Impressionism, a radical movement in the world of painting, has left an indelible mark on the modern art landscape. Known for their unique style and knack for capturing fleeting moments of nature, the Impressionist painters also made waves for their inclusion of women as subjects in their artworks. Among them, Berthe Morisot stood as the first female painter to make a prominent impact in the world of Impressionism.
A Painter Emerges
Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bruges, a commune in the Gironde department of southwestern France. At the age of 11, she relocated to Paris with her family, where she embarked on her artistic journey. Morisot received art lessons from Joseph Guichard, a French painter, who not only honed her expertise but also introduced her to influential artists like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Édouard Manet, who would later become her brother-in-law.
During her time as a copyist at the Louvre, Morisot encountered other artists who shaped her artistic development. In the mid-1860s, she joined a group of talented Parisian painters, further enriching her skills and expanding her horizons.
Édouard Manet invited Morisot to model for his work, “El Balcón” (The Balcony), in 1868. She was the one sitting.
Joining the Impressionists
From 1864 to 1873, Morisot witnessed the triumph of traditional painting at the Paris Salons, the annual exhibition organized by the Academy of Fine Arts. The Salons showcased works steeped in conventional themes such as epics, myths, and allegories, with a touch of realism. However, Morisot yearned for something different.
Determined to break free from tradition, Morisot embarked on a series of experiments, often blending watercolors, oil paints, and pastels on her canvases. She increasingly found joy in painting en plein air, or outdoors. This stylistic transition led her to part ways with the Paris Salons and join the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs.
In 1874, Morisot and other like-minded painters, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro, held their first independent exhibition. Among Morisot’s exhibited works was “The Cradle,” an oil painting that would go on to become the highlight of her career.
Berthe Morisot, “The Cradle” (1872)
While the exhibition received mixed reviews, with one critic comparing Monet’s iconic Impressionist piece, “Sunrise,” to a low-level mural, Morisot’s “The Cradle” garnered high praise for its fluidity and feminine essence.
The Feminine Style
Throughout her artistic career, Morisot was renowned for her daring and innovative approach. Her works exuded femininity through two key characteristics: a neutral color palette and a skillful technique.
Morisot’s preference for neutral pastel colors, particularly white, created an ethereal effect in her works. Her portraits often portrayed characters with porcelain-white skin, while her landscapes, such as “Hanging the Clothes to Dry,” featured a dreamy pink sky.
Berthe Morisot, “Hanging the Clothes to Dry” (1875)
Contemporary painters and critics appreciated Morisot’s delicate use of color. French art critic Philippe Burty commented in 1877, “Morisot is a master of color, successfully blending shades of white to create unified harmony in her work.”
Graceful Drawing Style
In addition to her mastery of color, Morisot’s approach to her subjects and her technique of using pastel colors played a pivotal role in her success. Art critic Georges Rivière shared in 1877, “Morisot’s paintings possess a rustic charm and an allure that not many can achieve.” She had an uncanny ability to capture precious moments with wit, enthusiasm, and professional competence. Morisot had truly asserted her position in the world of Impressionist painting.
Berthe Morisot, “The Cherry Picker” (1891)
The Musée Marmottan beautifully describes Morisot as a painter in the liberal style. Her works capture the essence of various themes, including joyous scenes in Normandy, warm seascapes, the bustling streets of the South of France, and the playful innocence of children in blossoming gardens.
Late Career and Legacy
In the later stages of her career, Morisot continued to refine and develop the distinctive “female” style she had forged from her early days. In the 1880s, she embraced the use of cropping, inspired by the advent of photography. Drawing inspiration from the Japanese ukiyo-e paintings, Morisot introduced contours into her works in the 1890s. Despite her experimental nature, she remained faithful to the pastel colors and the elegant drawing style characteristic of Impressionism.
Berthe Morisot, “Before the Mirror” (1890)
While Berthe Morisot’s talent may not be as widely known as that of her male contemporaries, experts have acknowledged her as one of the leading figures in late 19th-century Impressionism. Together with Mary Cassatt, she is honored as one of the greatest painters of all time.
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