Berthe Morisot, as a key member of the French Impressionist movement, can be considered one of the most influential female artists in history. Her concentration on portraits of domestic scenes of friends and family helped to differentiate her work from other members of this famous group of artists.
Morisot achieved support from the Paris Salon, who quickly recognised her talent and allowed her to exhibit a number of times as her reputation started to spread. Rather than settle for this, she decided to then work alongside the Impressionist artists (as they were all to become) who would organise their own exhibitions. This would mean being more independent as an artist, and enjoying the benefits and risks that this brought along with it. Thankfully, the Impressionists would prove successful as the public started to adjust to their new ideas and technical innovations, and she would eventually exhibit at nearly all of the Impressionist events. Whilst within that group, several female painters would bring in an extra strand of content which their male counterparts were not covering, such as indoor scenes focused on the lives of women in society, as well as depicting very young children and babies. Examples of this included The Cradle and Woman at her Toilette.
The artist produced portraits of women as her main genre, and these would include members of the family and friends. They would be in a variety of poses, sometimes at work, but normally relaxing within the family home. She would then start to include their children alongside in intimate portraits, and then children together with their siblings. The public were struck by the emotions found within these painting, and how they offered an insight into a part of society that many men were not particularly familiar, even within their own lives. The uniqueness of this content, combined with great technical prowess, proved to be a winning formula and Berthe had the additional support of a strong family connection to the Manets, who themselves were already highly prominent within the art world. Ultimately, she was able to overcome societal barriers through hard work, talent, and some fortunate support from other quarters.
The painting featured here was a portrait of Berthe Morisot by Edouard Manet, titled Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets. The lives of these two artists were closely intertwined, both professionally and also personally. Berthe married Eugène Manet, the younger brother of Edouard and a painter himself, though his career would never reach the heights of his old brother. Eugène was to feature in several different paintings by Morisot, in line with her passion for painting scenes with a personal touch. This was one of her unique features within the Impressionist movement, reflecting her different viewpoint as a female painter. Her technical touches of brush were also equally sensitive and considered, particularly in the early stages of her development. An additional, and highly significant, role in the legacy of Berthe Morisot was her contribution to the reputation of female artists and helping them to start to gain a foothold in the male-dominated art world. To succeed within the groundbreaking Impressionist movement showed considerable bravery and integrity, when the artist was able to continue exhibiting at the Salon if she had chosen to take the safe option.
Only the most stubborn critic could now argue that women were incapable of producing fine art at the highest of levels. Mary Cassatt would make a similar impact, though as an American would have to rise above even greater obstacles. The femininity of this artist crept directly into her artistic style, as well as the content that she chose to capture. Whilst touching on the standard themes of the Impressionist movement, she would also capture domestic scenes too. You find a plethora of portraits, often of family and friends, within our paintings section. As her level of attention increased she would also start to produce large numbers of study drawings too, in order to perfect her figurative work. Her work most commonly featured indoor scenes within family homes, but there were also carefully planned compositions based in parks, gardens and other locations around France.
The main artists of the majority of art movements in and around the 19th century would follow similar paths in terms of training and education as young students. Unfortunately, in the case of Berthe Morisot, most of her work during this period was destroyed which has made it harder to fill in the knowledge gaps of her career during this time. It was she herself who made the conscious choice of getting rid of most of her work during this time, purely because she was unhappy with the majority of it. Perhaps during this period of quick development and experimentation, she would always look back at past work and judge it unfairly. It was as a draughtswoman that Morisot first impressed, mainly due to her earliest classes focusing purely on this medium.
Whilst painting would later take over, her study drawings would always be at the basis of her work and preparation. After making use of several different teachers, including Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichard, she would start to switch her interest to the more complex and challenging mediums of oils and watercolours. She would also move on from charcoal drawings towards pastels, something which proved popular with many other impressionists at a later date. Pastels would offer colour combinations which were highly significant within 19th and 20th century art, where precise detail was replaced by other factors such as expression, colour and emotion. Morisot came along at a time when France was leading the way within western art, with institutions producing creative and highly trained artists who competed against each other within the vibrant hub of Paris.
For an extended period Morisot produced large numbers of watercolour paintings, prefering it over any other medium at that time. This was prior to her work within the Impressionist movement. At this stage she was still a relatively cautious artist, looking to hone her skills and build confidence. Her somewhat safe palette is an example of this. The characteristics of watercolour painting was suited to her subtle touches of the brush and served an important role in her development towards the finished artist. It was also something that she worked on solely for several years, allowing her to really understand the various techniques of a discipline which is very different to usin oils. Some of her watercolours remain amongst the highlights of her career and this period renewed her creative enthusiasm, bringing with it new challenges.
Main Impressionist Period
Morisot will always be remembered for her involvement in the very first Impressionist exhibition. It was held in the studio of a photographer with whom they were close, Nadar, in 1874. Her work went alongside the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. The selection entered for display included drawings and pastel pieces alongside their more well known oil paintings. She would continue to exhibit alongside this group many more times and featured in almost all of their displays, having turned her back on the easier route of salon art in order to achieve a greater creative freedom. She was highly acclaimed throughout her career which was an unusual achievement for a woman at that time, because of the barriers which would fall in front of most ladies at that time.
French art was perhaps at its highest level during the mid to late 19th century. Besides those mentioned already, there was also other great names such as Gustave Caillebotte, Frederic Bazille and Toulouse Lautrec and also many more from outside of France who moved to Paris in order to take advantage of the exciting and vibrant creative atmosphere to be found in districts such as Montmartre. Since then, the international art scene has spread between Europe and America, with a number of artists coming from quite a variety of different backgrounds. This era therefore remains one of the most dominant periods of art in recent centuries, in a similar manner to the success found in Italy during the Renaissance. There was a wider cultural development within Paris at around the turn of the century, which included literature and theatre, with the middle classes starting to enjoy more leisure time, boosting interest in pastimes such as this.
Morisot would then start to use oils more and more, though still returning to watercolours and pastels on regular occasions. She would sometimes produce oil paintings in her studio from outdoor studies completed earlier in an alternative medium. She was very comfortable switching from one to another, whilst other artists would normally specialise in one medium for an extended period. The French climate and environment was ideally suited to working outdoors, too, and she found this an excellent way of regularly studying elements that were common to her work in order to eventually be able to capture them effortlessly. Working outdoors was to become a signature element of the Impressionist movement and she found success with this alternative as well, capturing many scenes within gardens and local parks.
Morisot would later return to drawing, considered a fundamental skill in many different art movements, dating back to the Renaissance and before that. As someone who studied figurative form in great detail and over many years, drawing in pencil or charcoal helped the artist to refine her ability in this area and make some of her processes almost instinctive. Another technique she began to experiment with was using tracing paper in order to transfer her carefully studied drawings across to the canvas accurately, before adding oils over the top. This medium would remain a key part of his working processes throughout her career, and was considered a particularly important discipline within French art. For many centuries, to be considered even a sculptor or painter of note, you would have to also impress as a draughtsman or draughtswoman within that country.
Morisot and Cassatt played an important role in convincing the western world of the importance of female artists, and how they could bring something different to the industry. There had already been some technically impressive female artists across a variety of movements, but a legacy is always stronger when it also includes elements that are unique to that artist. These two Impressionists brought the world of women to everybody's attention, and did it with some of the highlights of that entire movement. It may have made people reflect on the important role that women played in society, when sometimes they could be hidden away at home. Some of the mother and child portraits were particularly intimate and exciting because of how few had been seen up to that point, other than the religious depictions of the Madonna, all the way back in the Italian Renaissance.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.