For the next few blogs I want to look at the life and works of Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot and some of the paintings other artists have done of her. As I told you in my last offering I visited the Musée Marmottan Monet last week whilst in Paris and they were currently staging a retrospective of her work. I have already featured one of her works, Le Bercau (The Cradle) in My Daily Art Display of August 10th 2011 and briefly told you about her life. Today I am going to look again at her early life and feature a painting, not by the artist herself, but a stunningly portrait of her, painted by her sister, Edma.
The world of French art between 1839 and 1841 was surely blessed as it was in that two-year period that the world witnessed the birth of four of the greatest French artists. Paul Cezanne was born in January 1839, Claude Monet was born in November 1840 and Berthe Morisot and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were born in January and February 1841 respectively. Berthe Morisot was born in Bourges, a city in central France. She had distant roots in French art as she was an indirect and distant descendent on her father’s side of none other than the French Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the French 18th century female painter, Marguerite Gérard. Berthe was one of four children. She had two sisters, Marie-Elizabeth Yves born in 1838, known simply as Yves and Marie Edma Caroline born in 1839, known simply as Edma. She also had a younger brother, Tiburce, born in1848. Berthe was brought up in a successful and financially secure household. Her mother was Marie-Cornélie Thomas, who came from a family of high level government officials, chief treasurers and paymasters of the province. Her father was Edmé-Tiburce Morisot, who was an architectural graduate and who at the age of twenty-six founded an architectural journal. However the venture collapsed when his co-founders absconded with all the money and left Tiburce to face the creditors. He eventually had to hurriedly leave town, leaving all his furniture and possessions to his landlord in lieu of rent, and fled to Greece. A year later in 1835 he returned to France penniless but his good looks and charm won him the hand of Marie-Cornélie in marriage. She was sixteen years old and he was thirteen years older. Marie’s father, who was the personnel director at the Ministry of Finance, managed to arrange employment for Tiburce Morisot as subprefect at the city of Yssingeaux, in the Haute-Loire region. Tiburce worked hard and soon impressed his employers. Promotions followed and at the time of his daughter Berthe’s birth, he was the prefect of the Department of Cher, the monarch’s chief administrator for the entire province.
In 1848 when Berthe was just seven years of age, because of the Third French Revolution which eventually led to the creation of the French Second Republic, Berthe’s father decided to move his family from Bourges to the Parisian suburb of Passy. When Berthe was aged sixteen years of age, her mother, Marie-Cornélie Morisot decided to enrol her three daughters in private drawing classes. At that time the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts would not admit female students and maintained that sexist doctrine until the last few years of the nineteenth century. The sisters’ first tutor was Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne who taught the girls the fundamentals of drawing. Yves love of art waned quickly and she gave up on her art tuition after a few months leaving just Edma and Berthe to carry on with their artistic studies.
Edma and Berthe then enrolled to study with Joseph Guichard, who had once been a student of Ingres and now lived in the same street in Passy as the Morisot family. Guichard taught the girls all about classical art in the academic tradition. He was there tutor from 1857 and 1860 and in 1858 Berthe registered as a copyist at the Louvre. It was under the guidance of Guichard that Berthe Morisot first experimented in oil painting. En plein-air, painting outdoors in natural light, became very important to the Impressionist painters and those from the Barbizon School and the two girls told Guichard that they wanted to learn more about that technique and so, in 1863, in consultation with Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, a leader of the Barbizon School of painters it was arranged that the girls would study under Achille Oudinot, the French landscape painter. In the spring of 1864 after seven years of intensive artistic training Berthe and Edma Morisot were admitted to the official Salon. Berthe would exhibit at the Salon regularly and Edma would until her marriage in 1869 at which time she virtually gave up painting.
It is said that behind every great woman, there is another woman, often a close relative. In nineteenth century England we saw it with the likes of the talented Bronte sisters who had each other for constructive critical support. Although Morisot’s upbringing in a wealthy household bears no resemblance to the upbringing of the Bronte sisters,what she did have in her formative years, similar to the Bronte sisters, was the luxury of having a very loyal and supportive sister. Standing unwaveringly behind Berthe was her sister Edma. The sisters’ artistic collaboration came to an end in 1869, when Edma married her husband, Adolphe Pontillon, a naval officer. In some ways Edma regretted the end of their artistic partnership and the close friendship which came with it. They kept in contact by letter and in one Edma wrote:
“…I am often with you in thought, dear Berthe. I’m in your studio and I like to slip away, if only for a quarter of an hour, to breathe that atmosphere that we shared for many years…”
And so I come to today’s featured painting. There have been many portraits painted of Berthe Morisot , probably the best known being the one of her entitled, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets which was painted by her brother-in-law, Édouard Manet in 1872 and which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay. I have always thought that his has made her look rather dowdy, so today I have featured one of my two favourite portraits of the artist. This one is simply entitled Berthe Morisot and was painted by her sister Edma in 1865 and is held in a private collection. This beautiful portrait in some ways bears out the close relationship between the sisters and reveals the shared interest both had in painting. In this work Edma has depicted her sister Berthe holding her palette and brush concentrating earnestly at the picture she is painting. Look how well Edma has captured the intensity in Berthe’s expression. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the face of Berthe, which is bathed in light and which contrasts well with the darkened background and also echoes the whites of the side of the canvas and the rag she holds. This painting of Berthe Morisot depicts her indisputable beauty which often other portraits fail to achieve. This is indeed a portrait of an extremely delightful young woman in her mid-twenties and one I fell in love with when I first saw it.