
More successful than this exhibit, perhaps, was Durand-Ruel's 1886 exhibition in New York, which included all of the embattled Impressionists. Also in 1886, Morisot produced one of her best-known and most often reproduced works, In the Dining Room. She continued to exhibit, often with the other Impressionists and often under the sponsorship of Durand-Ruel. However, like a number of the others, Morisot was eager to exhibit without the controlling interest of Durand-Ruel. In 1887, she was included in the Salon of the Twenty in Brussels, billed as the artistic event of the year, which brought together the work of the Impressionists (Morisot, Pissarro, and Seurat) with that of their Belgian contemporaries the Vingtistes. She also made her only appearance in the International Exhibition, sponsored by Georges Petit, another dealer. His exhibitions were extremely prestigious, and marked an artist as established, rather than avant-garde.
During the late 1880s, Morisot entertained more frequently, and her intimate friends consisted of her most frequent guests: Renoir, Monet, Degas, and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Her closest colleague during these years was Renoir, who, as his son wrote, "avoided artistic and literary sets like the plague," but was always happy to visit the Manet household. Another dear friend was Mallarmé, who shared her retiring personality.
Eugène Manet died on April 13, 1892, after a long illness, and Morisot, although she owned their house, moved to a small apartment with Julie at 10 rue Wéber. Only a month after his death, Morisot held the solo exhibition he had encouraged. Sales and critical notice were good, and she continued to be regarded as one of France's foremost artists. In 1895, Berthe Morisot became ill with pulmonary congestion and died on March 2, age 54. She was buried beside her husband, and her brother-in-law and colleague Édouard Manet. Renoir would later tell his son that on hearing of the death of Morisot he "had a feeling of being all alone in a desert." In a letter to his son, Pissarro wrote that Morisot had "brought honour to our impressionist group which is vanishing—like all things." Indeed, the death of Berthe Morisot marked the end, in some ways, of the Impressionist era.
Over the years, Morisot's reputation with the public faded, although she was the subject of over a dozen exhibits around the world in the first half of the 20th century. One of the most important was the "Berthe Morisot and her Circle" exhibition which toured Canada and America in 1952–54. To some extent, the 1987 exhibit "Berthe Morisot—Impressionist," featuring 104 of her works, indicates that she is now receiving wider recognition as one of the most talented and influential artists of the late 19th century.
Adler, Kathleen, and Tamar Garb. Berthe Morisot. Oxford: Phaidon, 1987.
Fourreau, Armand. Berthe Morisot. Translated by H. Wellington. London: The Bodley Head, 1925.
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Higonnet, Anne. Berthe Morisot. NY: Harper & Row, 1990.
Manet, Julie. Growing Up With the Impressionists. Translation of the diary of Julie Manet by Rosalind de Boland Roberts and Jane Roberts. London: Sotheby's, 1987.
Renoir, Jean. Renoir, My Father. Translated by Randolph and Dorothy Weaver. London: Collins, 1962.
Rey, Jean Dominique. Berthe Morisot. Translated by Shirley Jennings. Naefels, Switzerland: Bonfini Press, 1982.
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Documents and some correspondence in the Durand-Ruel Archives, Paris. Most material in private collections.
"Berthe Morisot, the Forgotten Impressionist" (VHS), Electronic Field Production Service, 1990.
William MacKenzie , graduate student, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada