Today I am returning to the Impressionists. For most people, if they were asked to reel off the names of Impressionist artists, the likes of Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Renior and Pissarro would easily trip off the tongue. With a little more contemplation the names of Sisley and Caillebotte may come to mind. Of course looking at the list they have, besides Impressionists, one thing in common – they are all men. However the Impressionist painters were not all men. They had three talented female artists amongst their ranks and this triumvirate was called le trios grandes dames by the French art critic and historian, Gustave Geffroy, in his book Histoire de l’Impresssionnisme, La Vie artistique.
There was Marie Bracqemond who exhibited at three of the eight great annual Impressionist exhibitions in Paris. There was the American-born Mary Cassatt who spent most of her adult life in Paris and exhibited at four of the Impressionist exhibitions, which were held in Paris between 1874 and 1886. Then finally there was Berthe Morisot, who is my featured artist of the day, and who exhibited her work at all except one of the eight Exhibitions and that was because she was giving birth to her daughter. She was not just a token female of the art group; she was one of the great organisers and a leading light of the Impressionist group. Morisot and Cassatt are also thought of as the most important female painters of the nineteenth century. The art world up to this time was dominated by male artists and even now there is a patronising attitude to 19th century female artists that they were “followers” of their contemporary male painters instead of giving them the credit they deserve. Even today when Impressionist works by Morisot and Cassatt are not looked upon and judged on their own merit but are instead compared to the works of their mail contemporaries, such as Degas and Manet. Female artists in those days were also hamstrung by convention in which they were not supposed to draw or paint nudes. The role of women in those days was simple – look after their men folk and have their babies and if the woman wanted to draw or paint then this was looked on as a mere hobby and not a career option. However along came Berthe Morisot, a very independent person and a free spirit, whose desire to become an artist was supported by her family. She also had another thing going for her – she was an extremely beautiful woman.
Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges in central France. Her family were very successful and wealthy. Her father Edme Tiburce Morisot had studied art at the Ecole de Beaux- Arts, but eventually gave up the idea of becoming a full-time painter and instead became a prominent government official. He married his sixteen year-old bride Marie Cornelie Thomas in 1835 and they had four children. Berthe was the youngest of three sisters, the other two being Marie Edma Caroline and Marie Elizabeth Yves and she had a younger brother Tiburce.
She and her sisters Edma and Yves set their hearts on being painters and their family were very supportive. It was an artistic family with Berthe’s grandfather, Jean-Honoré Fragonard being one of the greatest Rococo painters of his time. Their parents arranged art lessons for them but soon Yves lost interest in art and dropped out of the lessons. In 1857 Berthe and her sister Edma studied drawing under Geoffery-Alphonse Chocrane. A year later they studied under the tutelage of Joseph-Benoît Guichard and he would take them to the Louvre where they copied the paintings of the Masters and that year they were registered with the museum as copyists. It was around about 1861 that the two sisters, whilst working in the Louvre, met another young painter, Edouard Manet and this was to prove to be the start of a very long friendship. From 1862 to 1868 Morisot studied art under the guidance of the French landscape and figure painter Camille Corot who taught her the finer arts of landscape painting and the en plein air method of painting. It was during this time that she became friends with an Impressionist painter Henri Fantin-Latour, whose speciality was still life paintings incorporating flowers.
The two Manet brothers, Edouard and Eugène and the two Morisot sisters, Berthe and Edma became very close friends and it was through Berthe Morisot that Edouard Manet was introduced to the other Impressionist painters. It is also believed that it was through Morisot that Manet embarked on the en plein air method of painting. Edouard Manet used Morisot as a model on a number of occasions and the portrait of Berthe Morisot we see the most is one done by Manet, entitled Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets. Berthe Morisot was not just a talented artist, she was also extremely beautiful. She and Manet were leading lights of the Impressionist Movement and it was she and Camille Pissarro who were the most consistent exhibitors at the eight Impressionist Exhibitions. In 1874 and Manet became her brother-in-law when Berthe married Eugène Manet. Four years later she gave birth to a daughter, Julie.
Édouard Manet is seen as the most important single influence on the development of her artistic style. Over time the Master/Pupil status of Manet and Morisot changed to the point when they were looked upon as equals and Morisot developed her own style. Morisot was by this time becoming a successful artist and had her first works; two landscape paintings, exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1864 at the age of twenty-three. She continued to exhibit her works there for the next ten years.
Morisot’s paintings focused on everyday life and often reflected the cultural restrictions experienced by females in the nineteenth century. Her works of art, like today’s painting, often concentrated on simple domestic scenes and in her works she would utilise family friends or relatives as models. Her works were set in many different locations such as in the garden, besides the river but there was a constant theme, that of the joys of family life. She battled against the two prejudices which were levelled against her art – her gender and her wealth. Being a female, social convention would not allow her to paint nudes or men and thus she had to concentrate on landscapes and paintings of women and children. Coming from a wealthy family and having financial stability left her open to the charge that she was merely a dilettante whose art was just a hobby.
Eugène Manet, her husband, died in 1892 and three years later Berthe Morisot died of pneumonia in 1854. at the age of 54 and was buried in the Cimetière de Passy, Paris.
The painting today, Le Bercau (The Cradle) was painted by Berthe Morisot in 1872. In the picture we see a mother looking at a baby who lies asleep in a crib. Morisot’s sister Edma was the model for the woman and the baby asleep in the crib was Edma’s daughter Blanche. This painting was the first of her many works which featured motherhood and the everyday life of contemporary women, which was her most favourite subject for her works of art.
There are some interesting things about how mother and child are depicted by Morisot. Look how the left hand of the mother mirrors the left hand of the baby in the way that it touches her face. There is a diagonal line in the painting running from the baby’s arm through to the mother’s arm almost like an attachment between mother and child. The diagonal continues with the way the artist has added a fold in the wispy curtain in the background. There is a great sense of intimacy between mother and child as she looks down lovingly at the infant having carefully drawn back the net curtain to get a better view of her beautiful child. We, on the other hand, are just allowed to see the baby through the mesh of the curtain. The painting reflects the love between mother and child. She is positioned by the crib to be able to comfort the baby if she should wake. This is an extremely moving painting. Its depiction of the look of endearment on the mother’s face and the peaceful look on the baby’s sleeping face is superb. It is very touching but I believe the painting as a whole avoids over-romanticizing the subject or making it mawkish.
The painting was exhibited at the first Impressionist Exhibition at Félix Nadar’s photographic studio at Boulevard des Capucines in 1874 and she was the first woman to exhibit with the group. This has always been looked upon as one of Morisot’s finest paintings. The painting remained in the Morisot family until 1930 when it was sold to the Louvre where it remained until it was transferred to the Musée d’Orsay, where it hangs today.
I will finish with the words of her brother-in-law, the artist Manet, who said of Morisot:
“…This woman’s work is exceptional. Too bad she’s not a man….”
One final bit of trivia – on her death certificate under the heading “Profession” the entry simply stated “No Profession”. Why ? Simply because she was a woman !