Who, me? Dissing Monet?? No, not at all. It’s just that Berthe Morisot doesn’t get the attention she deserves. She is my favourite Impressionist painter, and, (dare I say?) the best of the lot.
The Frick Five’s final question (which is really two questions) Which artist do you find most overrated? Which artist do you find most underrated? reminded me of Berthe Morisot. If you are thinking Berthe who? you’re not alone. Many people are not aware of her, and her significance in the history of art.
I was fortunate to come across several of her artworks in the Musée Marmottan in Paris. (Three fun facts: I briefly wrote about Mme Morisot in 2014, the Marmottan is one of my favourite art museums in Paris, and, coincidentally, it has a huge Monet wing – definitely a topic for another post.)
More recently, she has received some of the attention she deserves. In 2019, The Dallas Museum of Art hosted the international exhibition Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist, which also toured to the Barnes Foundation, the Musée D’orsay and the Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec. Everyone from Artnet News to The New Yorker to The Washington Post has been writing about her since 2018.
In her biography of Berthe Morisot, Anne Higonnet, outlines some of the challenges Berthe Morisot faced. From our viewpoint in the 21st century, it’s startling to realize Madame Morisot (Berthe’s mother) had to chaperone Berthe’s painting visits to the Lourve.
Nineteenth-century bourgeois convention recognized only one suitable path for women – marriage and motherhood. Anything else was failure. Single women were ‘excess’ human beings who had not fulfilled their womanly destinies. A career was supposed to ‘unsex’ a woman, leech away her femininity, and render her abnormal. In Morisot’s field, such threats acquired a daunting edge. For genius was deemed a masculine attribute. No one could imagine a great woman painter. None had yet existed, and this seemed sufficient proof that none ever would. (p.51)
The challenges and obstacles she faced began well before she even reached the easel and picked up a paintbrush; they were everywhere around her, in the idea that ‘genius’ was a function of masculinity, in the dearth of role models for her to follow, in the … logistics she encountered on a day-to-day basis, in the minds of others and in her own mind. (p.148)
How Berthe Morisot Broke Barriers to Become the First Female Impressionist is a succinct article, with good images, from My Modern Met. All ‘barrier breaking’ aside, Berthe Morisot is, in my books, a DFP (damned fine painter.) Note the lush brushwork, and the gorgeous palette – all hallmarks of the Impressionist painters.
Take another look at the compositions, too. Subtle, but powerful: in Woman at Her Toilette the line of the mirror anchors the left side of the painting, whilst the highlights off her earring, and then the glass container, draw us in to appreciate the beauty of her shoulder and neck. The right side of the painting is fascinatingly vague, and gives our eye a space to rest, in contrast to the rich details enveloping the woman.
Notice how she uses geometric shapes to give strength and contrast to the domestic scenes she portrays in both The Cradle and Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight. Triangles abound in the former painting; rectangles compose the latter, below.
I suspect one of Edouard Manet’s portraits of Berthe Morisot is more well-known than any of her paintings. Edouard Manet was her brother-in-law; she was married to Eugène Manet. Although Anne Higonnet dismisses art historical gossip (p.92) she admits that
….he made more portraits of her than anyone else. (“He has made a portrait of his wife, I think it was about time,” wrote Cornell Thomas Morisot in March 1869.) (p.55)
It’s a flattering portrait, there’s no arguing that. Whether of not they were romantically involved is a topic for speculation. I am looking forward to reading the new novel, Madder Women, by Dede Crane which promises a tumultuous love affair. Who can resist?
One must give credit where credit is due. Besides all of his prodigious output, Claude Monet left an extensive collection of 19th century Japanese prints in his home in Giverny, as well as a gorgeous garden for us to experience. He may not be the best of the Impressionist painters, but he was generous, and remains hugely popular and beloved. Perhaps as Berthe Morisot receives more attention, her genius will be appreciated and her artwork will be widely enjoyed.