Portrait of Cornélie Morisot and Edmé Pontillon (Mother and Sister of the Artist) by Berthe Morisot

Portrait of Cornélie Morisot and Edmé Pontillon (Mother and Sister of the Artist) by Berthe Morisot (1870)
” Your daughters have such inclinations…they will become painters. Do you realize what that means? In your environment of the upper middle class this will be a revolution, I might almost say a catastrophe.   Are you sure that you will never curse the day that art will become the only master of destiny of your two children? “

That was the question Joseph Guichard, art tutor of Berthe and Edma Morisot, asked their mother.  Did she really want her two daughters to strive to become professional artists?  In that era, although artistic ability and aptitude were encouraged of young ladies there was a definite line between the professional and the amateur artist and it was a line which was both very precise and thickly drawn.  Women could spend their time “playing” at art as amateurs but for a woman to want to become a professional artist was often both derided and frowned upon.   Their mother, Marie Cornélie Morisot, however, was adamant that the girls should carry on with their chosen careers even if it meant they had to perform twice as well as their male counterparts just to get recognised as professional painters.  Berthe and Edma’s parents were very supportive and gave constructive encouragement to the painting aspirations of their daughters.  Their father had a studio built in the garden for Edma and Berthe to work in and his wife made sure that she went to all of their exhibitions where she carefully listened in on the viewers’ comments, and reported her findings back to the girls.

As I mentioned at the end of my last blog, the twelve-year painting partnership of the two sisters came to an end in early 1869 when Edma Morisot married a naval officer, Adolphe Pontillon.  There was a close relationship between the two Morisot sisters, both in their personal and artistic lives. Only two examples of Edma Morisot’s work survives, one is an 1863 portrait of her sister Berthe at work which was the featured painting in my last blog (My Daily Art Display, April 9th 2012).   Whether it was Edma’s marriage to Pontillon in 1869 or the start of the Franco-Prussian War the following year but something caused Berthe to seriously review both her personal and artistic life.  Although her sister had married and decided to forego her art, Berthe decided that she would stay single and concentrate on her artistic career.  Berthe was a perfectionist and was continually evaluating her work and, if anything, she was utterly self-critical and constantly questioned the value of what she had painted, and this was despite having her works accepted by the jurists of the Paris Salon.

Berthe Morisot was a copyist at the Louvre and it was here one day in 1868 that she met the French painter, Henri Fantin-Latour, who in turn introduced her to the painter, Édouard Manet.  Berthe was soon persuaded to become one of Manet’s models and during their long and close friendship he painted no fewer than eleven portraits of her. Édouard Manet was one of the new generation of artists who was unhappy with the Salon and the way the jurists held sway over what paintings would be allowed into the Salon’s  annual exhibitions.  Two of his works put forward to the jurists of the Salon had caused controversy.    His paintings Olympia (My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011) and Le Déjeunier Sur L’herbe (My Daily Art Display Dec 23rd 2010)  were controversial enough for them to be excluded from being exhibited at the Salon and in an act of retaliation, he chose to enter them into his own exhibition, in which he made his work The Balcony the main attraction.  This 1869 work featured a number of people on a balcony, one of who was Berthe Morisot, whom he had persuaded to pose for the work.  Berthe Morisot became friendly with the Manet family and the Morisot and Manet families socialised regularly.  Six years later Berthe Morisot married Eugène Manet, Édouard’s younger brother.

Edma Pontillon, née Morisot,  became pregnant with her first child at the end of 1869 and for a time that winter she returned to the family home to receive some comfort and support from her family whilst she waited for the birth of her first child.  For My Daily Art Display featured oil on canvas painting today, I am going back to that winter of 1869 and the return of the pregnant Edma Morisot to the family household.  It was during that stay that Berthe painted her mother and sister sitting together.  The painting, completed in 1870, is entitled Portrait of Cornélie Morisot and Edmé Pontillon (Mother and Sister of the Artist) and was one of her largest works which now hangs at the NGA Washington.   

It is a family portrait and in it she has portrayed her mother, Marie-Cornélie Morisot, reading whilst her sister, Edma, sits close by, within the family’s drawing room. We see the mother is concentrating upon reading her book and looks as if she is oblivious to her daughter’s presence.  Edma is portrayed with a dazed expression, in an almost dream like state, totally in a world of her own.  Again,  as I have asked on other occasions, look at the face of the daughter, what do you detect from her expression?  Why has her sister depicted her in this way?  To me her facial expression is a study of contemplation, almost meditation.   Maybe she is lost in thought with the arrival of her first child and considering what her future life will be like. Maybe her mother is reading out aloud and she is simply concentrating on her mother’s words.   Is Edma a young mother-to-be?  Look at her.  What age would you think she is?  Barely out of her teens or in her early twenties?  She in fact is not as young as her sister has depicted her as she was born in 1839 and at the time of the painting had had her thirtieth birthday.  The pure white colour of Edma’s dress is voluminous enough to hide the fact that she is pregnant,  as at the time Berthe, no doubt, had thoughts of having the work accepted for the Salon and she probably realised that depicting a pregnant woman would not please the jurists.  The virginal-white colour of Edma’s dress contrasts with the black one worn by her mother, who could be still in mourning for the death of her own mother, Marie-Caroline (Mayniel) Thomas earlier that year.

The painting was exhibited at the Salon of 1870 and it is thought that she also included it in the first exhibition held by the Impressionist painters in 1874.  The lead-up to Berthe putting forward the painting to the Salon jurists is an interesting tale, as the ever self deprecating Morisot was in two minds whether to even exhibit it.  In the end she approached Édouard Manet for his advice as to whether to submit the work.  He called at the Morisot household on the deadline day for Salon submissions to inspect the painting.  In one of Berthe’s letters she wrote about this inspection and told how Manet said nothing but instead extensively repainted the figure of the mother!  Berthe was mortified by what Manet had done and now wondered even more whether she should submit the painting to the Salon jurists.  She told her mother what had happened and of her dilemma with whether to exhibit the work as now it had been partly done by Manet, saying that she would “rather be at the bottom of the sea” than for this picture to appear at the Salon.  She went on to describe to her mother what had happened when Manet started to touch-up her work:

“…it isn’t possible to stop him; he passes from the petticoat to the bodice, from the bodice to the head, from the head to the background.”

She did put it forward for the Salon exhibition and it was well received.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

3 thoughts on “Portrait of Cornélie Morisot and Edmé Pontillon (Mother and Sister of the Artist) by Berthe Morisot”

  1. Hi, Jonathan,
    I just saw the exhibition yesterday and loved it. I don’t remember this painting in the exhibiton. But your comments about it are so very interesting. Thanks. Keep writing. I keep reading.
    Ann Saul artbookannex.com

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