Until 10th September 2023, Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting the first major UK exhibition of a trailblazing Impressionist since 1950. Lesser known than her male contemporaries, Berthe Morisot helped found the Impressionist group and was featured in many of the group’s exhibitions. As a woman, she defied social norms and demonstrated an original artistic vision, which inspired and influenced other artists.
Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot was born on 14th January 1841 in Bourges, France. Her father, Edmé Tiburce Morisot, was a senior administrator but also had connections with the École des Beaux-Arts. Her mother, Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas, was the great-niece of the Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). This artistic background inspired Berthe and her siblings, Yves, Edma and Tiburce, and it was commonplace for children of bourgeois families to receive an art education.
Morisot and her sisters received private art lessons from Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichard (1806-88). The latter introduced them to paintings at the Louvre and encouraged the girls to study and copy some of the famous artworks. Whilst Yves and Edma married and moved away, Berthe Morisot found work as a copyist at the Louvre, where she met and befriended other artists, including Claude Monet (1840-1926), Édouard Manet (1832-83) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). Under Corot’s tuition, Morisot began painting en plein air rather than from other compositions.
Initially, Morisot worked with watercolours in restrained colours. Social norms of the 19th century deemed women incapable of using other mediums, such as oils, due to their delicate nature. Morisot disproved this stereotype after fellow Impressionist painters encouraged her to experiment with oils and chalk. When working outside, Morisot preferred to create quick impressions in watercolour paint before returning to the studio to complete the scenes.
Through her connection with Édouard Manet, Morisot met his brother, Eugène, who she married in 1874. Whilst Eugène Manet (1833-92) was a painter, he did not receive as much recognition as his older brother. Instead, he devoted his life to supporting his wife’s career. Morisot and Manet had one child, Julie (1878-1966), who frequently modelled for her mother and other Impressionist artists.
Morisot also painted her husband, although not as frequently as her daughter, noting that “he is a less obliging model; at once it becomes too much for him.” One of Morisot’s first paintings of her husband is Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875), which she painted during their honeymoon. Manet sits in their sitting room, watching the Cowes Regatta through the window.
Art from the 18th century particularly inspired Morisot. She admired the work of Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), notably their portraits. Rather than adopt their style, Morisot explored other ways of capturing appearances. She experimented with pastel and red chalk, plus developed an oil painting technique with long, flowing strokes of colour. Instead of exemplifying female beauty, as previous artists had done, Morisot emphasised the inner lives of her female models, introducing a new feminine perspective to art.
Morisot demonstrated her feminine perspective in paintings of young women dressing, such as The Mirror (1876), in which the model contemplates her reflection. Whilst Morisot wished to depict women in a less objectifying manner, her artwork needed to appeal to a predominantly male art market. Morisot blended the interior scenes of 18th-century artists with a gentler sensibility than the overtly sensual and sometimes erotic paintings by male painters.
“My ambition was limited to wanting to capture something of what goes by, just something, the smallest thing.” Although Morisot used models for some of her paintings, she preferred to capture fleeting moments, as did most Impressionist artists. Several of her artworks demonstrate the fragile beauty of life through transient light effects. Painting en plein air helped artists capture natural light, but when unable to venture outside, Morisot retreated to the reception room of her Paris home, which contained a large south-facing window that let in the constantly shifting daylight.
To paint her daughter as a child, Morisot gave Julie something to amuse herself and to prevent her from growing bored. In Children with a Basin (1886), Morisot captured Julie and her friend Marthe pretending to fish for goldfish in a large Chinese porcelain bowl. The girls sat in the family sitting room, where daylight from the large window reflected on the water of their pretend pond. When able to play outside, Morisot captured her daughter climbing trees or telling stories to whoever would listen.
Another of Morisot’s frequent models was her niece, Paule Gobillard (1867-1946). Being older than Julie, Paule was more amenable to sitting for lengths of time, but Morisot also captured her mid-task as though unaware of Morisot’s presence. Paule Gobillard Painting (1887) is set in Morisot’s sitting room, where her 20-year-old niece concentrates on her work. The stillness of Paule’s body contrasts with the rapid movement of her right arm, which paints the canvas in front of her.
For both Julie and Paule, Morisot acted as a mentor as well as mother and aunt. Morisot encouraged their art education and obtained permission for Paule to copy paintings in the Louvre under her supervision. Paule lived with Morisot from 1893 after her mother, Yves Morisot, passed away. This arrangement made it easier for Morisot to assist Paule with her artistic career, although Paule remained relatively unknown on the art scene. Paule also received tuition from Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), for whom she also modelled.
Before Morisot could help her daughter Julie produce and exhibit her artwork, Morisot passed away from pneumonia on 2nd March 1895. At only 16 years old, Julie became an orphan, having already lost her father to ill health in 1892. As a result, Julie came under the guardianship of the poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). Although she received some support from Renoir, Mallarmé encouraged writing more than painting. Later in life, Julie published her teenage diary entitled Growing up with the Impressionists, which provided significant insights into the lives of several French painters. She also mentioned the Dreyfus affair in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was convicted of treason for a crime committed by Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. Julie’s book gave eye-opening accounts of the opinions of her family and friends, particularly Renoir’s patriotic and antisemitic views.
One of Berthe Morisot’s last paintings of her daughter was Julie Manet and her Greyhound Laertes (1893). Dressed in black, the 14-year-old mourns the recent loss of her father, emphasised further by the lightly sketched empty chair to her right. The greyhound, Laertes, was a present from Mallarmé to cheer up and comfort the young girl following her father’s death. Little did anyone know that less than two years later, Julie would lose her mother, too.
Dulwich Picture Gallery demonstrates Morisot’s progress as an artist and her struggle to be taken seriously. Morisot’s paintings were often labelled as full of “feminine charm” by male critics, to which Morisot responded, “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, for I know I’m worth as much as they.” Yet, Morisot’s work did have a certain charm due to her light, delicate brushwork, which critics named effleurer.
As Morisot’s career and reputation progressed, she experimented with longer, slender brushstrokes. She often left the edges of her paintings unfinished, allowing the canvas to show through. This technique emphasised the sitter or subject and increased the sense of spontaneity. Morisot rarely used large canvases. The smaller the background, the easier it was to capture scenes quickly.
Morisot’s paintings reflected women’s lives in the 19th century, including scenes of domesticity, children and flowers. She preferred private scenes rather than the hustle and bustle of the outdoors. When she did venture outside, her artwork depicted mainly landscapes, gardens, and boating scenes. The figures in these scenes, particularly women, evoked a sense of ennui or boredom, suggesting women’s lives outside the home were not that exciting. Morisot lived at a time when most girls and women needed a chaperone to visit local places and were not permitted to join in any “male” activities.
Throughout her career, Morisot kept in touch with other Impressionist painters and participated in annual exhibitions from 1874 onwards, except for 1878, when Julie was born. Commenting on the first exhibition, critic Albert Wolff wrote in Le Figaro that the show consisted of “five or six lunatics of which one is a woman…[whose] feminine grace is maintained amid the outpourings of a delirious mind.” As Impressionism gradually became accepted as a style of art, attitudes changed towards the artists, although Morisot’s “feminity” continued to dominate her reviews.
Despite her gender, critics began to appreciate Morisot’s work. In 1877, one critic commented that she was the “one real Impressionist in this group.” By using her maiden name instead of her married name, Manet, Morisot earned praise for her artistic abilities rather than her connections with well-known (male) artists.
Only 30 of Morisot’s paintings and drawings feature in the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Her work is interspersed with other artworks by artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough and Fragonard, who inspired Morisot’s work. On the one hand, it is useful to compare the paintings and understand Morisot’s thought processes, yet it also makes a mockery of 19th-century society, in which women could not succeed without male connections. Nonetheless, the exhibition also demonstrates Morisot’s artistic vision, which separates her from her predecessors. Whilst she learnt by copying famous artworks, she used the studies to form original ideas and techniques.
Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism is proving popular for art lovers of all ages, so it is advisable to book tickets in advance due to the limited capacity at the gallery. Tickets cost £15, although some concessions are available. The exhibition is open until 10th September 2023.
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