09 December 2023

Berthe Morisot, fine French Impressionist

Berthe Morisot,

Berthe Morisot
(1841–95) was born into a very cultivated, bourgeois Bour­g­es family, dad a government minister and mum the great-niece of the famous Ro­c­oco artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Berthe and her old­er sis­ter, Edma, moved to Paris with the parents when they were still young. Though the girls were barred from a formal arts educat­ion, they fl­our­ished un­der pri­v­ate tutelage, making studies of Old Master paint­ings at the Louvre. Later they studied  en plein-air painting under the Barbizon painter Jean -Baptiste-Camille Corot.

Ed­ma’s skills were espec­ially prais­ed by Corot, but she gave up art to marry a naval officer. She moved from Paris, and the sis­ters stayed connect­ed via frequent and warm letters. In any case women painters were usually ig­nored or vilified, so these tal­en­ted sis­ters' future as profes­s­ional art­ists was always problematic.

The French Academy had always been re­sponsible for art theory, pr­ac­tice, politics and pat­ronage, but not on behalf of art­ists they disap­p­rov­ed of. So the Impress­ion­ists were eventually forced to ex­hib­it their work in­dep­endently in Salon des Refuses 1863, a show­ing of avant-garde works rejected by the Salon de Paris. Edouard Manet invited Morisot to exhibit and she did submit 9 works! In a review for Le Figaro, Albert Wolff merely noted 5 or 6 lunatics.

Nonetheless Corot continued to advise her, and his infl­uence was clearly seen in the landscape part of her canvas­es. In 1864 Ber­the submitted 2 of her works to the Salon de Paris, and were positively received by both critics and public. This, the annual exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was impressive.

Berthe and Edouard Manet were copying pictures in the Louvre during 1868; they became close pro­fes­s­ion­al coll­eagues and used each other as mod­els in their own work. Was it a deep friend­ship or a love affair? Morisot frequently sat for Edouard Manet and he disp­layed 3 of her works in his bedroom, beginning with The Bal­c­ony 1868, a vision in a white dress. Ber­the was in Eduard Manet’s home so much that she ended up mar­r­ying his bro­ther, Eugene in 1874 at 33. Eugène appeared in her later work, playing with their child, Julie

Most Impressionists used short, broken brush stokes but Ber­­the used large touches of paint applied fr­eely over the canvas. This gave her work a transparent, ir­id­escent quality eg Artist's mother and sister 1870. Im­pression­ist to be sure, in that their lines ceased to exist in nature.

Hide and Seek, 1873
Edma and her daughter

Like Degas and Cezanne, Morisot often chose pastels. The sketchy nat­ure that was so cen­tral to Impress­ionist art, and the emphasis on cr­eation ra­t­her than on the fin­ished work of art, made pas­tel an ideal med­ium for Morisot & colleagues. Pastels al­low­ed rapid strokes, easily altered by the fingers, making it even more suitable for Imp­r­ession­ism than water col­ours. See eg Portrait of Madame Pont­illon 1871, a sensitive sisterly pastel.

Most of her images centred on women, children and maids, in domestic settings. After the terrible losses suff­er­ed in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), France reassert­ed its int­er­est in healthy living, domestic­ity and bourgeois virtues. Her paintings always had a great sense of in­tim­acy eg The Cradle 1873. See her sister Edma who was still busy in mar­riage and babies. Edma was Berthe's fav­our­ite model, and looked Madonna-like as she rocked her baby to sleep.

The Cradle. 1873

Manet's salon evenings in Cafe Guerbois had been so import­ant ear­ly in the male Impres­sionists’ careers, but were clearly not suit­able for decent women. Fantin Latour pain­ted a gath­ering of men at the Ma­net's studio, A Studio in the Bat­ig­nol­les Quart­er, 1870. This group portrait became the first pub­l­ic manifesto of the group, so approp­riat­ely it in­cluded the artists and their literary friends in Man­et's stu­dio. Then Berthe eventually started having meetings in her home every Thurs night. Her art­ist friends and some writers found her home to be a centre of inspiration & social activity, and she was not excluded.

Fantin Latour A Studio in the Bat­ig­nol­les Quart­er, 1870
Bazille had his hands behind his back; Manet was painting; Renoir stood in front of frame; Monet was in back right corner.
Smell the fresh summer grass in her work Reading 1873 and feel the cool sun on sister Edma’s back. Strokes of light filled colour danced on the canvas surface. She read a book on the grass and an umbrella lay disc­arded, showing a fleeting moment of lei­sure, free of dom­es­ticity. Her subject’s blurred face was absorbed in the book.

 Reading 1873

It was becoming clear the Salon jurors disliked the Impressionists’ way of painting and would not accept their paintings. So the young artists, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Sisley and Pissarro, decided to rethink their plan. And this time Jean-Baptiste Millet, Jean-François Millet's brother, joined in. Gustave Caille­bot­te, who started out as a coll­ector, ended up half funding the project. They opened in April 1876 and took over 3 rooms in the Durand-Ruel Gallery, off Boulevard Haussman for 252 works!

In Reclining Woman in Grey 1879, a fashionable Parisian reclined on a settee, though her dress was almost misty. When light hit the strokes, they seemed wettish. Mor­isot was skilled in embodying her female subjects with real life, unlike Deg­as’ ball­er­inas or Manet’s nudes.

Art critic Louis Leroy wrote so rudely of their work that his derisive name for the art form, Impression­ism, stuck. In part­icular he singled out Renoir, Mon­et, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas and Morisot with vit­r­iol saying "It is unheard of, ap­pal­l­ing! I'll get a stroke from it".

See Morisot’s Sum­mer's Day on a Lake 1879. Pre­s­um­ably Leroy was used to represen­t­at­ions in which dist­ant and moving obj­ects were defined with exact detail. Like other Imp­ress­ionists, Mori­sot didn’t rely on her memory of ducks to tell her what they should look like. Rath­er she painted the actual momentary perception.

The Impressionist Ex­hibition did NOT make money, but Ber­the was so st­un­ned by the treatment they received, she re­m­ai­n­ed tot­ally faithful to the group forever. She’d bec­ame a close friend of Mary Cas­satt, the two women sympathising with each oth­er's struggles. And Pierre Renoir became her closest art friend

Morisot was frail after her daughter was born in 1878, but she ret­urn­ed to the Independent Exhibitions in 1880. Two lovely works evoked both images that she actually saw, AND symbolic works: Summer aka Young Woman by a Window 1878; and Winter aka Woman with a Muff 1880.

Winter, Woman with a Muff, 1880

Like other Impressionists, Morisot used touches of colour to in­dicate form eg Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden 1883. Her paint­ings gave the impression of qu­ick­ly recorded, transient moments from life as it was lived (in pleasant bourgeois families).

In the Dining Room 1886 was where Morisot applied bold brushstrokes around, giv­ing the sense of total free­­dom. And most of her paint­­ings were bathed in a luminous light, like Corot but with more comp­lex col­ours. Girl on a Di­van c1885 was another gentle scene bathed in light.

When Berthe's family went on holidays, she took her paints with her. Thus a few Morisot land­sc­apes app­ear­ed eg The Quay at Bougival 1883, Forest of Comp­iegne 1885 and other marine pic­t­ures done at Pontrieux. She be­came more influenced by Ren­oir.

In her last years, Morisot’s motion be­came more introsp­ec­t­ive. Her first solo show opened in 1892 where the rapid brush strokes that long defined her practice became clearer, and her images focused more. In Julie Dreaming (1894), Morisot’s red-headed teenage daughter stared, her face glowing against coloured streaks. Berthe died in Paris in 1895 from lung disease, at 54, and later that year, Degas arranged a memorial exhibition of Berthe's works.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Thank you for this wonderful feature of Berthe Morrisot. The painting called Reading is in the Cleveland Museum of Art. On their website, the colors seem more vibrant and there is more of the background, lending a little more interest and contrast to the painting. Their image is remarkably detailed and enlargeable to the point you can see the texture of the canvas:


Good job, CMA!

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Not a name I am familiar with but those paintings are bloody awesome I do like them a lot thank you for sharing these.

roentare said...

These paintings are just gorgeous. So dreamy with a lot of mood provoking. Glad to learn about art history gradually through your writings

diane b said...

Her work is beautiful. It is awful to read how the impressionists were treated. Some people just can't handle change. The attitude towards a female artist is understandable we still have problems in this department.

Mirage said...

Melbourne's top public galleries, museums and performance venues are gearing up for a big summer as they re-open their doors to the public. Minister for Creative Industries was on hand today to announce that the National Gallery of Victoria will welcome visitors back. When doors reopen, guests will be able to see an important addition to the gallery's collection - an artwork by Berthe Morisot, one of the leading women of French Impressionism in Paris.The NGV Foundation raised more than $3 million for the acquisition of Morisot's 1889 work La Broderie, which is the first of her paintings to enter an Australian public collection.


Hels said...


Reading 1873 is an excellent example of why Impressionism became popular with ordinary viewers - easy impression of form; quality colours; small visible brushstrokes; natural light and normal human themes eg family picnics rather than biblical heroics. Morisot enabled us to feel the green grass, breathe the fresh air and dream of languid reading.

Hels said...


me too :) I knew Manet, Sisley, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir and Degas very well, but the second group of Gauguin, Morisot, Cassatt and even van Gogh only came a few years later. By that time, I am guessing that the divisions in the art world were starting to be worked out.

Hels said...


yes! dreamy and moody art was very special back then, and although we are not so shocked today, modern abstract art might still feel very artificial in comparison.

Hels said...


spot on.... many important people could not deal with change because they feel history's approved values had already been set down for ever. In early times, radical artists, writers, scientists, religious leaders or educators could have been excommunicated or exiled, if their changes were totally unacceptable.

Women had an even worse time. Because Morisot was a woman and mother, she had far more important responsibilities than learning and practising art. And in any case, she could not have as much talent as a man had, and therefore needed a real (male) artist to guide her.

Hels said...


In the chaos of Covid in 2021, I didn't see Broderie (1889) and didn't know about the Foundation's need to raise a large amount of money to keep the Morisot painting in Australia.
Where is this very special painting now?

My name is Erika. said...

I didn't know Morisot was a woman. I have heard of the name, but I didn't know much about her. Therefore I really enjoyed reading this post. There were so few woman who were able to make their paintings known at this time, and I also learned a lot reading about the salons. Thanks- and happy new week to you.

Hels said...


the sad fact was that they were, or may have been an equal number of very talented female artists as men, but contemporaries rarely heard about them. They were largely unable to obtain a formal art education, so they had to rely on private art tutoring. They could not join any Academy, so they couldn't enjoy the organisational social/professional life that men enjoyed. They couldn't display their work at the public galleries, so growing their reputation was marginalised for a decade.

Consider Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, Eva Gonzalès, Cecilia Beaux and Lilla Cabot Perry, Rosa Bonheur and Marie Bashkirtseff.

Hels said...

Alberti’s Window, an excellent art history blog, looked for the familial relationship between Fragonard and Morisot, but couldn't find one. Additionally Fragonard lived in 1732-1806 and Morisot lived in 1841-95, a totally different era with no overlap. Note that Fragonard painted many outdoor scenes that depicted aristocrats engaged in romantic or pleasurable pursuits, whilst Morisot painted plein air and often depicted members of the bourgeoisie. But they could never have met.