Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Berthe Morisot: Quintessential Impressionist

By  Laurel Alanna McBrine
The Art of the Portrait Journal
 Issue No.50, 4th Quarter 2010

Cache-cache (Hide and Seek)
Oil on canvas, 1873
Collection of Mrs. John Hay
Whitney, New York
 Looking back more than a century, we find a painter who, despite the constraints put upon her by society, managed to fulfill her artistic ambitions along with marriage and a child.  Berthe Morisot would become one of the core group of six Impressionist painters.  She was born in 1841 to a wealthy and cultured family.  Berthe and her sister, Edma, unexpectedly became serious art students.  Their teacher warned: “With characters like your daughters’, my teaching will make them painters, not minor amateur talents.  Do you really understand what that means?  In the world of the grande bourgeoisie in which you move, it would be a revolution, I would even say a catastrophe.”  Berthe’s mother was undeterred by this advice and the sisters went on to study with Corot, whose teachings encouraged the development of her unique style.  He said, “While trying for the conscientious imitation of (nature), I never for a single instant lose the emotion which first seized me.”

In 1864, Morisot experienced success when two of her landscapes were accepted by the Salon and she continued to show there until 1874, when the first Impressionist exhibit was held.  Her mentor, Edouard Manet, feared that exhibiting with the Impressionists would harm her career with the Salon, but she courageously chose to follow her own instincts, remaining loyal to the Impressionist movement.

Relationships with colleagues were affected by Berthe’s feminine gender.  She was not able to move about freely and was excluded from café society, where male artists met to discuss new ideas in art.  Despite these limitations, Berthe Morisot established friendships with and was respected, even admired, by her fellow Impressionists.  She was included in exhibits even though she was not able to attend the meetings that organized these events.  Manet was so intrigued by her personality and appearance that he painted her image 11 times.  Eventually her home became a salon where Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and other artists would gather to socialize.

The Cradle
Oil on canvas, 1872
Collection of Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Morisot’s social standing and gender, to some degree, determined her subject matter – for instance, working from nude models was verboten.  Similarities in subject matter to Mary Cassatt’s work can be seen.  Both painters captured the everyday moments of women's lives, with deft brushwork – girls picking fruit, small children in big chairs holding their dolls, women with babies and ladies in the garden. 

A friend recalled that Morisot: “always painted standing up, walking back and forth before her canvas.  She would stare at her subject for a long time (and her look was piercing), her hand ready to place her brushstrokes just where she wanted them.”  Laforge noted the result was: “a thousand conflicting vibrations, in rich prismatic decompositions of color.” 

Berthe Morisot was the quintessential Impressionist, her paintings filled with freely applied brushstrokes - the epitome of a loose, gestural, painterly style.  She sought to dazzle her viewers at first glance.  Upon closer examination, the daubs and slashes of paint dissolve into a mass of confusion, but at a distance coalesce into a shimmery vision of color and light.

Morisot was not spared attacks by critics.  Wolff scathingly reported: “five or six lunatics - among them a woman . . . take up canvas, paint, and brush, throw a few tones haphazardly and sign the whole thing.”  However, not all were unsympathetic – Mantz wrote, “The truth is that there is only one Impressionist in the group . . . it is Berthe Morisot.  She has already been acclaimed and should continue to be so.”

Although very attractive, Berthe managed to evade suitors until age 33, when she married Eugene Manet, younger brother to Edouard.  Her husband had a nervous temperament and was impatient with posing, but he was very supportive and helped her with the practical details of showing her work.  He was not heavily invested in his own career as a civil servant and was non-traditional in many of his views. They seem to have been quite content as a couple. 
Berthe Morisot
by Edouard Manet
Oil on linen, 1872

In 1878, Berthe gave birth to her daughter, Julie, who proved to be an inspiration.  Berthe  managed to continue working steadily from the earliest days of motherhood by hiring a wet nurse and changing her working methods.  She often painted in her parlor and would whisk away her palette and paints into a cupboard when visitors would come to call.

That Berthe Morisot was able to combine life as an artist with a family testifies to her dedication and determination, as it meant flouting the conventions of the time.  Her advantages, of having domestic help to deal with the mundane matters of life, were offset by the expectations of society toward women of that time, which took great resolve to oppose.  Tragically, she met an early death from pneumonia at age 54, leaving behind a legacy of work dedicated to Impressionism and her own poetic vision.

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