Berthe Morisot was the only founding female of the Impressionist movement. In her lifetime, Berthe’s work was considered as central to the work of the Impressionists as Renoir or Monet. Yet Berthe’s influence has largely been written out of the history of the movement. Painting from within a domestic sphere that even in bohemian Paris still kept women separate from life in the city, Berthe’s work is a snapshot of late 19th-century bourgeoise life.
Born on January 14th, 1841, Berthe Morisot had a good start in life as a member of the affluent Parisian bourgeoisie. Art ran in the Morisot family blood. Berthe’s father, Edmé Tiburce Morisot, was a senior government official who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Berthe’s grandfather was Jean-Honore Fragonard, a well-regarded Rococo painter.
There were three daughters in the Morisot family and one son. As was customary in Paris at the time, Berthe and her sisters, Edma and Yves were home-schooled by tutors. It was also common for young women to also receive art tuition at home. Tutors Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichard taught the Morisot sisters to draw and paint. Guichard introduced Berthe and her sisters to the Louvre gallery where they studied the works of the Old Masters.
Soon after, Berthe registered as a copyist at the Louvre and began to make the acquaintance of other young artists whose work influenced her own. Being a copyist meant Berthe spent her days making drawings of the Louvre’s collection which the gallery then sold to visitors. Copyists were paid a small wage and were almost always women. Berthe, inspired by friend and teacher Camille Corot, began to experiment with a plein air method of painting. Around 1863, Berthe studied under Achille Oudino and soon after had her work exhibited at the prestigious Salon in Paris.
All three Morisot sisters were part of the Parisian art scene. In 1866, Yves Morisot married Theodore Gobillard and became the subject of a portrait by Edgar Degas, Mrs. Theodore Gobillard. In 1869, Edma Morisot also got married. Berthe struggled to adjust to life without her sister and artistic collaborator. As Edma drifted away from the life of an artist, Berthe clung more fiercely to it.
Berthe began taking a new approach to her work. Influenced by Edouard Manet whom Berthe had met at the Louvre, Berthe experimented with a looser, more expressive approach. Replacing oils with watercolors and applying with a fresher, lighter touch, Berthe aligned herself with the Impressionists taking over the Parisian art scene. In 1872, Berthe sold twenty-two of her paintings to private dealer Durand-Rual and began mixing with artists like Degas, Bazille, and Monet. These sales legitimized Berthe as an artist and also boosted her confidence. In 1864, Berthe made the biggest decision of her career and declined to show her work at the Salon. Instead, she gave several works to the first independent show of Impressionists. Berthe’s paintings, Hide and Seek, The Cradle and Reading featured alongside works by Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Monet, and Sisley. Berthe had made her allegiance clear. She was no longer interested in appealing to the art establishment. She was an Impressionist.
Berthe met Manet’s younger brother, Eugene in the early 1870s and in 1874 the pair were married. Eugene was wealthy and of a good social standing, which gave Berthe a measure of protection under which she could pursue her career.
Berthe painted from life, giving a glimpse into what bourgeoise Parisian life was like in the late nineteenth century. Rather than depicting the rapidly-transforming streets of Paris, Berthe painted private, intimate spaces. Berthe painted portraits of friends and family, still-life flowers and indoor scenes. Around this time, Berthe also transitioned back to using oils in her work.
Berthe’s working method was similar to that of Degas. Using oil, watercolor, and pastel at the same time, Berthe painted her subjects quickly. By sketching many studies of her subject matter before painting, Berthe achieved highly-finished pieces.
Berthe’s subject matter broadened as she progressed in her career. She painted landscapes, portraits, still-lives, and spontaneous scenes. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Berthe showed her work at the annual Impressionist exhibitions. The only year Berthe missed was 1877, the year she gave birth to her daughter, Julie. One of the more notable of Berthe’s works during this period is Woman at Her Toilette (C 1879)
Around the mid-1880s, Berthe experimented with drawing, Japonisme and the burgeoning technology of photography. Perhaps photography encouraged Berthe to adopt a more studied approach to the composition of her scenes. Tracing drawn scenes onto canvas, Berthe created complex compositions where figures interact with their environment. Works such as The Cherry Tree (1891 -1892) and Girl with a Greyhound (1893) show this distinctive style.
Eugene Manet died in 1892, the same year Berthe was honoured with her first solo exhibition in Paris. Less than three years later, in March of 1895, Berthe died aged 54. Berthe had been tending to her now sixteen-year-old daughter, Julie who had pneumonia and contracted the disease herself.
The French government purchased Berthe’s painting Young Woman in a Ball Gown in 1894, the year before she died. Although Berthe sold many of her paintings to private collectors and outsold other male Impressionist painters, she was never considered a successful artist during her lifetime. Today, Berthe is recognized as one of a handful of key early impressionists, the only revolutionary woman in a group of men.