The work of Berthe Morisot, although said to be charming
, and refined
during her lifetime, has been greatly overlooked until the past decade or so due to the availability of her paintings, and as Margaret Shennan says, the "prejudice against female genius
." Thanks to the continuing rise of the feminist
movement, the work of Berthe Morisot has been recognized and praised after being unfairly neglected for a century after her death. She was, by far, a more interesting
person than history had led us to believe. In the words of Richard Shone, "she was unashamedly observant of the social niceties of the haute bourgeoisie into which she had been born... more daring, vigorous
, and uncompromising." Her artistic training as a child and young adult, her determination to become a painter of nature and light despite several setbacks, and her contribution to the entire Impressionist movement during her lifetime make Berthe Morisot
an essential part of history.
I. Her Family
Berthe Morisot’s father, Elme-Tiburce, was born in the spring of 1806 to a skilled family. He can claim some indirect descent from the painter Fragonard. Monsieur Morisot had grand aspirations to become an architect, but this fell through when the people he went into business with turned out to be dishonest. They left him to deal with the trouble they had created, which caused Tiburce to flee to Greece in 1834. He later returned to Paris and found a wife and ended up earning about eight thousands francs per year. Tiburce’s new father-in-law, who was a very powerful man, managed to get him a job as subperfect at Yssingeaux in the winter of 1836. A year later he was promoted to a more important subprefecture at Valenciennes, having surpassed all expectations placed on him by the central government. In 1846, he was named an Officer of the Legion of Honor. In January of 1849, he was promoted yet again to the full prefecture of the Cher. Tiburce held many other prefectures over the years, moving along with the turbulence of French politics. When Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte seized power in 1851, and again when Tiburce protested against Napoléonic confiscation of possessions in 1852. Tiburce was an adept prefect, and was well respected by all civil servants.
Marie-Cornélie Thomas was Berthe’s mother’s maiden name. Marie-Cornélie did not receive much education because she was fairly sensitive as a child. She and Tiburce were married when she was only sixteen years old. According to many, she was the "picture of youth and happiness." She was in love with her husband and enjoyed the social life, and had four children; in 1838, Marie Elisabeth Yves was born, and then Marie Edma Caroline the following year, Berthe in 1841, and Tiburce, her only son, was born some time between 1845 and 1848. Not much is known about him.
Berthe often spoke of her grandmother, Marie-Caroline Mayniel, who she loved very much. She described her grandmother as extremely intelligent, witty, and as "straightforward as a boy." She kept Berthe entertained with all sorts of scintillating conversation topics. Berthe was fascinated with her grandmother’s intelligence, and greatly admired her for it.
Berthe’s older sister, Yves, married Théodore Gobillard in late 1866. He often chaperoned the three sisters around to various locations so that they might paint together.
Edma, Berthe’s other sister, was one of her closest friends and greatest supporters. They were constantly together, and considered inseparable by all who met them. They knew all of each other’s secrets, and even the other members of their immediate family were intimidated by their closeness. When they were adolescents, they made a promise to each other to make art their entire life. However, in 1869, at the age of almost 30, Edma was married to Adolphe Pontillon, a naval officer. She had broken the promise made so long ago, and Berthe was devastated. They had never before been apart. They wrote letters back and forth for quite some time to ease their lonliness.
II. The Student
Berthe Morisot had several teachers when she was young. Her mother had wanted her daughters to become musicians at first, since that had been her own dream, but this eventually faded once she realized the girls were interested in art. Their first teacher, Chocarne, whom they were taken to in 1857, "reduced them to a stupor" by his boring instructions and endless lessons on crosshatching. Despite this dreadful experience, Berthe still knew she wanted to be a painter. She convinced her mother to find a new teacher.
Soon they were taken to Guichard, whose wife ran a school for girls. He was a minor painter whose "greatest achievement was to realize his limitations" and accept that he would not become famous. He took the Morisot girls to the Louvre, where all serious students went to copy the works of the "Old Masters." Berthe preferred to copy the works of Titian, Veronese, and Rubens, enjoying the sense of color and texture they showed. Going to the Louvre not only exposed the girls to other art students, but it let others see their work as well. Berthe met Félix Bracquemond, who introduced her to Henri Fanton-Latour, who later introduced her to Edouard Manet. Making connections to the art word was just as important as improving one’s skills.
Guichard once told Madame Morisot, "Considering the character of your daughters... they will become painters." This was a very serious warning, since it would be revolutionary to have girls of their social standing become artists. It was considered feminine to dabble in fine arts, but not to excel in them. In the words of Tamar Garb, there was a "pervasive pressure on bourgeois women to regard art as an accomplishment rather than a professional commitment."
In 1860, Berthe decided she wanted to paint in nature. Anne Higonnet said Berthe had an "exceptional intellectual acuity but with an even more exceptional will." Guichard was extremely disappointed and saddened to lose his pupil, but he eventually passed Berthe and Edma on to Camille Corot. Corot had a wonderful reputation for giving sage advice to young painters. Even though he was near poverty at the time, the Morisot girls were still tutored by him. Their mother invited him to dinner every Tuesday night when she entertained, and he soon became a close friend of the family.
During the summer of 1863, Corot took a personal vacation and left one of his other students, Oudinot, to teach the girls in his absense. Oudinot was a very handsome man and quite conceited and well aware of the fact that others found his to be attractive. It is believed that the Morisot girls may have taken a shine to him, which in turn may have caused some grief between the two. There are several mentions of the "Oudinot incidents" in the letters written between Edma and Berthe later in their lives, although it is never clearly detailed. However, he had them persue the etudes des bord de l’eau.
Berthe studied with the sculptor Aimé Millet during the winter of 1863 through some time in 1864. There are no remaining works of art from this period in Berthe’s life. She apparently had wavered between wanting to become a painter or a sculptor during this time, and after deciding on becoming a painter, she destroyed all her sculptures. While she was his student, Millet has Berthe pose for several of his own sculptures, including one that still stands today in Paris. It is a large series of medallions decorating the front of a house, with Berthe’s face the central feature on the largest one.
Throughout the 1860s, Berthe made several professional contacts throughout the artistic society. Alfred Stevens, an extremely famous and wealthy painter, also became a good friend of the Morisots. Baudelaire, Emile Zola, and several other famous writers and artists were entertained at the Morisot home.
III. Summer Vacations and the Salons
Berthe and her sister did most of their painting during the family trips to the countryside during the summer. It was customary for the bourgeois to vacation out of the city during this time, and the Morisots were no exception. In 1861, they journeyed to the Ville d'Avray for the summer in order to be near Corot for the girls to study. In 1862, the family traveled to the Pyrenees, where Edma and Berthe spent the summer riding through the mountains on mules and painting landscapes. In 1863, the Morisots visited the Chou, taking Oudinot along, on the banks of the Oise River.
The summer vacation of 1864 was perhaps the most important of all. The Morisots rented a windmill in Beuseval, a beach on the Norman coast. The Rieseners, the family from which they rented the windmill, were cousins of the great artist Delacroix. Monsieur Léon Riesener’s opinions and knowledge of art were so respected that Berthe spent a good portion of her time copying over one hundred pages of notes he had written. Léon’s daughter, Rosalie, was also a painter, and worked with the Morisot girls at the Louvre copying the Old Masters. Berthe kept in touch with the Rieseners for the rest of her life.
That summer, Berthe also met another important woman in her life, Adèle Colonna. She was from the Swiss aristocracy and married into the high Roman nobility. Unfortunately, her husband died six months after they were wed, and Adèle turned to art to chase away her loneliness. She renamed herself Marcello. Morisot wrote in her notebook that she and Marcello had had the best of friendships, spending long days "shopping, flânerie, and chat." Marcello was only five years older than she, but Morisot thought of her as a mentor as well.
The summer of 1865 was spent in Fécamp, and the summers of 1866 and 1867 were spent in several small fishing villages along the Breton coast (Pont-Aven, Douarnenez, and Quimperlé to name a few). During the Salon of 1865, Berthe displayed two pieces.
In 1866, Berthe and Edma’s mother was becoming more and more concerned about their priorities. She was afraid that they were neglecting responsibilities and taking the wrong path in life. Soon after, Edma was married, and Berthe was alone in her artistic endeavors. Berthe displayed two more pieces at the Salon this year.
During the next several years, Berthe did not display much at the Salons. In order to get one’s work accepted into the Salon, it had to be judged as worthy and appropriate by a panel of elite artists. However, compared to most of her contemporaries, Berthe was doing exceptionally well. This might have been due to her use of small canvases and the subtlety of her subject matter. Her work was not as threatening as someone like Cèzanne, who never had even one piece of his art shown at a Salon. But still, Berthe was not happy.
IV. The Depression
Throughout her writings, Berthe expressed a sense of self-consciousness and uncertainty concerning her career as a painter. Although she was far from poetic or overly expressive in her writing, a few strong emotions were able to show through in the letters she wrote to her sister and other family members.
Berthe often read Baudelaire’s poetry, finding a sense of companionship and understanding in his sentiments. She even adapted some of his poems in 1862 to exactly suit her own emotions. She often wrote such things as "I always had the sense of abyss... I felt the wings of madness."
Whenever there was a hint of criticism, Berthe would become withdrawn. Although her social status protected her from the harshest of critiques, she still had her share of them. The critic Paul Mantz once said, "Since it is not necessary to have had a long training in draughtsmanship in the Academy in order to paint a copper pot, a candlestick, and a bunch of radishes, women succeed quite well in this type of domestic painting."
In the notebook Berthe kept, she often wrote of her governess, Louisa. She said Louisa taught her "a certain moral strength, the courage to suffer in silence." Berthe became very thin and frail, perhaps trying to hide her personality behind the accepted façade of feminine weakness. However, according to Higonnet, "her weight never dropped low enough to signal a loss of self-control or rationality."
Many critics were derogatory towards women painters, although a few still appreciated Berthe. George Moore said, "The only pictures painted by a woman that could not be destroyed without created a blank, a hiatus in the histories of art" were those belonging to Berthe Morisot.
Berthe was fascinated by Edouard Manet’s work. The more she admired his work, the more she revered his talent and admitted he was producing the best art in their genre, the more real the fact that she must consider herself second-rate became. She did not believe she could compete with his work. If one admits there is someone infinitely talented, thus minimizing one’s own talent, is there any room to succeed? Berthe was extremely critical of her own work, while she could never find a flaw in Manet’s.
V. The Manets
The relationship between Berthe and Edouard Manet was that of friendship, admiration, and companionship. Bataille and Wildenstein say,"Très vite, ils deviennent des amis, des familiers, des intimes." They both picked up ideas from the other, and Manet often asked Berthe to pose for his paintings. Berthe’s mother always made sure she was well chaperoned during these times, of course.
The Balcony is one example of Manet’s portrayal of Berthe. In this painting, she is completely dominating the scene, while the other two subjects fade into the background and look irrelevant and almost silly in comparison. The energy emanating from Berthe totally engulfs the piece, drawing all eyes straight to hers. Manet painted a dozen portraits of Berthe, only two of which became public. All have open and strong emotions of attachment between painter and subject.
Manet was married to another woman, and there is no evidence of any affair he may have had with Berthe. There was definitely sexual energy between the two, but nothing came of it.
Eugène Manet appreciated the value of Berthe’s work despite the fact that she had joined a radical art movement in 1874. He described Berthe as "a strong woman, immune to the thousand weaknesses of her sex." Eugène was much less flashy than his brother, and much more romantic. He and Berthe were drawing closer over three years, and while their families were on vacation together during the summer of 1874, she and Eugène had been painting side by side and had somehow arrived at the conclusion that they should be married. Berthe wrote to her brother in the winter of 1875, saying, "I have found the most excellent young man who, I believe, loves me very much."
Berthe Morisot was an invaluable member of the Impressionist movement, while still maintaining her own private life outside of that of being a painter. She was close to her family, loved by many, and an extremely independent woman who knew what she wanted out of life. She rose above the stereotypes surrounding her gender of the times, and made the most of her life given the talents she possessed and the drive she had to succeed. In the words of Bataille, "son temperament personnel, seul, a conduit Berthe d’emblée vers les artistes les plus valables de son époque et l’a fait adherer sans hésiter au mouvement."
A few sources:
Higonnet, Anne. Berthe Morisot. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Bataille, M.L., and G. Wildenstien. Berthe Morisot: Catalogue des Peintures, Pastels, et
Aquarelles. Paris: Les Beaux-Arts, 1930.
Rouart, Denis. The Correspondence of Berthe Morisot. London: Lund Humphries, 1957.