Artists in 60 Seconds: Berthe Morisot

Image © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; used with permission
Berthe Morisot (French, 1841-1895). The Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1869-70. Oil on canvas. 39 3/4 x 32 3/16 in. (101 x 81.8 cm). Chester Dale Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Movement, Style, Type or School of Art:

Impressionism

Date and Place of Birth:

January 14, 1841, Bourges, Cher, France

Life:

Berthe Morisot led a double life. As the daughter of Edme Tiburce Morisot, a high-level government official, and Marie Cornélie Mayniel, also the daughter of a high-level government official, Berthe was expected to entertain and cultivate the right “social connections.” Married at the advanced age of 33 to Eugène Manet (1835-1892) on December 22, 1874, she entered into a suitable alliance with the Manet family, also members of the haute bourgeois (upper middle class), and she became Édouard Manet's sister-in-law.

Édouard Manet (1832-1883) had already introduced Berthe to Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro - the Impressionists.

Before becoming Madame Eugène Manet, Berthe Morisot established herself as a professional artist. Whenever she had time, she painted in her very comfortable residence in Passy, a fashionable suburb just outside of Paris (now part of the wealthy 16th arrondissement). However, when visitors came to call, Berthe Morisot hid her paintings and presented herself once again as a conventional society hostess in the sheltered world outside the city.

Morisot may have come from an august artistic lineage. Some biographers claim that her grandfather or granduncle was the Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1731-1806). Art historian Anne Higonnet claims that Fragonard may have been an "indirect" relative. Tiburce Morisot came from a skilled artisanal background.

During the nineteenth century, haute bourgeois women did not work, did not aspire to achieve recognition outside the home and did not sell their modest artistic accomplishments.

These young ladies might have received a few art lessons to cultivate their natural talents, as demonstrated in the exhibition Playing with Pictures, but their parents did not encourage pursuing a professional career.

Madame Marie Cornélie Morisot raised her lovely daughters with the same attitude. Intent on developing a basic appreciation for art, she arranged for Berthe and her two sisters Marie-Elizabeth Yves (known as Yves, born in 1835) and Marie Edma Caroline (known as Edma, born in 1839) to study drawing with the minor artist Geoffrey-Alphonse-Chocarne.

The lessons did not last long. Bored with Chocarne, Edma and Berthe moved on to Joseph Guichard, another minor artist, who opened their eyes to the greatest classroom of all: the Louvre.

Then Berthe began to challenge Guichard and the Morisot ladies were passed on to Guichard's friend Camille Corot (1796-1875). Corot wrote to Madame Morisot: "With characters like your daughters, my teaching will make them painters, not minor amateur talents. Do you really understand what that means? In the world of the grande bourgeoisie in which you move, it would be a revolution. I would even say a catastrophe."

Corot was a not a clairvoyant; he was a seer. Berthe Morisot's dedication to her art brought on terrible periods of depression as well as extreme exultation. To be accepted into the Salon, complemented by Manet or invited to exhibit with the emerging Impressionists gave her tremendous satisfaction. But she always suffered from insecurity and self-doubt, typical of a woman competing in a man's world.

Berthe and Edma submitted their work to the Salon for the first time in 1864. All four works were accepted. Berthe continued to submit their work and exhibited in the Salon of 1865, 1866, 1868, 1872, and 1873.

In March 1870, as Berthe prepared to send off her painting Portrait of the Artist's Mother and Sister to the Salon, Édouard Manet dropped by, proclaimed his approval and then proceeded to add a "few accents" from top to bottom. "My only hope is to be rejected," Berthe wrote to Edma. "I think it's miserable." The painting was accepted.

Morisot met Édouard Manet through their mutual friend Henri Fantan-Latour in 1868. Over the next few years, Manet painted Berthe at least 11 times, among them:

  • The Balcony, 1868-69
  • Repose: Portrait of Berthe Morisot, 1870
  • Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872
  • Berthe Morisot in a Mourning Hat, 1874

On January 24, 1874, Tiburce Morisot died. In the same month, the Société Anonyme Coopérative started to make plans for an exhibition that would be independent of the government's official exhibition the Salon.

Membership required 60 francs for dues and guaranteed a place in their exhibition plus a share of the profits from the sale of the artworks. Perhaps losing her father gave Morisot the courage to become involved with this renegade group. They opened their experimental show on April 15, 1874, which became known as the First Impressionist Exhibition.

Morisot participated in all but one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. She missed the fourth exhibition in 1879 due to the birth of her daughter Julie Manet (1878-1966) that previous November. Julie became an artist too.

After the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Morisot concentrated on selling through Durand-Ruel Gallery and in May 1892 she mounted her first and only one-woman show there.

However, just a few months before the show, Eugène Manet passed away. His loss devastated Morisot. "I don't want to live anymore," she wrote in a notebook. The preparations gave her a purpose to go on and eased her through this painful sorrow.

Over the next few years, Berthe and Julie became inseparable. And then Morisot's health failed during a bout of pneumonia. She died on March 2, 1895.

The poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote in his telegrams: "I am the bearer of terrible news: our poor friend Mme. Eugène Manet, Berthe Morisot, is dead." These two names in one announcement call attention to the dual nature of her life and two identities which shaped her exceptional art.

Important Works:

  • Portrait of the Artist's Mother and Sister, 1870.
  • The Cradle, 1872.
  • Eugène Manet and his Daughter [Julie] in the Garden at Bougival, 1881.
  • At the Ball, 1875.
  • Reading, 1888.
  • The Wet-Nurse, 1879.
  • Self-Portrait, ca. 1885.

Date and Place of Death:

March 2, 1895, Paris

Sources:

Higonnet, Anne. Berthe Morisot.
New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Adler, Kathleen. "The Suburban, the Modern and 'Une dame de Passy'" Oxford Art Journal, vol. 12, no. 1 (1989): 3 - 13