Artist Profile: Berthe Morisot
Of all artists, Morisot's work feels most like my own. Yet, until about seven years ago, I had only seen two or three of her paintings. Prior to that time, most of her work could not be seen by the general public - it was either in private collections, or simply had not been illustrated in a published book. Since much of her work is not located in museums, it did not get the great exposure that her fellow Impressionists received. I believe that it was also due to the fact that she was a female artist; women artists were simply not researched or documented as much as male artists until fairly recently, when more women entered the field of art history and began doing so. What I had seen of her work, I liked, and I looked for books and catalogs of her work, to no avail, until 1994. At that time, a major show of her work was held at Mount Holyoke College, and a catalog was published, as well as a video with a guided tour of the show, and a personal history of the artist. Since then, more excellent, illustrated books have been published about Morisot.
When I saw more of her work, I was blown away, not only by the amazing quality of her painting, but also because I had been painting many years without knowing that my work was so much like hers. I had admired the Impressionists for so long, and studied their work; but her work held a special place for me. She painted at times in a very loose manner, almost anticipating the gestural painting of the 20th century - much looser, more painterly, than Monet, Renoir or Cezanne - big, bold, almost slashing, strokes, of bright and rich color. Her work also has a very delicate quality, a tenderness, like a tiny, clear bell.

She was born in France in 1841, into a family of a high social class. She and her sister, Edma, were reared with the requisite social and feminine-skill education - needlepoint, drawing, etc., intended to make them more suited to a life of cultivated domesticity (marriage). However, Berthe and Edma took their drawing seriously, much to their mother's dismay. Edma continued her art-making until she was married. Berthe did not marry young, and continued her artwork throughout her life.
Both sisters studied with Corot, the well-known French landscape painter. He was one of the influences on the Impressionists; he painted landscapes which were full of light, and compared to the highly refined studio work of the official French Academy of the time, full of spontaneity and color. Morisot's painting began somewhat in the manner of Corot. Living in Paris, she was exposed to new artistic ideas; in particular, her family had some guests who were knowledgeable in this area. She became acquainted with the new ideas of Edouard Manet, who was becoming well known (and often infamous) for his new, bold work which challenged the smooth finish of Academy art. She eventually became friends with Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir and others in the Impressionist circle, and was influenced by their ideas on painting in plein air, and breaking up the painting surface into dabs of pure color, as opposed to smooth modeling of forms. She became part of the Impressionist group, as they mounted their own exhibitions, since they were usually rejected from the annual official French Salon. She did continue to show her work at the Salon, however. At this time, women were prohibited from doing many things,  from custom, such as working from the nude model. In addition, women in Morisot's social class were not permitted to go freely where they wished, as could men; they had to have a chaperone. So she was not included in the sessions in the cafes, where the male artists met and discussed the new ideas in art. Yet, her work was respected and admired by the Impressionists.
Many times throughout art history, the work of female artists was treated in certain ways. For one, it was (and sometimes still is) described in "feminine" terms: graceful, delicate, etc. For another, a woman was often described in terms of a male artist with whom she had a relationship, as wife, lover, daughter, or student; for instance, if a male and female artist were married, or friends, the male artist was often labeled as the mentor, and the woman artist was the one in the subordinate, student role. This was pretty much assumed. So, for instance, since Degas and Mary Cassatt were friends, he is usually assigned the role of the mentor, she the student. In Morisot's case, she and the painter Manet were acquaintances; he painted her several times, he looked at her work often; so, he is sometimes considered the influence on her painting. (In one instance, he actually picked up a brush and made "revisions" to one of her paintings, which mortified her.) He did actually admire her work, however, as did Monet and the other Impressionists; the Impressionists particularly admired her ability to paint in a free, spontaneous manner.

She eventually married Edouard Manet's brother, Eugene, an amateur painter. They had a child, Julie. Morisot continued to paint seriously, which she tried to downplay in the presence of her social peers, as it was considered very unusual and a social no-no for a woman to have a serious profession, particularly one so "questionable" as artist.
She often had doubts about her abilities as a painter; yet she continued to paint, and her work continued to progress amazingly. She painted the scenes she was most often in: domestic interiors, portraits of family, and local landscapes with family figures. They have the glorious sunshine of the Impressionists, combined with a very loose handling, and bold and unusual color relationships, and bold compositions. She also continued to show and be friends with the Impressionists. Her work is amazing for its loose perfection - that is, in spite of her free handling of the paint, she managed to use the strokes economically - and just the right kind and color stroke was used - and in her best work, not an extraneous stroke to be found. The strokes themselves are sometimes calligraphic and lyrical, and have a beautiful abstract identity of their own, aside from the objects or figures they are describing.
Her husband, Eugene, died rather young, leaving her heartbroken. A few years later, she herself became ill and died. She wrote a note to her daughter, Julie, telling her how much she loved her (her "bibi") just before she died. She perhaps thought that her work would not be known to many people in the future, that it was only mediocre. She couldn't have been further from the truth. See Berthe Morisot's work, and study her fine brushwork and color sense, as well as her poetic lyricism with figures, still life and landscape.
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Nancy Doyle
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