Berthe Morisot (1841-1895): Berthe’s Brushstrokes towards Equality
I would always rather be happy than dignified. – Charlotte Bronte
The quote above originates from the classic novel Jane Eyre and was written by renowned feminist author, Charlotte Bronte. Jane Erye is one of my personal favorites. The fictional character of Jane emphasizes passion, power, and independence on behalf of the women living during the, very patriarchal, Victorian Age. She marries for love, relishes in her adoration for sketching, and challenges old traditions with her wit and intelligence. I admire those, especially women, who have paved the way for me to live the life I live in now. My life consists of hardly ever being looked down upon for pursuing an education, speaking freely, and constantly being encouraged to pursue anything I set my mind to. The character of Jane Eyre shares plenty of attributes that parallel with a great woman known as Berthe Morisot who I chose for this Declaration project. Berthe made her mark, following her passion of painting during the Impressionism Movement, even when it was not considered dignified enough for society.
Berthe Morisot was born in an affluent, bourgeois family on January 14th, 1841, in Bourges, France. She had advantages lower-class individuals did not, such as obtaining a distinguished art education alongside her older sisters, Edma and Yves. The sisters studied with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, an eminent French artist noted for his plein-air painting style and a crucial role in the Impressionist movement. Their parents had encouraged them to work with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot at the Louvre which deepened their study and admiration for painting. He inspired them to paint in the open air and in nature, something Berthe would do for the rest of her life. Despite the fact that Edma Morisot was the most talented, she had given up painting to marry a navy commander. Berthe, on the other hand, became a model for Édouard Manet and entered the Parisian avant-garde society. Soon after at the age of thirty-three, she married Eugène Manet, Édouard’s younger brother. Getting married at thirty-three was very taboo during her time because by her waiting so long to get hinged meant she was considered an old maid to society. However, she didn’t care because she adored Eugène and married for love not status. She gave birth to her only daughter, Julie, at thirty-seven, and continued to use her family as muses.
Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Thomas Eakins, and other esteemed artists are highly renowned names that are constantly recognized in correlation to the Impressionist movement. The Impressionist Movement originated in 1860 and lasted until 1886. Impressionists rejected classical subject matters in favor of modernism, seeking to produce works that mirrored their surroundings and ‘’A great part of the struggle of nineteenth-century experimental painters was an attempt to recapture the color, light, and changeability of nature that had been submerged in the rigid stasis and studio gloom of academic tonal formulas’’ (Arnason, 2012, p. 28). Morisot addressed impressionist elements of modernity in her depiction of the human form, including the intimacy of everyday bourgeois living and family life, a passion for gardens, the significance of fashion, and women’s domestic labor. Her paintings, which are intentionally unfinished in appearance, are not an unmediated reflection of her everyday environment; rather, they confront the temporality of representation and truth behind beauty. When she joined a radical new artists’ association in 1874, she was the only female artist to display in their debut exhibition later on. This was because she was adamant in forming contacts with the Parisian avant-garde and fighting for her talent to get the recognition it deserved. For their untidy, seemingly incomplete work, critics mocked this group of “impressionists,” but Morisot remained unfazed. Some of the works she showed that year are among her most famous such as Woman at Her Toilette (1875-80).
Berthe Morisot’s painting career was a back and forth between positive and surprising prospects and patriarchal society’s foreseen oppressions. On the one hand, Berthe’s husband Eugène had resigned his profession as a prosecutor in the French Ministry of Justice to care for their daughter Julie and organize Berthe’s exhibitions. He deeply loved, supported, and advocated for his wife. A woman could not have had a stay-at-home spouse and a developing career in the arts during that period, or at any other time frame since, so both Eugène and Berthe were breaking barriers together. According to Gordon, writer for official website of ARTDEX, ‘’Perhaps to express her gratefulness and devotion to him, Berthe made Eugène the only male subject in all of her paintings, examples of which are in England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight) (1875) and Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden (1883)’’ (2021, para. 8). In Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight) (1875), Morisot depicts her husband, sprucely dressed in a straw hat, leaning on a chair, and gazing out a window, which shows a garden, a fence, and a well-dressed woman and daughter walking along the coast behind the curtains and greenery on the windowsill. Boats may be seen behind them, implying that these women are on their way somewhere while the male remains at home. In it, she stays faithful to tradition by creating opulent rooms while allowing her spirit to run wild.
Even though this accomplished, educated painter received peer and public praise throughout her lifetime, Morisot’s name isn’t discussed as much. Morisot once wrote in her diary in 1890, “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked for — I know I am worth as much as they are” (Almino, 2018, para. 4). Her paintings are just as important to Impressionism as those of her male colleagues, yet because she was a woman her work was automatically casted aside throughout history. Morisot is frequently viewed as a feminist icon, sometimes even radically so, due to her exclusive concentration on the females in her environment, which consisted of aristocratic women and chambermaids. It is said that ‘’Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Suzanne Valadon were among those to confront directly and, to varying extents, subvert the tendency to treat female models as objects of a masculine, heterosexual gaze’’ (Arnason, 2012, p. 714). Berthe was intensely aware of the male-centric environment in which she found herself. Whether they were ladies of higher social standing or maids and house staff, she mostly depicted women and children in home scenes and parks. Her male Impressionist colleagues had the privilege of painting beautiful Paris locations that Berthe could not visit without a male companion.
Berthe Morisot’s painting, The Cradle, is a picture of motherhood’s joys and the emphasis on women’s roles and responsibilities in late-nineteenth-century France. It is one of my favorites because it is so gentle, yet powerful at the same time. Berthe’s sister, Edma, is seen in the picture, tenderly watching her daughter Blanche (Berthe’s niece) sleep in her cradle. Because the mother is portrayed carefully sheltering her infant, there is a sense of security in this artwork. Her arm rests softly on the crib’s edge, as if she were cradling her infant, even though the baby is sound asleep. Soft pastels and primaries are among the colors used, giving the spectator a sense of comfort and Zen.
As she examines this extension of herself in the form of a newborn, the mother’s expression is filled with content and thoughtfulness. Blanche is a legacy that can blossom into a magnificent member of society with the correct amount of tenderness, love, and care. But, in order for this to happen, Edma must recognize the fulfilling duty, relationship, and devotion that raising her daughter entails, which I believe she does via her expression. The white and gauzy curtain that drapes over the child’s cradle lends an innocent aura to the picture. The mother is similarly covered in her own curtain, indicating that she is equally encased in this intimate setting. The quiet moments a mother embraces to admire her loved ones whether they be directed towards her children or to her husband, should be acknowledged as powerful. There is nothing like a mother’s love. A mother who would sacrifice anything and everything to make sure her family is safe and secured. Morisot’s gender and social status forced her to paint solely about the bourgeoisie’s home life and/or subjects she was familiar with as a woman painter. She focuses on present life in her work because she avoids the topics that the Academy would have favored, which include religion, mythology, and/or ancient history. She perfectly conveys the true spirit and essence of motherhood, despite it not appealing to critics and the Academy.
The Guerilla Girl’s, a feminist activists’ group, breakthrough installation, “Do Women Still Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum?” (1989), placed them on the map and on everyone’s radar. The billboard employs a picture by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres called Grand Odalisque. The purpose of this painting was to emphasize a woman’s sensual and exquisite allure. A gorilla mask is then edited over her face to display the Guerrilla Girls’ signature trademark and to underline the ferocious nature that every woman possesses deep within her. “Less than 5% of the painters in the Modern Art categories are women, while 85 percent of the nudes are female,” is a bolded statistic laid out next to the lady figure. “Less than 4% of the painters in the Modern Art categories are women, while 76% of the nudes are female,” says the most recent re-count (2012). The piece’s theme elucidates how males rule the art industry while women are labeled as delicate muses rather than being inspired to become great innovators. The fact that this sculpture is refreshed every few years, keeps the battle for artistic equality alive and has also encouraged exhibits to research and highlight female artists who never received the attention and praise they deserved. For example, on October 21, 2018, through January 14, 2019, The Barnes Foundation dedicated an entire exhibit to the trials and tribulations of Berthe Morisot. The exhibit recognized the extraordinary journey of a lady who overcame social conventions and then deservingly joined the Paris avant-garde. The exhibit opened with the most fitting quote said by Berthe, which stated ‘’Work is the sole purpose of my existence…. Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view’’ (Morisot, 1871). This quote can be interpreted as a direct correlation to what Berthe Morisot significantly valued in her life, which was her career and her passion.
Morisot’s individuality and sense of independence is depicted in two illustrations. The first piece was painted by Edouard Manet. She is shown wearing a beautiful black dress with ruffles and train, lace gloves up to her elbows, and a ribbon around her neck. She is dressed elegantly in black but has a determined expression on her face; she is not one to let her appearance get in the way of her profession. In the second painting she is dressed elegantly in her 1885 self-portrait, even down to the way her scarf is wound around her neck. She’s holding a brush and a palette, showing herself as a professional lady with a sense of style, proving that the two aren’t mutually incompatible. She pinpoints characteristics not usually seen in portraits of woman for there is no sensuality exuded, just pure assertiveness and professionalism.
Morisot did not have her own studio for the majority of her career. She created scenes centered in the “toilette”, like people getting dressed, encased by mirrors, soothing wallpaper patterns, and light flowing through dainty curtains. She also emphasized figures in parks and gardens, as well as in her own bedroom. She didn’t paint nudists very frequently, but when she did, it was usually a modest picture from behind. She paints woman in a more innocent light, which was considered unique. It is undeniable that Berthe Morisot was a remarkable artist. She overcome gender stereotypes in a variety of ways, one of which was to take advantage of the new artistic freedom given by Impressionism. She was also utilizing her social standing to paint subjects that were off-limits to males.
I feel that for a woman with her wealthiness she could’ve tested the waters a bit more regarding painting nudes that other female painters at that time didn’t have because they couldn’t afford too. I would’ve liked to have seen Berthe take a more aggressive approach to representing woman in their natural state embracing their sexuality for self-worth and not for the male gaze. For instance, Mary Cassatt was a Pennsylvania-born American impressionist painter. She spent the most of her adult life in France, where she met Edgar Degas and displayed her work with the impressionists as well. Cassatt’s themes in her work centered on bourgeois women’s daily lives, like Berthe, however she also painted/sketched her fair share of nudes that show women in a playful light and a sensual one. My favorite one being Reclining Nude by Cassatt. The woman in the painting acts coy with her arms draped across her forehead, yet her expression is cheeky because she smirks slightly at the viewer. Her body language suggests she is comfortable with her physic despite her tummy’s obvious love pouch, and she is still trying to act modest by having her legs hinged together as she poses. I think this is a perfect representation of the female gaze painting a woman in the nude in contrast to some male artists who paint nude females and objectify them.
Berthe Morisot struggled to reconcile her status as a member of high society with her free artistic spirit, despite being featured in seven impressionist exhibits and producing over 850 artworks throughout her lifetime. She passed away on March 2nd, 1895, due to contracting pneumonia. However, she lived a fulfilled life. Furthermore, she battled in her creative career to be embraced for who she was, rather than being perceived as a weak, feminine figure who would have been brilliant if she had been a ‘’man’’. Berthe’s legacy shouldn’t be forgotten. Various feminist and art history scholars may disagree over whether she genuinely belongs among feminist icons. Still, one thing is certain: Berthe Morisot was a fearless female artist who fought for her deserved place at the top of a male-dominated profession. She confronted challenges that women face today, more than a century and a half later. Women of various professions may identify with Berthe Morisot and be encouraged by her example to fearlessly continue their journeys, knowing that they are just as deserving of respect and distinction as their male counterparts. Berthe Morisot once said ‘’Real painters understand with a brush in their hand’’ (The Art Story, 2020). Despite Berthe being a woman, she always knew she belonged in the art world. She is an inspirational figure who has resonated deeply with me because of her endurance, artistry, and wisdom.
Arnason, H., & Mansfield, E. (2012). History of Modern Art (Paperback) (7th ed.). Pearson.
Almino, E. W. (2018, November 9). Why Berthe Morisot Was an Essential Figure in the Impressionist Movement. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/468570/why-berthe-morisot-was-an-essential-figure-in-the-impressionist-movement/
Barnes Foundation. (2020, June 23). Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist. https://www.barnesfoundation.org/whats-on/morisot
Gordon, J. (2021, May 1). Berthe Morisot And Radical Feminism. ARTDEX. https://www.artdex.com/berthe-morisot-and-radical-feminism/
Schjeldahl, P. (2018, October 22). Berthe Morisot, “Woman Impressionist,” Emerges from the Margins. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/29/berthe-morisot-woman-impressionist-emerges-from-the-margins
The Art Story. (2020). Berthe Morisot Paintings, Bio, Ideas. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/morisot-berthe/