Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day, c.1879, oil on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery, NG3264).
Happy 180th birthday to Berthe Morisot! Born on this day in 1841, I’ve long been in love with all her sketchy, textured brushwork (obviously I would never touch a painting, but her canvases just look so tactile!). Too often remembered simply as a “female Impressionist”, I’ll be celebrating her life and work in today’s post!
A supportive beginning
Morisot was born into a wealthy, upper-middle-class family who were very supportive of her love of art. This is perhaps unsurprising, as her mother was distantly related to the Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Her parents even built an art studio for Morisot and her sisters.
Artist in training
She and her sister Edma received an extensive art education. This began in 1857 with drawing training under Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and later moving to lessons with Joseph-Benoît Guichard, who had studied under Ingres and Delacroix.
The Morisot sisters copied works in the Louvre, particularly those by Veronese and Rubens, and in 1861 met Jean-Baptise-Camille Corot, a painter of the Barbizon school, the movement that looked to the landscape, and being in the landscape, for inspiration (very much a precursor to Impressionism). Three years later, Morisot began submitting her work to the Paris salon.
An important relationship
Crucially, in 1868, Morisot met Éduoard Manet, an important event both artistically and personally. She was introduced to the realist painter by Henri Fantin-Latour (known for his flower paintings), and they developed a professional relationship that had profound effects on both of their artistic practice.
Through Manet, Morisot grew closer to the group of artists in which she would find her home: Societé Anonyme Coopérative à Capital Variable des Artists, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc, or, the group that would become the Impressionists. (Read more about the development of the Impressionist exhibitions here). Through Morisot, Manet lightened his artistic palette throughout the 1870s. Both artists also experimented with using unprimed canvases to explore texture beginning in 1880 – which is why you often see such a sketchy style in Morisot’s later work.
Personally, meeting Manet also introduced Morisot to her husband: in 1874, she married his brother, Eugéne Manet, who abandoned his own painting career to support his wife.
The Impressionist exhibitions
The same year she married her husband, she was also invited to exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition. Morisot went on to exhibit in seven out of eight of the Impressionist exhibitions, and even play a significant role in the organisation of some of them.
The only exhibition she didn’t take part in was in 1879, due to the fact she had fallen ill after giving birth to her only child, a daughter named Julie. Julie, along with Morisot’s sisters, would feature in many of her works.
Not only was Morisot an important part of the Impressionist circle, but her home also became a place where intellectuals and artists met. It was frequented by people such as Renoir, Degas (read more here) and Cassatt (read more here). Morisot, though often lacking confidence in her own abilities and always pushing outside of her comfort zone to develop her style and technique, was clearly at the centre of an important artistic milieu.
Morisot’s work has often been discussed as that of a classic Impressionist, with her sketchy, loose brushstrokes and light and bright colour palette. Despite these qualities being shared with both her male and female Impressionist colleagues, Morisot’s art has often been tethered too close to her femininity. Just because she often focussed on the female experience in her art does not mean this is the only lens through which to view her work.
Her focus was often modern life and the daily experiences of women around her, either in the home or outdoors. Her portrayals of women do not objectify them, but invite the viewer to think about what they might be thinking or feeling amongst the contemporary world around them. This was an important tenet of Impressionist (and Realist) artists: to capture modern life and experiences. Though her art did not depict bars, the theatre or nightlife in the same way her male contemporaries did, did not mean she captured the spirit of the age in any less of a significant way.
A successful artist
Though Morisot did not need to rely on her work for income, she was quite critically and commercially successful during her lifetime. For instance, in March 1875, her work was auctioned alongside paintings by Renoir, Pissarro, Monet and Sisley, amongst others, and it was hers that sold for the most – only marginally, but this is quite telling about the reception of her work. It is also said that her close friend Manet kept three of her paintings in his bedroom.
Morisot is definitely an artist who I believe should be remembered as an Impressionist, not just one who engaged with Impressionism only through a female lens! I’ll be busy spending the next few days admiring all her work from home – I hope you’ve enjoyed the works I’ve shared here and on my Instagram!