The Shy Museumgoer


Who cancelled Berthe Morisot?

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.

Edgar Degas, in a letter to Marie-Cornélie Morisot, 1874

Several months later, Monet released a new roster to the press. This time the list included Morisot, the first woman invited to join a circle of avant-garde painters who thought art should portray modern life rather than the biblical, mythological, and history themes favored by the Academy.

But how do you depict 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)

Like the other Impressionists, 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. What’s more, 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 figure and the background, Morisot became the first Impressionist to impress art critic Paul Mantz, who was known to be a guarded analyst.

If there is a single true Impressionist in the group, it is Berthe Morisot. Her paintings have all the freshness of improvisation.

Paul Mantz, “L’Exposition des peintres impressionnistes,” Le Temps, 1877

Morisot participated in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, missing just one due to the birth of her daughter. Yet she is less well-known than her colleagues, most of whom participated in fewer shows.

I should mention she painted mostly mothers, daughters, chaperones, and housekeepers, but for a good reason. Figure painting was a way to claim professional status in the late 1800s, when women were expected to paint flower arrangements and watercolor landscapes.

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

On occasion, she directed her gaze at a man. In Eugéne Manet on the Isle of Wight, the occasion is her honeymoon. Her newlywed husband is looking through a window at a 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 masked by a window rail. Is Morisot subtly expressing her own frustration with the male-dominated art establishment?

She must have had some sense that her work was being viewed through a gender lens. Monet painted an equal number of flowers and plants — maybe more — yet he was hailed as “original and vigorous.” Morisot’s work was described as “charming and delicate.” Dainty lady-painting.

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.

In a letter to her sister a few years later, Morisot regretted her own reluctance to compete in the art market. She never engaged a dealer to consistently sell her work. As a benchmark, the Durand-Ruel Gallery promoted 1,500 Renoirs and 1,000 Monets.

Even so, she was admired by her colleagues. A year after her unexpected death at the age of fifty-four, her friends Degas, Monet, Renoir, and poet Stéphane Mallarmé organized a memorial exhibition of 400 of her works.

Berthe Morisot, "Eugene Manet and His Daughter (1881)"
Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet and His Daughter (1881)

The show was the subject of more than thirty articles, most 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 1896 show remains the most complete retrospective ever devoted to Morisot.

And then her work began to disappear

In two of the most widely read histories of French Impressionism — those written 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 twenty-five percent of her work was in circulation because of her reluctance to compete in the art market. For nearly a century, eighty-five 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, Dallas, and Philadelphia. This exhibition confirmed her founding role in the Impressionist movement.

The received wisdom from Morisot’s career is all too familiar, if you’re a woman. Talent and hard work are never enough. We need to be more competitive in the marketplace, even if it means mastering some of the show-offy skills. We must remind ourselves, “I can do this,” even if we privately doubt that we can.

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

Postscript . . .

Now thru September 10th you can see Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England. This inspiring show, the first major U.K. exhibition of the artist since 1950, celebrates Morisot as a trailblazer of the avant-garde movement.