The Shy Museumgoer


Who cancelled Berthe Morisot?

One day in the autumn of 1873, a young French artist named Claude Monet announced to the press that he and his buddies were organizing their own art show-and-sale, independent of the old-fogyish French Academy of Arts and its official exhibition, known as The Salon. The list of participants did not include their friend Berthe Morisot.

So Edgar Degas wrote a letter to her mother —

We’ve put down half the money for the location and signed the contracts. I don’t think we’re creating a huge business that will compete with the Academy, but we might be a breath of fresh air. If we bring in a few thousand visitors, that will be great.

I recommend the show to your daughter because I’ll be in it and the others, too….Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne. It seems to us that Mademoiselle Berthe Morisot’s name and talent are too well-suited to our mission to pass up.

Several months later, Monet released a new roster of participants to the press. This time the list included Morisot, the only woman invited to join a group of men who thought art should reflect modern life rather than the biblical, mythological, and history themes favored by the Academy.

Great, but how do you paint the essence of modern life?

How do you create the impression of speed? Of hurriedness? How do you convincingly place figures in outdoor light, which is so frustratingly ephemeral?

Berthe Morisot, "The Fable" (1883)
Berthe Morisot, The Fable (1883)

For her part, Morisot decided she would no longer define completeness as the perfection of detail. A painting would be complete the moment it conveyed the impression it was meant to make. Moreover, she would use feathery, visible brushstrokes in an all-over pattern that fused the figures with the background.

By refusing to establish a hierarchical relationship between the figures and the background, Morisot was the Impressionist who took a lack of Academic finish to its greatest extreme. Critic Paul Mantz, known to be a guarded analyst, praised her approach:

If there is one true Impressionist in this revolutionary group….it is Berthe Morisot. Her paintings have the freshness of improvisation.

Morisot participated in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, missing only the 1879 show due to the birth of her daughter, Julie. Yet she is less well-known than her contemporaries.

I should mention her work is heavily weighted to Parisian women. Morisot painted mothers, daughters, chaperones, and housekeepers, and for a good reason. Figure painting was a way to claim professional status when women were expected to paint flower arrangements and watercolor landscapes.

On occasion, she directed her female gaze at a man:

Berthe Morisot, "Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight" (1875)
Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875)

Here the occasion is her honeymoon. In Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875), her new husband leans on the back of a chair, while he looks out a window of the cottage they rented in England.

He is looking at a young girl who is looking out to sea. It’s a clever take on the old Albertian metaphor of a painting being like a window on the world.

Is Morisot also making a political statement?

Maybe. Eugène’s male gaze is easy to read, but look closely at the woman in a pink dress. Her female gaze is hidden behind a window frame that covers her eyes. With this painting, is Morisot deftly conveying both the pleasure and the frustration of being a female artist?

Surely she knew her work was being viewed through the lens of gender. Claude Monet, who painted an equal number of flowers and plants — maybe more — was hailed as “original and vigorous.” Her work was described as “charming and delicate.”

No matter. Her letters hint at the wonderful camaraderie she felt with her male colleagues. She wrote to her aunt:

If you read any of the Paris newspapers, you must know I am one of a group of artists holding a show of our own, and you must have seen how little favor our exhibition enjoys in the eyes of the gentlemen of the press.

On the other hand, we have been praised in the radical papers. We are being discussed. We are all so proud of it and we are all very happy.

A few years later, in a letter to her sister, Morisot expressed concern about her own reluctance to compete financially with the other Impressionists. She never engaged an art dealer to consistently sell her work. By comparison, the Durand-Ruel Gallery promoted 1,500 Renoirs and 1,000 Monets.

All the same, she was admired by her colleagues. A year after her unexpected death at the age of 54, her friends Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Stéphane Mallarmé organized a memorial exhibition of nearly 400 of her works. The show was the subject of more than thirty articles, almost all of them favorable.

One reviewer called the posthumous exhibition “the poem of a modern woman as it is imagined and dreamed by a woman.” To this day, the show remains the most complete retrospective ever devoted to Morisot.

And then she began to disappear from the history books

In two of the most widely read histories of French Impressionism — those of Lionello Venturi and John Rewald — Morisot is placed on the periphery of the movement.

Why? Who cancelled Berthe Morisot?

Ironically, she did. During her lifetime only 25 percent of her work was in circulation due to her reticence to compete in the art market. For nearly a century, up to 85 percent of her work remained in the hands of private collectors and members of her family, resulting in a crippling lack of institutional visibility.

Now, nearly 150 years after the first Impressionist exhibition, her legacy is being revitalized, thanks in part to Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, a breathtaking retrospective organized in 2018 by major museums in Paris, Quebec, Philadelphia, and Dallas. This traveling exhibition confirmed her role as an essential figure within the French avant-garde.

The received wisdom from Morisot’s career is familiar to all women: Talent and hard work are never enough. We need to be more competitive in the marketplace. We need to tell ourselves, “It’s all right, I can do this” — especially when we privately doubt that we can.

Berthe Morisot, "Self Portrait" (1885)
A rare self-portrait by Berthe Morisot (1885)

2 responses to “Who cancelled Berthe Morisot?”

  1. It’s the art history version of “Lean In”! Thanks for the reminder, Berthe Morisot.

    • I’ll say.

      In 1871, Berthe confessed to her sister, “I do not know whether I am indulging in illusions, but it seems to me that a painting like the one I gave Manet could perhaps sell.”

      “Could perhaps sell.” (Can you hear the doubt?)

      As it turns out, the painting she gave Édouard Manet as a gift was The Harbor at Lorient (1869), which he thought was so masterful, he began thinking of her as a colleague and consulting with her on artistic issues. Today the painting is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in a gallery alongside works by Monet, Degas, Sisley, Renoir, and Cassatt. Would she be pleased or surprised?

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