Berthe Morisot was a woman of extraordinary talents who carved for herself a career within the art world of nineteenth century Paris. She was one of only a few women who exhibited with both the Paris Salon and the highly influential and innovative Impressionists. Her work endures today as a major representative of the Impressionist school. Unlike most of her female contemporaries, Berthe Morisot managed to combine a successful artistic career with marriage and motherhood. Though she seems the prototypical nineteenth-century "superwoman," she never completely rejected the values and trappings of her haute-bourgeoisie background. Morisot's art depicts the world of the bourgeoise , their clothes, their lifestyle, their surroundings, and her relationships. Through her unusual talent, the modern viewer can see the usual, everyday life led by the nineteenth century bourgeoises.
By late twentieth century standards, the surroundings, lifestyles, and activities of the bourgeoises , seem very circumscribed. From birth to death, women were expected to uphold a certain standard of behavior and morality which was almost guaranteed by their focusing attention to the home, while the men of the family supported their wives' and daughters' supposed leisure. The outside, public world became associated with freedom and irresponsibility; the private, as a place of refuge. Though for men, going out in public was directly connected to freedom from the domestic and financial responsibilities which nineteenth century bourgeois values placed upon their shoulders, women who emerged from the private into the public world encroached upon this freedom. Thus, during the nineteenth century, public spaces became associated with the loss of female virtue.(1)
These "separate spheres," the private world of women verses the public world of men, though they seem restrictive, obscures the very fact that because women were confined to the home, it became wholly theirs. The presumed expertise of women in homemaking and childrearing produced a kind of "professionalization" of the home. However, by the very nature of this "professionalization" upon marriage, women were expected to turn away from other pursuits and devote themselves completely to this task.(2) Thus, though other "worldly," educated professions such as teaching, music, or in the case of the Morisots--art, allowed a few women to build careers for themselves, the majority of bourgeoises were expected to choose between these outside pursuits and marriage. Only a few exceptional women managed to achieve both. Berthe Morisot, unlike even her own sister, was one of these women.
Berthe Morisot was born in 1841--the same year as Pierre Auguste Renoir, her future colleague, advisor, and friend, to Edme-Tiburce Morisot and Marie Corneille Thomas. Though her father had aspired to follow his father's footsteps and become an architect, Edme-Tiburce Morisot was in the service of the government. No mere civil servant, Morisot steadily rose to become prefect of the Department of Sher by the time Berthe was born. After the family moved to the Parisian suburb of Passy during the revolutionary year of 1848, Edme-Tiburce continued to work as a highly paid government official. His family was able to live a comfortably well off, haute-bourgeois lifestyle.(3) Berthe's mother, who came from a solidly middle class background, took seriously her commitment to her children and family for she personally arranged for their care and education. Thus the Morisot family seemed an exemplary example of a stable, bourgeois existence. Morisot and her two elder sisters, Yves and Edmé, like many girls of their class, received their early education at home through an English governess. After 1855, the Morisot girls were sent to a private school where they received instruction in the "ladylike" arts of piano lessons, needlework, and drawing.(4) Though Berthe was recognized as a talented pupil, it was not until she was sixteen that she and her sisters began pursuing art seriously.
In 1858 Madame Morisot inspired Edmé and Berthe to paint. She desired that the three girls take art lessons so that they could present a birthday gift to their father. She sent them first to the academic painter Geoffrey Alphonse Chocarne who focused his teachings on drawing, and soon afterward to Joseph Benoît Guichard, a former student of both Ingres and Delacroix.(5) Though the eldest daughter Yves quickly decided that she was not interested in continuing these lessons, Edmé and Berthe enthusiastically applied themselves to his instruction. Soon after their lessons commenced, Guichard took their mother aside and confided, "Your daughters have such inclinations...they will become painters. Do you realize what that means? In your environment of the upper middle class this will be a revolution, I might almost say a catastrophe. Are you sure that you will never curse the day that art will become the only master of destiny of your two children?"(6) Instead of declining the offer, Mme. Morisot made a conscious decision to allow her daughters to pursue their art. Kathleen Adler and Tamar Garb, in their collection of essays on Morisot's life and work, suggest that Guichard's suppositions emerged "from a widespread nineteenth century suspicion of the female professional." (7) Here lies the dichotomy of the female artist. Though artistic competence and even talent was encouraged among women, the line between the professional and the amateur artist was thickly drawn. Under Guichard's tutelage, the Morisot sisters began to journey to the Louvre in order to study the old masters first hand. This was a self-educational technique which Berthe would return to all of her life. (8) However, in accordance with the social standards of the day, neither Berthe nor Edmé were allowed to paint at the Louvre unchaperoned.
After three years of studio work under the supervision of Guichard, Berthe decided that she wished to study the plein aire motif under master landscapist Corot. Edmé joined her sister with these weekly lessons. Of the two sisters, Corot found Edmé more disciplined; he often felt that Berthe took too many liberties with her work.(9) Nonetheless, the two continued their work under him. As part of Corot's instruction, the Morisots embarked on summer-long painting trips to picturesque locales. In 1862, they rode mules through the Pyrenees.(10) In order to accommodate these expeditions, the Morisot family organized their holidays around Berthe and Edmé's art work for there was no question that the two would have set off on such an experience unchaperoned. The Morisots gave constructive support to the painting aspirations of their daughters. M. Morisot had a studio build in the garden for Edmé and Berthe to work in and Mme Morisot attended all of the exhibitions, listened in on the viewers' comments, and reported to the married Yves whether or not the girls artworks were displayed in a favorable position.(11)
In both England and America in the middle of the nineteenth century, countless memoirs, letters, and recollections affirm that Victorian middle and upper middle class women forged and maintained close, intimate ties with their sisters. The relationship between Edmé and Berthe certainly evidences this closeness both in the personal and artistic lives. Though only two examples of Edmé Morisot's work survives, one is an 1863 portrait of her sister Berthe at work. In defiance of the fashion of the day, Berthe, who seems completely absorbed in her painting, wears no hoopskirt which would have gotten in the way of her work. Instead, she wears a practical skirt, blouse, and jacket. The position of Berthe's easel in relation to the viewer suggests that she and Edmé painted side by side. This painting only came to the public view in 1961--it was considered an intimate portrait and remained in the possession of Edmé Pontillon's descendants.(12)
In early 1869, after twelve years of study and collaboration with her sister Berthe, Edmé Morisot married a naval officer, Adolphe Pontillon. Though she might have continued to paint as a hobby, her marriage marked the end of her serious pursuance of painting. However, letters to Berthe soon after her wedding indicate that Edmé missed both the artistic challenge and the camaraderie engendered by working with her sister. "I am with you, my dear Berthe. In my thoughts I follow you about in your studio, and wish that I could escape, were it only for a quarter of an hour, to breath that air in which we lived for many long years."(13)
When Edmé returned to the Morisot household in the winter of 1869-70 to await the birth of her first child, in a series of two paintings, Berthe depicted some of the most intimate portraits of bourgeois womanhood. In Portrait of Cornélie Morisot and Edmé Pontillon [Mother and Sister of the Artist], she portrayed her mother reading to her visibly pregnant sister within the family's drawing room. Mme. Morisot is intent upon her work while Edmé seems lost in her own world. Her facial expression is neither serene nor expectant, just contemplative. Absent is the sweet sentimentality of motherhood which pervaded much of the popular art of the period. Though Edmé was over age thirty at the time of this sitting, she looks no more than sixteen. Her virginal white dress covering her distended body and her long golden hair contrasts with the mourning black worn by her mother. Both women seem to sit in silent acquiescence of the changes wrought by time and generational cycles.
Its companion piece, entitled Woman at the Window [Portrait of Edmé Pontillon] has the still pregnant Edmé seated inside a room in front of the open verandah door. Her proximity to the outdoors, her wistful expression, and her handling of a small Chinese fan almost suggest a restlessness against her enforced confinement. Numerous sources indicate that nineteenth century bourgeoises, soon after they discovered pregnancy, severely curtailed their activity. By the sixth month, most limited themselves to their homes. Ironically, in an age when pregnancy was not openly discussed, these two works were accepted to the 1870 Salon where they received critical acclaim for Berthe Morisot.(14)
After Edmé's marriage and the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in August of 1870, Berthe Morisot went through a period of re-evaluation. She decided that instead of marrying, as Edmé did, she would devote herself to her work. However, this decision about her future, understandably, caused her a great amount of concern. Apparently, Berthe often subjected herself to severe introspection and self-criticism. Though she was well regarded in artistic circles early in her career, she often doubted her work.(15) It was at this time that she began to cast her lot with the impressionists whom she met through her influential friend, Edouard Manet.
The artworld of nineteenth-century France was dominated by the French Academy and its premier teaching institution, L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts which selected art juries, administered the art examinations, and sponsored the Salon, the annual art exhibition. The Salon, originally located within the Louvre, was held after 1857 in the vast Palais L'Industrie. Here, artists' work was displayed in what was the single most important exhibition in France. Thousands of paintings and artworks were crammed from the floor to ceiling where they competed for the jurists attentions. The jurists were invariably academicians who frequently rejected artwork which did not conform to the established rubrics of the day. During the 1860s and early 70s, many of the group of artists who would call themselves Impressionists belonged to this non-conforming group.(16)
Edouard Manet was one of this new generation of artists who was dissatisfied with the Salon. His 1865 Olympia and Le Déjeunier Sur L'herbe were controversial enough for him to be excluded from the 1866 Salon. In retaliation, he chose to mount his own exhibition, whose centerpiece was The Balcony, an 1869 work for which he had persuaded Berthe to pose. In this painting, Manet makes clear his admiration for Morisot. Unlike the other two figures who seem benign and affable, Morisot has an almost gypsy-like fire. She holds a fan which looks as though it will be snapped open in the style of Andalusian women. Truly, Manet painted her in an incredibly romantic style. Though this painting made a lasting impression upon the viewing public, Manet's alternative exhibition was not a success. Nonetheless, he continued to encourage and support Berthe's contributions to the Salon. Although historians have searched, there is no indication that Manet and Morisot were ever more than good friends. Indeed, the fact that Berthe married Manet's brother Eugene implies that their affections were more fraternal than matrimonial.(17) Through Manet, who admired her work greatly, Berthe Morisot became influenced by other artists whose work had gained some notoriety for their new interpretation of subject matter, and their incorporation of light, and color into their art.
Why did Berthe Morisot cast her lot with the Impressionists? Art historian Griselda Pollack maintains that the new revitalization by the Impressionists of the genre scene in their art was a major factor.(18) Indeed, in the years immediately preceding her 1874 debut exhibition with the Impressionists, most of Berthe's work were indeed genre scenes. However, unlike most of the Impressionists, Morisot's works were favorably critiqued by the Salon. Her most famous, The Cradle, was a painting of her sister Edmé gazing at her new born daughter Jeanne, electrified the exhibition of 1872. Edouard Manet who resolutely refused to join up with the Impressionists because he felt that their efforts against the Salon, perhaps after his own failed attempts to counter the art establishment, would be futile, tried to dissuade Morisot from ruining her good track record.(19) Nonetheless, despite his efforts and the fact that she married his brother Eugene that year, in 1874, Berthe Morisot began to exhibit with the Impressionists and did so every year until the last exhibition in 1886 with the exception of the year her daughter Julie Manet was born. Among this group, she voiced her opinion and gave advice to such up and coming artists as Georges Seurat. Indeed, his work Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte was included in the 1886 exhibition because of her sponsorship.(20)
Unlike her sister Edmé, Berthe Morisot (she continued to paint under her own name) was determined to continue her art after marriage. Morisot's output, always prolific, never flagged. This was certainly helped by the fact that her husband Eugene Manet both gave her the freedom to do so and was supportive of her efforts. Whenever she embarked on painting trips, he accompanied her, sometimes sketching himself. He even prepared the catalogues for her exhibitions. Marriage gave Berthe financial, social, and emotional stability which encouraged her to expand her professional role.(21) He had time to do so because the Manet family fortune gave him and Berthe Morisot enough income to pursue their art. However, some of Berthe Morisot's contemporaries were not as fortunate in their marriages. After artist Marie Bracquemond married, her husband became jealous of the time she spent on her work. She reluctantly gave into his persuasions to give it up. Hence, she is the least known of the impressionists.(22) Eva Gonzales, Edouard Manet's pupil, continued to paint after her marriage to a lithographer, but her career was tragically cut short when she died of a brain embolism following the birth of her son.(23) Clearly, fate played a role in the relative success or failure of these women artists' careers.
When their daughter Julie arrived in late 1878, Berthe Morisot continued to paint. Indeed, Julie Manet became her favorite subject. From her birth in 1878 until her mother's death in 1896, Julie figured prominently in Berthe Morisot's work. A painting which recently received much historical and social interpretation, and which typifies Berthe Morisot's haute-bourgeois experience was her 1879 work Wet Nurse. Linda Nochlin explores the parallel between two working women: one is nursing her charge thus freeing the second woman who is painting the picture. In doing so, the wet nurse must abandon her own child in order to feed that of her employer. In turn, the artist relies upon the services of the wet nurse to give her baby nourishment as she herself must find fulfillment within her own art. Berthe Morisot's actions were certainly within the perimeters of the haute-bourgeoisie. Most women of her class chose to hire a wet nurse. Nochlin admits that Morisot probably would have done so anyway regardless of her artistry. However, the fact that she did hire someone else to give Julie Manet primary care freed her from some of the stricture domesticity might have placed upon her art.(24)
Berthe Morisot worked out of her home. However, unlike Renoir, Manet, Monet, or Degas, her workrooms were not part of the public space of the house. She relegated them to the back of the house where at the end of the day, she would hide her paints and brushes.(25) Though this could easily parallel the modern person who works out of their home and who wishes to clearly define work areas and living areas, this also might reflect Morisot's own desire to balance her career in art and her position as mistress of the house. Though art was the dominating force in the lives of her male colleagues, Berthe Morisot was also a wife and mother. Two roles which, though not exclusive from her art, nonetheless were equally important to her.
Between her 1874 marriage and her death in 1895, Berthe Morisot produced over 350 works of art, most of which featured either women or children. Two thirds of these paintings featured either her sisters, their families, or her own daughter Julie. Indeed, Julie Manet became a favorite subject of study. From the infant in Wet Nurse to the adolescent portrayed in Julie au Violon , or Julie Manet and Greyhound Laërtes, Berthe Morisot recorded her daughter's childhood in loving detail. After her husband Eugene's death in 1893, Julie and Berthe became very close. The two traveled and drew together. Julie seems to have inherited some of both her mother's and the Manet family's artistic talent. However, this was not to last long. After nursing Julie through a bout of influenza, Berthe developed pneumonia and quickly experienced a decline. She died on March 2, 1895.(26)
Though the nineteenth century did not produce many women artists of Berthe Morisot's caliber and fame, those other women who were successful artists, such as Eva Gonzales, Marie Bracquemond, and Mary Cassatt, all came from similar backgrounds. This is not surprising for, the upper middle class was uniquely suited to producing educated women. Unlike women of the lower and working class, bourgeoises had the leisure and the financial support to pursue their interests, so long as they did not go against what was considered proper behavior. However, in one sense, both Edmé and Berthe Morisot had an advantage over other women of their class: they both delayed marriage until they were in their early thirties. According to Bonnie Smith in her painstaking research into the bourgeoises of the Nord, upper middle class women of the mid-nineteenth century were generally married before they reached the age of twenty one. Not until the social upheavals of World War One did the median age of marriage rise.(27)
The Morisots had the advantage of over a decade of a mature pursuance of their craft with freedom from the relative constraints of marriage and a family. However, when Edmé and Berthe finally did decide to marry, each under different circumstances, this had a profound effect upon their art. For Edmé, though she had exhibited at four Salons, marriage meant the end of any question of an artistic career. He union with Alphonse Pontillon in 1869 required her to focus her energies upon their family and fulfilling the roles expected by the wife of a naval officer. (28) Berthe, who did not marry for another five years, had the opportunity to consolidate her talents, make contacts, and build a name for herself within the artistic world.
In the last decades, several art historians have focused upon Berthe Morisot's depiction of women within the clearly delineated roles and physical spaces which were acceptable for bourgeois women during the nineteenth century. Most of the physical spaces were either associated with the upper middle class home such as drawing rooms as depicted in Portrait of Mme Boursier and her Daughter, balconies, In a Villa at the Seaside , and private gardens as in Woman and Child in a Garden. Morisot also painted outdoor scenes, which were places that respectable bourgeoises frequented such as parks and scenic overlooks (View of Paris from the Trocadero, 1872), or modes of transport, which enclosed women such as boats, and carriages (A Summer's Day, 1879).(29) These interiors and exteriors represented the settings in which most bourgeoise lived their lives. As a member of this class, Berthe Morisot would herself have spent time in these locales and there would have chosen to paint her subjects.
Before her marriage, Berthe Morisot's position as a respectable member of the haute-bourgeoisie impacted her ability to move within artistic circles. Though she had seen him at various art exhibitions and knew of his work, Berthe Morisot had to wait, in accordance with bourgeois etiquette, until a mutual friend could introduce her to her future mentor and brother-in-law, Edouard Manet. Art historian Anne Higonnet believes that if Morisot met Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, or Sisley in person before the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, she probably did so at her own family home.(30)
Once married, Berthe Morisot could move more frequently within the artistic circle because she could invite these artists into her own home. However, even after she married Eugene Manet, some social barriers could still not be crossed. Because of Morisot's sex and social position, she could not join her male colleagues at the cafes where they casually convened. Respectable women, married or unmarried, simply did not frequent these establishments. These limitations of access to artistic exchange have become the focus of recent feminist scholarship. Kathleen Adler maintains that Degas and Manet, who were of her class, would have been her main contact with the rest of the Impressionists for the two men were included in the more formal, chaperoned gatherings of her own circle of friends.(31)
Although Morisot was unusual for her class and time in that she successfully pursued an artistic career whilst combining it with marriage and motherhood, she never forsaked her bourgeoise background. In her art and in her lifestyle, she reflected the standards of behavior and propriety required of the nineteenth century bourgeoises. Through her depictions of her sisters, their families, and her own daughter Julie Manet, Berthe Morisot portrays an intimacy between women within the realism of the feminine world. Her art remains as a record for the twentieth century and beyond of the feminine world of the bourgeoises.
1. Priscilla Robertson, An Experience of Women: Pattern and Change in Nineteenth Century Europe (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p. 187.
2. Barbara Carrado Pope, "Angels in the Devil's Workshop: Leisured and Charitable Women in Nineteenth Century England and France," in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. by Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977), p. 303.
3. Kathleen Adler, "The Spaces of Everyday Life: Berthe Morisot and Passy," In Perspectives on Morisot, ed. by T.J. Edelstein (New York: Hudson Hills, Press, 1990), p. 35.
4. Ira Moskowitz, ed. Berthe Morisot (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1961), p.12.
5. Hugo Munsterberg. A History of Women Artists (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1975), p. 52.
6. Moskowitz, Berthe Morisot, p. 12.
7. Kathleen Adler and Tamar Garb, Berthe Morisot (Oxford: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 1987), p. 14.
8. Moskowitz, Berthe Morisot, p. 14.
9. Denis Rouart, ed. The Correspondence of Berthe Morisot (New York: E. Weyhe, 1959), p. 18.
10. Rosalinde de Boland Roberts and Jane Roberts, Growing Up with the Impressionists: The Diary of Julie Manet (London: Southeby Publications, 1987), p. 11.
11. Rouart, The Correspondence of Berthe Morisot, p. 18.
12. Adler and Garb, Berthe Morisot, p. 22.
13. Rouart, The Correspondence of Berthe Morisot, p. 27.
14. Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot's Images of Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 116.
15. Moskowitz, Berthe Morisot, p. 13.
16. David Bomford, Jo Kirby, John Leighton, and Ashok Roy, Art in the Making: Impressionism (London: The National Gallery of Art, Ltd., 1990), pp.11-15.
17. Beatrice Farwell, "Manet, Morisot, and Propriety," in Perspectives on Morisot, ed. by T.J. Edelstein (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), pp. 46-47.
18. Griselda Pollack, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 56.
19. Roberts and Roberts, Growing Up with the Impressionists, p. 11.
20. Higonnet, Berthe Morisot's Images of Women, p. 11.
22. Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990), p. 216.
23. Nancy G. Heller, Women Artists: Illustrated History (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.
24. Linda Nochlin, "Morisot's Wet Nurse: The Construction of Work and Leisure in Impressionist Painting," in Perspectives on Morisot, ed. by T.J. Edelstein (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), pp. 96-97.
25. Higonnet, Berthe Morisot's Images of Women, p. 27.
26. Roberts and Roberts, Growing Up with the Impressionists, p. 22.
27. Bonnie Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 60.
28. Heller, Women Artists, p. 94.
29. Pollack, Vision and Difference, p. 56,
30. Higonnet, Berthe Morisot's Images of Women, p. 23.
31. Adler and Garb, Berthe Morisot, p. 29.