1841–1895 / French painter
In 1875, when the auctioneer at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris announced that the painting “Interieur” had been sold for the grand sum of 480 francs it must have been a moment of great personal satisfaction for 34-year-old Berthe Morisot. Not only had she outdone the undisputed star painter Édouard Manet, her painting was the highest selling piece of the entire impressionist auction.
As a founding member of the Impressionists – a pioneering group of painters that included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-August Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Mary Cassatt, Morisot enjoyed a high level of success and displayed countless pieces at seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. She regularly organized a jour fixe for the most important trailblazers of modern art on Thursday evenings at her home in Paris. Morisot’s career lasted 30 years, and she holds an undisputed position as a pioneer of impressionism and modern art.
Yet these days Morisot’s name is not well known outside France and expert circles. Portraits of Morisot painted by Manet are actually better known to a wider audience than Morisot’s own works. The fact that she sat for Manet so often has certainly affected Morisot’s reputation as an independent professional artist: her status as a female model came to overshadow her own artistic output.
For a long time, Morisot was falsely described as Manet’s pupil. Manet was certainly an inspiring painter to work with, but Morisot was already well represented at the Paris Salon before she even met Manet. Art historians should emphasize the influence there was in the other direction: Morisot had a significant impact on Manet’s choice of colours, inspiring him to select lighter and brighter hues.
Morisot was more radical and more modern than the more famous men she worked alongside. Within her dynamic paintings, as they became increasingly free and gestural, form dissipates – like Monet, she played with the boundaries of abstraction. However, contemporary critics judged her visionary painting style as “vague and irresolute”, suggesting “feminine hesitancy”. Her work, which boldly defied the art world’s rules, was repeatedly met with criticism: “One step further and I wouldn’t be able to make out anything at all.” When her male contemporaries broke the traditional “laws” of painting this was praised as a bold transgression, but in Morisot it was reviled as a weakness and a shortcoming. Such criticism was often accompanied by sexist imputations: “With her talent, why doesn’t she make the effort to finish her paintings? Berthe Morisot is a woman and therefore capricious. Like Eve, she takes one bite of the apple but then all too quickly abandons it. That’s a pity, as she bites very well,” wrote one critic in 1880.
Morisot was not deterred. She continued to paint even after marrying Eugène Manet (the brother of Édouard Manet) and giving birth to their daughter. About her role as a wife, she had this to say: “Men are inclined to believe that they fill all of one’s life, but as for me, I think that no matter how much affection a woman has for her husband, it is not easy for her to break with a life of work. […] For me, my work is the only purpose of my existence.” Morisot had a clear and determined professional goal, and that brought her success. This modern, freethinking pioneer of impressionism must now take her proper place in art history alongside the other, better-known impressionist painters.