Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was overlooked as a member of the core group of Impressionist painters until the 1970s. Today her name is more widely recognized, certainly by anyone in the field of Art History for this period. She was embraced by her fellow Impressionists (a derogatory term that was popularized by an art critic describing this new style of painting made most famous by Claude Monet) and was the granddaughter of the famous Rococo painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Berthe Morisot was an upper-class woman whose family supported her and her talented sister — Edma Morisot — in their shared passion for art. She traveled in the same circles as many important artists, musicians and literary figures of the day. She developed close relationships with them, especially with Édouard Manet whose younger brother, Eugène Manet, she eventually married. She was fondly regarded by such greats as Charles Baudelaire, Emmanuel Chabrier, Edgar Degas, Stéphane Mallarmé, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Émile Zola — all of whom did what they could at various times to help her and later her daughter, Julie Manet.
Berthe Morisot was a devoted mother and tended to paint domestic scenes, including her sister, Edma, after the birth of Edma's baby. But Morisot remained passionate about her art career at every stage in life. Perhaps due to being a woman, or to her choice of subjects, her painting was often described as feminine, delicate and charming. The choice of colors (light and clear) and the idea that this style was a superficial "impression" took hold in the art world and art critics and writers took to the notion that Impressionism was the perfect style for women painters as it required (in their view) a less rigorous training in classical art technique and was therefore suited for a woman's sensibilities. At times this was linked to an insulting insinuation that the female mind was in some way "limited." For her part, Morisot focused on her art, and while she was certainly trivialized by some of these reviews, it did not spur her to take action in any of the feminist campaigns of the day (for example to open the Ecole des Beaus-Arts to women). Neither did she partake in the women's art world that was represented by the Union des Femmes Artistes and its Salon des Femmes. Other talented female artists of the day including the French painters Rosa Bonheur, Louise Abbéma, and the German-born Swiss painter Louise Breslau stand as charismatic and inspiring examples of different approaches to both art and politics.
Morisot's politics, to the extent that they can be understood, seem undefined and somewhat ambivalent. She was a highly educated and supremely talented woman who was still full of self doubt. Her primary roles seem to be as sister and mother, and perhaps above all else, a painter. A compilation of her letters, Correspondences with her family and her friends, was compiled by her grandson, Denis Rouart. The task of selecting which letters to include — and which to leave out — as well as the order of letters leaves much power in the hands of the curator, and scholars such as Kathleen Adler and Tamar Garb (who have written extensively on Morisot) have urged caution when reading these letters. While they are no doubt the words of Morisot herself, it must be remembered that they tell a narrative that is controlled by her grandson many decades after her death. Morisot's artistic talent is irreputable and the extensive number of works she created, as well as their subject matter, speak to her seriousness and devotion to her family and her vocation. The first substantial one-person exhibition of Berthe Morisot outside of France took place at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1987.
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: Women in the Long 19th Century.
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