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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot, 1872, Edouard Manet
When one utters the words "mothers" and "art" in the same breath the name Mary Cassatt usually follows in the next breath. The unfortunate factor in this is that in being the painting icon for mothers, children, and women in general of the 19th century, Cassatt far overshadows another very worthwhile female artist who in many respects may well have been a much better painter. Unlike Mary Cassatt, who was an American expatriate living most of her life in Paris, Berthe Morisot was French. All too often in fact, she's referred to as a French Mary Cassatt. And, while their subject matter in painting predominantly women and children is virtually indistinguishable, that's far from the case in terms of their style. Though Cassatt is often thought of as an impressionist, and was in tune with them in terms of her use of color and design, there was little in the way of Impressionist style in the way she handled her paint. That's not the case with Morisot. Berthe Morisot was an impressionist through and through, her colors, her technique, her always carefully conceived compositions all land her right in the middle of her male counterparts in the movement.

Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1875,
Berthe Morisot
Berthe was born in 1841, the granddaughter of the French Rococo painter, Jean-Honore Fragonard.  She and her younger sister, Edma grew up in a wealthy, cosmopolitan, atmosphere of culture and learning. They were encourage in their art at an early age by their father, a government bureaucrat and would-have-been architect. They both studied under the Realist painter, Camille Corot, and the academic painter, Henri Fantin-Latour. And while Edma gave up painting to become a wife and mother, Berthe did not. She continued her studies, copying paintings at the Louvre (an accepted way of learning to paint at the time). There, one day in 1868, she met one of the more well-known painters of her day, Edouard Manet. They became friends. He helped her in her painting, and used her as a model in some of his own (The Balcony, 1869). Later, their friendship led to marriage, not to each other, but to Eduoard's brother, Eugene (above right). And though her brother-in-law no doubt influenced her art, it wouldn't be unfair to say she was something of an influence upon him as well, encouraging him to lighten and brighten his palette, also to forgo the use of black, a staple of the academic style, but a definite "no-no" for the Impressionists.

Summer Day, 1879, Berthe Morisot
There was no more dedicated Impressionist than Berthe Morisot. At a time when women might paint, but seldom exhibited their art, she had work accepted into all  five Salon exhibitions between 1864 and 1868; and exhibited in all but one of the eight impressionist exhibitions during the ensuing years. Moreover, at a time when only women and children were considered appropriate subjects for female painters, Morisot's work contains a generous helping of impressive landscape efforts as well, though many have within them the obligatory female figures. Morisot died in 1895 having forged for herself a career in art marked not by commercial success, but a daring swim through the midst of uncharted impressionist waters among shark attacks by critics and the French bourgeoisie alike, not just for her loose, vibrant use of paint and color but accused of being a loose, and vibrant woman as well. And lest you think women's place in art has not changed much in the years since her death, keep in mind it was 1897 before women were admitted to the French Ecole des Beaux-arts and well into the 20th century before they were allowed to draw the nude figure in classes (even then only figures of their own sex).
Julie Dreaming, 1894, Berthe Morisot,
painted less than a year before her
death from pneumonia.

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