Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a French painter who was one of the handful of female artists in the Impressionist group. Her oeuvre is largely made up of domestic scenes, many of which depict members of her own family, including her husband Eugène Manet and their daughter Julie. Scenes of street life and urban entertainment, which were depicted by many of her male colleagues, would have been off-limits to a respectable (and for much of her life, single) woman like Morisot. Nevertheless, she did also complete numerous scenes of outdoor middle-class leisure, such as Summer’s Day, one of her most famous paintings.
During her lifetime, Berthe Morisot outsold Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. However, her work has since tended to be overlooked in comparison to her contemporaries. In more recent years though, she has begun to recognised again as a leading Impressionist painter, so in that spirit, I’ve selected ten of her best artworks for discussion.
If you want to learn more about Berthe Morisot and her life, I would recommend the biography Berthe Morisot: The First Lady of Impressionism by Margaret Shennan. For the complete works of Morisot and high-quality digital reproductions of her most important pieces, Delphi’s Complete Paintings of Berthe Morisot is another great resource.
The Harbour at Lorient (1869)
This painting was completed whilst Berthe Morisot was spending the summer at the home of her sister Edma in Lorient, a town and seaport on the Brittany coast. Harbours, quays, and ports were popular motifs among the Impressionists, perhaps the most famous example being Claude Monet’s depiction of the port of Le Havre in Impression, Sunrise (1874). Indeed, Morisot herself completed numerous other paintings showing these motifs, such as The Port of Nice (1881-82).
This painting was a transitory piece for Morisot, completed as she was beginning to adopt Impressionism and develop her own unique style within it. Although the brushwork is much more controlled and precise than in her later works, it has areas that are more loosely painted, and was much brighter than most other contemporary paintings. Berthe Morisot worked closely with the famed painter Édouard Manet and in a letter to Edma, she wrote that he had seen her paintings from Lorient and declared them to be “masterpieces”. No doubt grateful for his admiration, Morisot gave The Harbour at Lorient to Manet as a present.
A View of Paris from the Trocadero (1871-72)
A View of Paris from the Trocadero underlines the dominant theme in Berthe Morisot’s artwork. That is, the domestic world of middle-class women and children, with which she herself was well-acquainted. Indeed, this painting represents a view of the city from the end of the street where her family home was located, and the three subjects – two fashionable ladies and a child – would have surely been either neighbours or relatives.
The Morisot home was in the chic western suburb of Passy, which was populated by wealthy Parisians, and seen as a healthy place in which to raise children because of its clean air and tranquillity. During the week, the men of Passy carried out their work in the city of Paris, meaning that the suburb was reserved principally for women and children, as is perhaps shown by this painting.
The viewpoint in this composition, between the Trocadero Gardens and the Bois de Boulogne, is similar to that in Édouard Manet’s View of the 1867 Exposition Universelle. However, the cityscape in Berthe Morisot’s painting is cleared of the exhibition buildings that dominated much of Manet’s canvas, and the Champ-de-Mars appears practically abandoned in comparison. Nevertheless, a number of Paris’s famous buildings are visible in the background, including the Palais d’Industrie, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the domes of the Pantheon and Les Invalides, the spires of Sainte Clotilde, and the church of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
The Cradle (1872)
Probably the most famous artwork by Berthe Morisot, The Cradle is an intimate portrait of the artist’s sister Edma with her new-born daughter Blanche. The composition is often noted for its successful capture of the harmony between the mother and child, which contributes to the tranquillity of this domestic scene. As Edma rests her head upon her hand to watch her child, a diagonal line is formed by her gaze, the bent arms of both subjects, and Blanche’s closed eyes. This line links the two, suggesting at the bond between Morisot’s sister and niece. The movement of the curtain, presumably in the breeze, runs parallel to this diagonal and accentuates it.
Similarly, Edma is shown drawing the translucent curtain of the cradle between her child and the painter/viewer, an act of protective love that makes the moment depicted by Morisot seem more tender and personal. The Cradle was shown at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, where it failed to make much of an impact with the viewing public, although it was praised by noteworthy critics for its elegance. Morisot made several attempt to sell the painting, but to no avail. It subsequently remained with her relatives until its acquisition by the Louvre in 1930.
In a Villa at the Seaside (1874)
Berthe Morisot made this painting whilst on a summer vacation in Normandy, where she and Edma stayed with Manet family. Indeed, it was during this trip that Morisot became engaged to Édouard Manet’s brother, Eugène. In this painting, she shows her sister sitting on a shaded terrace, as a visitor climbs up the stairs and her young daughter looks out over the wooden railing onto the beach below.
Edma is elegantly dressed in a long charcoal-black skirt, a shawl, a hat, and blue stockings. It’s likely that she wore so much clothing, at least in part, to protect herself from the sunlight, as being tanned was not considered fashionable in the 19th century. This also explains why her guest is carrying a parasol.
For In a Villa at the Seaside, Morisot used loose and sketchy brushwork and didn’t dwell on outlines and details. The subjects don’t appear posed or carefully positioned on the canvas, which creates a sense of spontaneity and allows us to perceive them as if we ourselves were in the scene. Along the theme of relaxed leisure, these features all indicate Morisot’s allegiance with the Impressionist movement.
Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875)
Buy a Canvas Print of Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight
This painting depicts Berthe Morisot’s husband, Eugène Manet, who she wed in 1874, on their honeymoon on the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel. It shows him sitting sideways on a chair in their cottage, looking out of a window at the women walking by a harbour of fishing boats. Showing both an indoor and an outdoor space, as she does in this composition, is a feature in numerous Morisot paintings, such as “Child in a Red Apron” (1886) and “The Artist’s Daughter, Julie, with her Nanny” (c.1884). Indeed, other Impressionists also explored the relationship between the interior and the exterior using the motif of the window, such as Gustave Caillebotte in “Young Man at his Window” (1876).
During her honeymoon, Morisot wrote to Edma about the difficulties she had painting Manet, telling her sister “This poor Eugene replaces you, but he’s a less compliant model”. This painting is sometimes noted for its fusion of both anxiety and happiness, with Eugène certainly appearing somewhat nervous as he gazes at the summery scene outside, the light from which pours into the room.
Woman at Her Toilette (1875-80)
With this composition, Morisot painted another intimate domestic scene, this time showing a fashion-conscious young lady doing her hair in front a mirror. The moment that is being captured by Morisot is rendered with rapid and feathery brushwork: the subject appears more sketched than precisely defined, and the wall behind is painted in an almost abstract manner that only just hints at a pattern on it.
These features mean that Woman at Her Toilette – like many other Morisot works – achieves the Impressionist ideal of capturing a single moment of modern life on the canvas. Indeed, Morisot signed the painting on the frame of the mirror, as if to suggest that this image on the canvas is just as fleeting and impermanent than that in the mirror. As well as the freer brushwork, the lighter colour palette used in this painting also reflects the artist’s developing style.
Berthe Morisot exhibited Woman at Her Toilette at the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, the same year that Édouard Manet displayed Before the Mirror – a painting with a similar composition – at the La Vie Moderne exhibition. Given the relationship between the two artists, it is certainly possible that Morisot saw Before the Mirror at Manet’s studio and was inspired to make her own version, or visa versa.
Young Girl in a Ball Gown (1879)
This painting was also exhibited at the 1880 Impressionist exhibition, where it was quickly brought the Italian painter Giuseppe de Nittis. It depicts a young woman in a ball gown sat in front of a backdrop of flowers and leaves, which has been painted with loose, rapid, and variegated brushstrokes. This greenery and flora also seems to echo the flowery trimmings on the subject’s gown, which serves to harmonise her with her background. It further hides the surroundings, and therefore creates a sense of intimacy that is typical of Morisot’s female portraits.
Young Girl in a Ball Gown draws comparisons with Mary Cassatt’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace in the Loge, another close-up portrait of a young lady in fashionable evening dress that was also painted in 1879. However, whilst Cassatt’s subject seems relaxed and cheerful, there is a feeling of ambivalence in Morisot’s painting. Her subject seems nervous, but is also slightly smiling as she looks at something or someone beyond the edges of the canvas.
Summer’s Day (c.1879)
It is believed that this painting was exhibited under the title “The Lake in the Bois de Boulogne” at the Impressionist exhibition in 1880, alongside another Morisot canvas called “In the Bois de Boulogne”, which features the same two women in the same clothes. The Bois de Boulogne was close to Morisot’s home in the Parisian suburb of Passy, and she regularly painted there. In the 1850s, the Bois had been transformed from a forest and royal hunting reserve into a recreational area, where suburbanites could enjoy a variety of activities such as boating, as shown in Summer’s Day.
The painting’s theme of middle-class leisure was certainly not uncommon among the Impressionists, but Morisot’s distinctive painting style make this composition stand-out among the artwork of her colleagues. Her repeated zig-zagged brushwork gives the piece a dynamic and shimmering characteristic, and almost dissolves the two subjects and their surroundings.
Morisot is also effective in using the same brushwork to delineate the women and their environment, allowing them to be integrated with one another. Similarly, she creates another intimate composition by presenting the women close-up, and by pushing the horizon towards the top edge of the canvas to tightly crop the scene.
Eugène Manet and his Daughter in the Garden (1883)
This painting shows the daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet, Julie, who was born in November 1878 and was to be the only child that the couple had. The setting is the garden of the estate in Bougival, a western suburb of Paris, where they were living in the summer of 1883. Eugène is shown wearing a straw hat and an artist’s smock, looking up from his reading. Julie, in a summer dress, remains absorbed in watching her red toy boat drift on the pond. Perhaps because this painting does show such a private moment, Morisot never had it exhibited during her lifetime.
This painting is one by numerous artworks by Morisot that is set in a garden, others including A Woman and a Child in a Garden (c.1883-84) and Woman in a Garden (1882/3). Indeed, the garden was a common motif among the Impressionists, and was frequently depicted as a setting for relaxed leisure, such as in Luncheon on the Grass (1865-66) by Claude Monet, and A Corner of the Garden at the Hermitage, Pontoise by Camille Pissarro (1877).
In this painting, Berthe Morisot draws upon the tradition of the self-portrait of the artist, showing herself equipped with a palette and brush. She created this work when she was 44, presenting herself in a much different manner than Édouard Manet did in his seductive portraits of her, such as that of 1872.
She paints herself with greying hair and a more aged complexion, but shows herself nevertheless as resolute and stolid, looking straight on in the direction of the viewer. Indeed, this self-portrait of a female artist at work could be seen as something of a statement, given that the École des Beaux-Arts was still open only to men (until 1897), and painting was considered a hobby for women, not a profession. In this composition, Morisot’s painting style verges towards abstraction, much like that in Portrait Of Berthe Morisot And Her Daughter (1885), in which her swift brushwork is even more economic.
In her lifetime, Berthe Morisot created five self-portraits; this one (shown above) is the only one in which she paints herself alone, in the role of the artist. In the other four, she shows herself with her daughter, in the role of the mother.
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