I enjoyed the chance of a lifetime to drink in the solo exhibition and academic symposium of one of my artistic heroines—Berthe Morisot, a woman Impressionist…in fact, one of the founding members of Impressionism! The exhibition and symposium were hosted by the Dallas Art Museum March 29-30, 2019. The symposium consisted of a series of 5 speakers (the 6th got sick) who are leading art historians in the United States. After I got home, my head was swimming with interesting factoids and observations. This article is my attempt to piece together and process everything I had learned. I (Naomi Tiry Salgado) originally wrote this in spring of 2019 as a newsletter to send to my collectors. I recently edited it in March 2023 to post on my website blog.
As I was trying to find the entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art, I learned the first new thing about Berthe Morisot. My “Midwest friendly self” tried to strike up a conversation with a woman walking in the same direction. I asked if she was going to the Berthe Morisot symposium, pronouncing it like the American that I am—”Berth-a Mor-i-sot”. She responded (very graciously) that indeed she was going to the “Beardt More – ee –zoh” exhibition. I was non-plussed…obviously I had a lot to learn and told her that. Turns out she was one of the speakers… Carol Armstrong is a lovely lady and a knowledgeable speaker. So there you go! Now you also know how to pronounce Berthe Morisot’s name without needing to be embarrassed… I took care of that part for you!
So, why am I so drawn to Morisot, this French woman who painted over 100 years ago? First of all, she was a woman Impressionist, just like me. She was married to a man who was very supportive of her art career, just like me. Berthe balanced her art career with being a mother, just like me. Berthe had a brother-in-law who was a well-known artist, just like me. (Marc Anderson married my sister Anna and is an artist worth following, if you don’t already.) Like me, Berthe didn’t paint simply for the fun of it; it is our career—life focus. Berthe didn’t need to sell paintings to support herself or her family. However, she still pursued sales of her paintings for the respect of the art world—to define herself as a professional, just like me
In Berthe’s early life, her mother hired some of the best art teachers of the day to come to the Morisot home and train Berthe and her sister Edma. At this time, in the mid-to-late 1800’s, women were not allowed in institutions of higher learning or group classes with men present. There were special “women only” art classes in vogue at the time, but these classes were simply meant to pass the time in a pleasant way. Women were not supposed to have careers, especially women of middle to high class status. However, the Morisot girls broke the mold wherever they could. One of their later instructors, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, taught them about the joys of plein air painting, and would take the girls to paint outdoors. The rigorous art teachers that the Morisot girls studied under brought out the best in Berthe. She was accepted into the Paris Salon exhibition nine years in a row. The Salon was the main way for an artist to gain credibility at the time, and it was a high honor to be accepted.
Loss of Painting Partner
Berthe’s sister Edma completely set her painting aside when she married and started having children. The two had been so close, so this must have required some adjustment for Berthe, not having her painting partner. It must have also been hard for Edma to sacrifice the painting that she loved in exchange for raising her children, who she also loved. To deal with the complex emotions of this transitional time, Berthe painted many paintings of Edma—sometimes alone, sometimes with her children. In all of them, Berthe portrays Edma as somber and lost in thought. After Berthe herself got married in 1874, she abruptly stopped painting pictures of Edma. In contrast to Edma, marriage and a child did not stop Berthe from painting.
Two things happened in 1874 that changed the direction of Berthe’s life. One is that she was asked to join “The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Etc.” (later known as “The Impressionists”). The other thing is that 34-year-old Berthe married Eugene Manet. Eugene was the brother of Edouard Manet, another founding member of the Impressionists. Edouard Manet is often confused with Claude Monet—but they are two different French Impressionist painters who were contemporaries of each other.
New Painting Friendship
Berthe developed a friendship with Edouard, based on their mutual love of art. They would sometimes paint the same topic to compare and contrast their techniques—a visual “top this” or “one-up” challenge that would pass back and forth. Of the two, it was Berthe who challenged Edouard to bring his paints outdoors and paint en plein air.
The Start of Impressionism
Even though Berthe was very close to Edouard Manet, it was Edgar Degas who invited Berthe to join the Impressionists in time for their very first exhibition. Because Morisot was single at the time of the invitation, cultural propriety demanded that Degas write to Berthe through her mother. Keep in mind that Berthe was not a teenager at this time, but a 33-year-old, highly capable, and well-trained artist. Berthe gladly accepted the invitation and joined the group whole-heartedly. She didn’t just enter some paintings into the show, but also helped organize that first exhibition. This is the exhibition where Impressionism got its name, due to Claude Monet’s, “Impressionism Sunrise” painting. Morisot went on to participate in 7 of the 8 Impressionist Exhibitions, participating in more than any other Impressionist artist, including Monet himself. The only year she didn’t show with the Impressionists was due to her being sick after giving birth. Once she joined the Impressionists, she no longer entered the Paris Salon.
Berthe was a pioneer as a woman artist. I have caught myself complaining that today’s artworld is so male dominant. But compared to Morisot, I really need to stop whining. She faced so many cultural restrictions in upper class French society in the late 1800’s. Morisot and other gentlewomen were not allowed in the cafés where the men Impressionists would meet to discuss art and philosophy. They weren’t allowed in art schools or group classes. In fact, they really weren’t supposed to be outside of the house at all. Even though Berthe complained about the struggle in private letters to her sister, she still followed the rules society forced upon her. She found ways to work around the rules. For instance, in order to get included in the conversations about art and philosophy, she would invite the artists and poets to parties at her own home. Her painting subjects never included the cafes of Paris like her male counterparts, but she painted the world she knew. The world of the home and the woman. She had greater access to these subjects than the men Impressionists, and this is what she became known for.
Fellow Impressionist artists respected Berthe and took her work seriously throughout her life. Art critics of the time wrote about her—some favorably, and some not. One critic called Morisot, “the Quintessential Impressionist” because her work embodied the Impressionistic ideals—bold, broken brushstrokes that have been painted quickly. Indeed, when compared with much of the other Impressionist artist’s works, Morisot’s paintings are often the most daring and bold. Morisot only sold 40 of her paintings during her lifetime. She sold most of them through the Impressionist art dealer, Durand-Ruel. In one instance, he paid Morisot 500 francs for her painting in the morning. By that afternoon, he had already sold it for 750 francs.
After Berthe married Eugene Manet, she continued using her maiden name, a practice unusual for the times. After Berthe gave birth to their first and only child, Julie, the little family employed nannies and housekeepers so that Berthe could keep painting. Quite often, Berthe would paint the servants as they went about their duties. There are also several paintings she painted of her husband playing with little Julie. These are very unusual for the time when men weren’t typically shown caring for young children.
Morisot’s artistic style changed in the last few years of her life. Her style departed from the broken, feathery Impressionist style to a more heavy and continuous line drawing style that gives a similar feeling as Munch’s famous Post-Impressionist painting, “The Scream”. Berthe passed away in 1895, at the young age of 54. Eugene died three years before Berthe, leaving Julie an orphan at the tender age of 16. On her deathbed, Berthe told her daughter, “You have both beauty and money, use them well.” She also instructed her to give away her paintings to her Impressionist friends.
Julie did give away some of Morisot’s paintings. But she also helped Renoir, Degas, and the poet Baudelaire put on a posthumous exhibition of 390 of her mother’s paintings and drawings 3 years after her death. Many of these paintings are still owned by Morisot’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For the next 90 years, Morisot slowly and gradually faded from the public eye. Biographers of Impressionists initially moved her to the “Lesser Impressionist” category, and then started leaving her out of the story altogether. There was a solo exhibition of her work in Paris in 1941, but not many people went due to the country being in the throes of WW2. In the US, there has only been one other solo exhibit of Morisot’s work which happened in 1987. Claude Monet, by comparison, has had 40 solo exhibits in the US since 1987.
With the rise of the feminist movement, came the inevitable question, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” This is the title of a 1971 article in Art News by Linda Nochlin. It was a pioneering work that got art historians thinking…maybe there WERE women artists and we just forgot about them? Anne Higonnet, professor of art history at Columbia University and keynote speaker, decided to write her doctoral dissertation on Morisot in the late 1980’s. Since there was such a low percentage of Morisot’s paintings in museums, she contacted Morisot’s family to be able to study the paintings. At first, they were hesitant to talk with her, but once they realized she was a “good egg”, they invited her into their homes and gladly showed her “grandma’s paintings” and also some of “Uncle Edouard’s paintings” as well. Dr. Higonnet published her research in a book, which has encouraged further scholarly research into this almost-forgotten artist who was so instrumental in the founding of the Impressionist movement.
Berthe Morisot is a huge inspiration for me. She lived and worked in a male-dominated world. Yet she kept her chin up and kept painting, kept exhibiting, kept looking for foot-holds for her career. She took the circumstances society gave her (gentlewomen must stay in the house) and made a career out of it by painting that which is in the house. When given lemons, we can choose to let it make us sour, or find a way to make lemonade. Morisot found her way. I’m confident that I will too.
The exhibition “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist” was on view at the Dallas Museum of Art until May 26, 2019. Then it moved to Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France from June 18 – September 22, 2019, and had an accompanying symposium on September 20, 2019. This symposium featured European scholars and was spoken in French. Due to Morisot’s work being mostly held in private collections, it is not often seen. The curators for the exhibition worked diligently to pull together the largest collection of her work since the posthumous exhibition of 1898, many of the pieces were on loan from her descendants’ living room walls and are now back in their private collections.