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PHILADELPHIA — French painter Berthe Morisot made her marks more than a century ago. Celebrated as an Impressionist in her time — she exhibited in seven of the eight impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886 — Morisot is not nearly recognized enough, often lumped together with her American contemporary Mary Cassatt.
A major exhibition on view at the Barnes Foundation through January presents a chance to understand the qualities that made Morisot’s success possible: prodigious talent, an affluent and supportive family, top-notch training and determination, the courage to be different, and being part of an influential circle.
At a time when opportunities for women in art are still a fraction of those for male artists — curator Sylvie Patry notes upfront in the accompanying catalogue that the Guerrilla Girls’ 1989 question “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” still applies — the exhibition hopes to reassert Morisot’s place as an essential, even revolutionary figure in the Impressionist movement. Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, which opened in Quebec and travels to Dallas and Paris after Philadelphia, is the first major Morisot exhibition in the US in 31 years. (If the title sounds somewhat awkward, Patry defends it: “With this title we refer [to] a given and historical framework, where it can’t be denied that being a woman artist has had an impact on her career and on her posthumous recognition.”)
“I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked for — I know I am worth as much as they are.” Morisot’s wrote in her diary in 1890, frustrated at not being as well known as her colleagues Renoir, Monet, Degas, and Manet.
Morisot grew up in a bourgeois household. Her mother and father, an architect and high-ranking government official, enrolled Berthe and her sister Edma at the Louvre for drawing lessons, and later to study under landscape painter Camille Corot, who encouraged direct observation of nature. The senior Morisots even built a studio for their daughters.
Both sisters aspired to become professionals, making their public debut at the Paris Salon of 1864, but Edma ultimately gave up her art to marry. Meanwhile, Berthe met Édouard Manet, for whom she modeled, and became part of the Parisian avant-garde, the only woman to show with the group of Impressionists — thus named for their “unpolished” and seemingly “unfinished” work — in their first exhibition. She modeled for 11 paintings, and met Manet’s brother, Eugène, also an artist, marrying him at 33 — an age then considered to be an old maid. Eugène, too, gave up his artistic practice (he worked for the French Ministry of Justice), dedicating himself to Berthe’s career. He is the only man depicted in her paintings, often in a domestic space with their daughter Julie.
Many of the women featured in Morisot’s paintings are performing actions typical for women of a certain social strata of the era: needlework, mothering, gazing out a window, holding fans or parasols, looking beautiful in their finery — the work during her time and through the 1980s was often labeled as “charming,” “elegant,” “delicate,” and “feminine painting.” Yet what distinguishes Morisot’s subjects is that they are often outdoors. She painted en plein air at a time when it was common to simply sketch in the field and complete the work in the studio.
Two images of Morisot show her independence. In one photo, she is seated on a tufted velvet chair with long fringe, wearing an elegant black dress with ruffles and train, lacy gloves up to her elbows and a ribbon at her neck. She is frilly in black, yet her face looks determined; she is not one to let fancy attire get in the way of her work. In an 1885 self-portrait, she is stylishly dressed right up to the way the scarf at her neck is tied. Holding brush and palette, she is presenting herself as a working woman with a sense of fashion, and demonstrating the two are not mutually exclusive.
While on a honeymoon at the English seaside, Morisot wrote in a letter to her sister: “Nothing is nicer than the children in the streets, bare-armed, in their English clothes.”
One senses that despite her interest in Parisian fashion, Morisot longed to remove the frills and play outside with messy materials. She was torn between the indoors and outdoors, the domestic and the wild. Many of her paintings depict the greenery of the natural world through windows in lush interiors.
Morisot paints her husband, dapperly dressed in straw hat, leaning against an ornate chair to look outside a window — behind the gauzy curtains and potted plants on the windowsill is a garden, a fence, and a well-dressed woman and girl walking along the seaside. Behind them are boats, suggesting these women may be going places while the man stays at home. In it she remains true to the tradition of painting lavish interiors while letting her spirit roam free.
Yet unlike many Impressionist painters who depicted women as ornamental, a part of the decoration, Morisot set her eye on working women — the cooks, the maids, the nannies and governesses who made it possible for her to work. In a rented country house in Bougival, she painted a washerwoman, hanging large white sheets. These white clothes billowing in the fresh air, with brushstrokes to suggest their drapery, could easily be abstract paintings.
For most of her working life, Morisot did not even have a studio of her own. She painted in parks and gardens, and in her own bedroom she painted scenes of the “toilette” — women getting dressed, surrounded by mirrors, wallpaper patterns, and light filtering through curtains. She rarely painted nudes, but when she did it was often a modest view from behind.
During her married life, Morisot painted in her parlor, moving her work behind the furniture when domestic life intervened. She painted her daughter and nieces playing music or other scenes in the parlor — her life was her studio. When her husband Eugène died, Morisot moved to an apartment and converted the servant quarters to a studio. “I am approaching the end of my life, and yet I am still a mere beginner,” she wrote to Edma in 1890. Although only 54 when she died of influenza, Morisot saw many of those close to her dying.
As an upper-middle-class woman, she didn’t need to aggressively sell her work. In her lifetime, she had only one solo exhibition and sold fewer than 40 paintings. Nevertheless, she was bought by important collectors of the time, including her friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and worked with leading dealers Alfred Cadart and Paul Durand-Ruel. Yet at her death, 85% of her catalogued paintings remained in the family’s possession. Her daughter, Julie, also a painter and orphaned at 16, made it her life’s work to continue promoting her mother’s work. Julie Manet made loans and gifts to museums, and played a key role in the organization of solo exhibitions.
Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist comes at a time when there is renewed institutional respect for her work, as museums are just beginning to acquire it.
Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, co-curated by Sylvie Patry of the Musee d’Orsay, and Nicole Myers of the Dallas Museum of Art, continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia) through January 14, 2019.