Impressionism – Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872
Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872

If you’ve been following my modern art blogs, you’ll notice that this the first time I’ve included a woman artist. It’s from about this time that it’s a little easier to find records of female painters – and for the rest of this blog series (and in my on-line interactive program) you will see a number of artists whom you may not have heard of, even though they were painting and exhibiting with their male counter-parts.

One of the most well known female Impressionists is Berthe Morisot. After receiving private art tuition, and copying artworks from the Louvre, she registered as a copyist with the Louvre, where she met Realist painter Camille Corot, who encouraged her to paint en plein air. In 1864 two of her landscape paintings were exhibited at the Salon de Paris, and she subsequently showed regularly at the Salon until the Impressionist exhibitions.

In 1868 Morisot became friends with Édouard Manet, who painted several portraits of her, and who is also regarded as having a strong influence on her work. In return, Manet appreciated Morisot’s distinctive original style and compositions, some of which he incorporated into his own work, and it was Morisot who persuaded him to attempt plein air painting. It was also Morisot who introduced Manet to the Impressionist circle of painters, where she was one of the most prolific artists.

She was the only woman to exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition (in 1874), and then continued to show in the next seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions (only missing the  exhibition the year when her daughter was born, in 1878). Also unusual for her time,  Morisot continued to paint professionally after her marriage (to Manet’s brother) and the birth of her only child. Her daughter Julie was the subject of many of her artworks.

During her early Impressionist period her works were almost always small in scale. She worked in oil paint, watercolours, or pastel, and sketched using various drawing media.  From about 1880, when her brushstrokes became looser, she evoked a greater sense of freedom in her works. She was also known for creating a sense of space and depth through her use of colour, albeit with a limited colour palette.

Like most woman artists of her time, her subject matter generally reflected the cultural restrictions on her gender and she often painted domestic scenes.

Her subjects were often posed outdoors, enveloped by sunlight.  She insisted on the “interiority” of her images and refused to include the intrusion of background detail into the very private and intimate study she was portraying. Morisot was concerned with “self” not the interaction of “self” and its environment.   The outer edges of her paintings were often left unfinished, allowing the canvas to show through and increasing the sense of spontaneity.

As one critic noted at the time, “Her painting has all the frankness of improvisation; it truly is the impression caught by a sincere eye and accurately rendered by a hand that does not cheat.”

In my next few blogs, you’ll see more woman Impressionists.

This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program

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