I was featured in the Hudson Star-Observer last week!
Before I started painting professionally, I was an elementary art teacher. I enjoyed teaching and working with children (most days). However, over time I became envious of their creativity time. So I reluctantly left that job to make time for my own creative endeavors. I occasionally run into a previous student and enjoy seeing where life has taken them.
This happened in a big way last month when I got a call from the local newspaper to interview me. To my surprise and delight, the journalist was one of my former students! Caleb Fravel was a fifth grader the last time I saw him! At the risk of sounding like everyone’s favorite aunt, he really has grown into a nice young man, and an excellent writer. I really enjoyed the article he wrote for the Hudson Star-Observer. His editor must have enjoyed it too, because his article was featured on the front page of the newspaper! You can read it in its entirety HERE.
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.
This blog post is really about the great debate between the Ancient Romans and Greeks regarding Idealism vs Realism. Random conversations with strangers while out plein air painting triggered these thoughts.
“Where Silas Sleeps”. 14”x24” oil on panel. Available at Seasons Gallery, Hudson, WI.
I love it when people chat with me while I’m out plein air painting! (Well, as long as I’m not competing in a timed competition… but I digress). I was working on the above painting entitled “Where Silas Sleeps” at the overlook in Prospect Park, Hudson, WI when I had two memorable conversations.
The first interaction was an older lady who mentioned how the landscape would look better if the ugly power plant and bridge weren’t in the background. She had a point, the landscape always looks better when it’s as pristine as the day it was created. However those particular features make this area a comfortable place to live. We hardly ever deal with power blackouts and the new bridge makes crossing the St. Croix River a breeze. More likely, she was hinting that I shouldn’t include those features in my painting. However, if they weren’t there, the painting would no longer be set in location because those distinctive anchor points would be missing.
A little bit later, a little girl dropped by with her grandpa and thought my painting would look better if I had included the large dead tree in the center foreground of the painting as it is in real life. Even though the dead tree really is there now, I chose to leave it out of my piece because it would overwhelm and detract from the focal point, and will likely be gone soon anyway. It’s also not needed to place the viewer in that location.
Neither of these opinions bothered me. In fact, I found them quite fascinating. These conversations started me thinking about how these two opinions are at opposite ends of the spectrum in representational painting—idealism on one side and realism on the other.
What is Representational Painting?
Representational painting is painting a subject in a recognizable way. While the piece of artwork doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic, it does have to be a scene that can be described with nouns. In contrast, the opposite of representational painting is complete abstraction. A piece of art that can only be described with adjectives and adverbs.
Idealism vs Realism
The older lady valued idealism while the young girl valued realism. This debate is as old as art itself. In fact, the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures had their preferences as well. Though they didn’t leave behind blog posts like this one so we could know what they thought, they did leave us their artwork for us to study and compare. Not many Greek or Roman paintings remain through the centuries (other than the Roman frescoes of Pompeii). Yet we do have plenty of sculptures from each culture, so we are able to compare and contrast this form of art.
Ancient Greek Sculptures
As you can see, the Greek artists idealized the facial features of each sculpture to a point where every statue looks like they hired the same model—a young person with standard proportions and no distinguishable features. The Greeks cared more about idealism—making sure the artwork fit the ideal beauty (what the culture determined it to be at that time), to the sacrifice of reality.
Ancient Roman Sculptures
The Roman artists didn’t care if their models had a protruding forehead, large nose, or lots of wrinkles. They sculpted what they saw for likeness’ sake. The Romans cared more about realism. Their artwork documented the good, the bad, and the ugly. While they wanted their piece to be beautiful, they cared more about reality than fitting a certain prescribed ideal.
Are You Greek or Roman?
Where do you fall on the idealism vs realism continuum? If you were to stand at the Prospect Park Overlook and paint your own painting, would you include the distant power plant and bridge? How about the dead tree in the foreground? Do you prefer art that transports you to an ideal, utopian place of perfection? Or do you prefer art that roots you to the reality that exists, with all its imperfections? In other words, are you more Greek or Roman? Good thing there’s room for both!