Collecting guide: 10 things to know about Berthe Morisot
A closer look at the trailblazing Impressionist who became a central figure in the avant-garde art world of late-19th-century Paris, placing women’s experience at the heart of her work
Born into an upper-middle-class family in 1841, Berthe Morisot was interested in art from an early age, a passion encouraged by her parents. As the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was closed to female students at the time, however, the family sought out private tutors for Berthe and her equally talented older sister, Edma.
One such teacher warned their mother: ‘Given your daughters’ natural gifts, it will not be petty drawing-room talents that my instruction will impart; they will become painters. Are you fully aware of what that means? It will be revolutionary — I would almost say catastrophic — in your high-bourgeois milieu.’
Undeterred, Morisot was determined to become a professional artist, and registered as a copyist at the Louvre to study the work of Titian, Veronese and Rubens first hand. However, it was an introduction to the great landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) in 1861 that would transform her approach to painting, exposing her to contemporary debates on naturalism and working en plein air.
Morisot met an eclectic group of fellow artists while studying at the Louvre, including Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914), and she developed a rich network of colleagues and friends as a result. It was Fantin-Latour who introduced Morisot to Edouard Manet (1832-1883) in late 1867 or early 1868, sparking an intense connection and artistic dialogue that would have a dramatic effect on the work of both.
Fascinated by her dark beauty and the intensity of her gaze, Manet depicted Morisot numerous times between 1868 and 1874, in oil, watercolour and print, most famously in his enigmatic painting from 1868-69, Le Balcon (below).
Manet’s fascination with the depiction of modern life inspired Morisot to pursue similar themes in her own work, while she is credited with the lightening of his palette, his growing interest in plein-air painting, and his looser handling of paint. (The two would even become family, when Morisot later married Manet’s younger brother, Eugène.)
At times, Manet was not fully supportive of Morisot’s artistic ambitions, once famously stating that it would be better if she and her sister married members of the jury who selected works for the annual Salon, so that they could promote the cause of Manet and his friends.
On one occasion, in the lead-up to the 1870 Salon, Morisot was concerned that posing for Manet would leave her short of time to complete her own submission, so Manet offered to help her finish her painting. Writing to Edma, she explained that Manet arrived the next day and ‘found it very good, except for the lower part of the dress. He took the brushes and put in a few accents that looked very well.’
However, she continued, ‘That is where my misfortunes began. Once started, nothing could stop him; from the skirt he went to the bust, from the bust to the head, from the head to the background… Finally, by five o’clock in the afternoon, we had made the prettiest caricature that was ever seen.’
As time went on, Morisot sought to assert her independence and free herself from Manet’s influence. Nevertheless, their friendship endured until his death in 1883.
With Edma’s marriage and subsequent departure from Paris in 1869, Morisot lost her primary artistic companion and closest confidant. After a brief spell of uncertainty and self-doubt, she returned to painting more committed than ever.
While the Franco-Prussian war and subsequent Siege of Paris put her artistic endeavours on temporary hold, a summer stay in Cherbourg with Edma in 1871 led to a surge of creativity.
Her style underwent a significant change during this period, her brushstrokes becoming looser and more spontaneous, her compositions flooded with subtle nuances of light and delicate colour, as she fought to ‘capture something that passes’. At the same time, the figure became a cornerstone of Morisot’s work, representing the very essence of modern life.
In 1873, Morisot was invited by Degas to join the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers), an artists’ cooperative dedicated to exhibiting work outside the official Salon. Although she was advised against joining the group by both Manet and her friend Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), Morisot agreed to become a founding member, the only female artist in a group of 11.
In the spring of 1874, they staged an event that would later become known as the first Impressionist exhibition, with nine canvases by Morisot included in the display. Her paintings featured in all but one of the other seven exhibitions the group held over the next 12 years, only missing the 1879 show when she was recovering from the birth of her daughter, Julie.
This firmly cemented her position within this milieu of avant-garde artists. Her style became synonymous with Impressionism in the public consciousness, and in 1881 the art historian Gustave Geffroy proclaimed that ‘no one represents Impressionism with more refined talent or with more authority than Morisot’.
Although Morisot’s oeuvre includes suburban views and pastoral landscapes, she is best known for her rich interior scenes and intimate portraits of female sitters.
While her male contemporaries portrayed the bustling play of life in the city’s bars, restaurants and streets, her status as a respectable middle-class woman shaped her own experience and professional opportunities, determining where and what she was allowed to paint. As such, she looked to her own life, and the experiences of her family and close circle of friends, for inspiration.
Many of her canvases focus on the daily lives of women, showing them with their children, in quiet moments at home, or at their toilette. There is a markedly informal air to many of these works, creating the impression that we have been granted access to an unposed glimpse of everyday life. Often absorbed in their own thoughts, their attention elsewhere, Morisot’s female protagonists are celebrated for their emotional and psychological depth.
As her painterly technique evolved, Morisot pushed the boundaries of representation to new extremes in her pursuit of a sense of immediacy. She adopted increasingly rapid, dynamic and loose brushwork, creating images that were allusive rather than descriptive, their surfaces alive with energy.
Morisot often left the margins of the canvas sparsely painted or even blank, her brushstrokes becoming looser towards the corners, and in some compositions her figures seem to dissolve before our eyes, their bodies appearing almost translucent.
Revelling in the act of painting itself, she challenged established notions of what a ‘finished’ painting could look like, leading one journalist to dub her ‘the angel of the incomplete’.
Morisot’s paintings of her only child, Julie — who had appeared in nearly 50 canvases by the time she turned 12 — constitute the most extensive pictorial project of her career. These touching compositions chart Julie’s childhood, recording her developing personality as she grew, almost as if in a photo album.
Whether Julie was depicted playing in the garden with her father, concentrating on a drawing or painting, or practising a musical instrument at home, these compositions reveal the pride Morisot took in her accomplished daughter.
Indeed, rather than entrusting Julie’s education to school, Morisot oversaw her intellectual and creative development at home, hiring piano and violin tutors to foster her musical talent, enlisting the poet Stéphane Mallarmé to instruct her in literature, and teaching her drawing, painting and art history herself.
‘We were always together, Mother and I,’ Julie later recalled.
Morisot wrote in her diary in 1890: ‘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 am worth as much as they are.’
Although her personal wealth meant she did not need to sell her paintings with the same urgency as Renoir or Monet, Morisot was eager to achieve similar success on the open market, seeing it as an opportunity to cement her position as a professional artist. She only offered a small portion of her output for sale, but most works quickly found buyers among a group of discerning collectors.
Morisot’s reputation grew with each purchase, as did her standing among dealers, critics and, most importantly, her peers. She became one of only four Impressionist artists to see their work purchased by the French state during their lifetime, when Jeune femme en toilette de bal (1879) was acquired for the Musée du Luxembourg in 1894.
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While Morisot was held in high esteem during her lifetime, she became something of a forgotten figure for much of the 20th century. Her reputation was revived by scholars and curators during the 1970s and 1980s, who published an array of books and articles on Morisot’s life and career, highlighting the central role she played in the development of Impressionism.
Over the past decade, Morisot’s art has enjoyed another resurgence of interest, with her paintings achieving new records at auction, and museums around the world staging exhibitions dedicated to her work.
In 2018, Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist opened at the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec, before travelling to Philadelphia, Dallas and, finally, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It was the first time that the Musée d’Orsay had dedicated a show to this trailblazing female artist, an accolade many agreed was long overdue.
‘Berthe Morisot: Impressionism and the 18th Century’ opens on 31 March 2023 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (until 10 September)