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. His list of enthusiastic 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.Edgar Degas letter to Marie-Cornélie Morisot, 1874
Several months later, Monet released a new list of participants to the press. This time the roster included Berthe 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.
But how do you portray 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?
For her part, Morisot decided she would no longer define completeness as the perfection of detail. A painting would be complete the instant 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 figure and 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, said:
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. But she is less well-known than her contemporaries, most of whom participated in fewer shows.
I should mention that her work is heavily weighted to 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 decorative flower arrangements and watercolor landscapes.
Occasionally, she directed her female gaze at a man. Here the occasion is her honeymoon. In Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, her new husband looks out a window of the cottage they rented in England. He’s looking at a young girl who is looking out to sea. It’s a modern 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. A window frame hides her eyes, her gaze. Is Morisot expressing her frustration with the male-dominated art establishment?
She must have known her work would be 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. In 1874, she wrote to her aunt:
If you read any of the Paris newspapers, you must know I am one of a group of artists who are 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 in the art market. 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.
Nevertheless, 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 by 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 reluctance 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.
Today 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. The 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, “I can do this,” even when we privately doubt that we can.