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It is Time to Talk About Berthe Morisot, An Important Woman Impressionist

  • Berthe Morisot - Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873
November 4, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

Considered the first distinctly modern movement in art, Impressionism rejected all the rules about naturalism and realism in painting, paving the way for the modernist styles that followed. At the time shunned by powerful academic art institutions, artists such as Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley are now regarded as revolutionaries who had changed the course or art history. On the other hand, Berthe Morisot, one of the founding members of the movement, is not as well-known today as her male Impressionist colleagues. Celebrated in her time as the leader of the movement, Morisot’s work today remains under-recognized.

The work of Berthe Morisot is now on view in a major and long-overdue exhibition at Barnes Foundation. Titled Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, the show explores the significant yet under-appreciated contributions of this seminal impressionist artist, providing an insight into a defining chapter in art history.

In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875
Berthe Morisot – In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875. Oil on canvas. Musée Marmottan Monet, Denis and Annie Rouart Foundation. Photo by Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.

The Practice of Berthe Morisot

The participants of the second Impressionist exhibition which took place in 1876 in Paris was described by a critic as “five or six lunatics, one of which is a woman.” This woman was no other than Berthe Morisot, who despite the norms of her time became an important member of the Parisian avant-garde in the late 1860s.

Although Berthe Morisot was barred by social conventions from pursuing the same subject matter as her male counterparts, particularly the seedier aspects of Paris urban life such as cabarets, cafés, bars, and brothels, the French artist is often described as a visual poet of womanhood and the female experience like perhaps no other painter before or since. Berthe Morisot also explored a range of themes of modern life that came to define impressionism, such as the intimacy of contemporary bourgeois living and leisure activities, the importance of fashion and the toilette, and women’s domestic work, all while blurring the lines between interior and exterior, public and private, finished and unfinished.

The French painter was celebrated for the loosest, least finished-looking technique of all impressionists which seems indefinite at first glance but invites the viewer for contemplation. Full of color and light, her paintings demonstrate the artist’s remarkable mastery of capturing fleeting shades and shadows.

Her husband Eugène Manet, the brother of Édouard Manet, was a great support throughout her career. For her talent and skills, Berthe Morisot was loved by the public and greatly respected and admired and treated as equal by her male colleagues, by whom Morisot is today greatly overshadowed in art history.

Berthe Morisot - Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-1880, National Gallery
Berthe Morisot – Woman at Her Toilette, 1875–1880. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago, Inv. no. 1924.127. Photo courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY.

The Long-Overdue Survey

The exhibition Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist will provide a unique opportunity for the public to experience a collection of Morisot’s work in the context of Barnes’s extensive collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modernist paintings. Introducing an important new scholarship, the exhibition will both illuminate and reassert the artist’s role as an essential figure within this revolutionary movement.

Focusing on the artist’s figure paintings and portraits, the exhibition will bring together a collection of around 70 paintings from public and private collections on view. As co-curator Sylvie Patry explained, Morisot was at the heart of the movement but has historically enjoyed far less acclaim than her male counterparts.

Through this landmark exhibition, together with colleagues at our partner museums around the world, we are thrilled to bring renewed international attention to the significant work of Morisot.

Self-Portrait, 1885, Winter, 1880
Left: Berthe Morisot – Self-Portrait, 1885. Oil on canvas. Musée Marmottan Monet, Denis and Annie Rouart Foundation. Photo courtesy Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images / Right: Berthe Morisot – Winter, 1880. Oil on canvas. Dallas Museum of Art, Gift of the Meadows Foundation, Incorporated, 1981.129. Photo courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

Themes of the Show

Organized semi-chronologically, the exhibition Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist explores several periods and themes in Berthe Morisot’s short but productive career. The introductory section titled Becoming an Artist explores the artist’s formative years where the French painter transpired as a key contributor to the emerging impressionist movement in the late 1960s and early 1870s. Continuing to the section titled Painting the Figure en plein air, the audience will have an opportunity to see the collection of Morisot’s country and coastal scenes which integrate her subjects within their environment in an innovative way. The section titled Fashion, Femininity and la Parisienne highlights the importance of fashion in constructing modern femininity forms in the works created between the 1870s and 1880s.

Morisot’s depictions of female domestic servants, which raise questions about bourgeois living and the intimacy of the shared domestic setting, could be seen in the section titled Women at Work. The exhibition will also include works which showcase the artist’s radical experimentation with the concept of finished and unfinished in her work, on view in the section by the same name, Finished/Unfinished. In the section Windows and Thresholds, the audience will have an opportunity to see works which show Morisot’s interest in liminal spaces and her masterful evocation of light and atmosphere. Lastly, the section A Studio of Her Own features Morisot’s late-career paintings from the 1890s which often depict her personal domestic space, which served as both studio and setting.

The Garden at Maurecourt, about 1884
Berthe Morisot – The Garden at Maurecourt, about 1884. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1930.9. Photo courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.

Berthe Morisot Exhibition at Barnes Foundation

The exhibition Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist will be on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA until January 14th, 2019.

The Berthe Morisot exhibition is organized by the Barnes Foundation, Dallas Museum of Art, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, and the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris. It is co-curated by Sylvie Patry, Consulting Curator at the Barnes Foundation and Chief Curator/Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Collections at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and Nicole R. Myers, The Lillian and James H. Clark Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art.

After Barnes, the Berthe Morisot exhibition will tour to Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas and Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2019.

  Editors’ Tip: Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist

Accompanying a major traveling exhibition, this comprehensive volume examines Berthe Morisot’s remarkable body of work, painterly innovations, and leading role within the canon of Impressionism. Lush illustrations from throughout the career of Berthe Morisot depict her daring experimentations and her embrace of modern subjects in the city and at the seaside: fashionable young women, and intimate, domestic interiors. Texts examine her in the context of her contemporaries such as Monet, Manet and Renoir, the critical reception of her work, the subjects and settings Morisot chose, and the state of Morisot scholarship. Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist makes an important contribution to the field, with never-before-published letters, interdisciplinary scholarship, and a specific focus on Morisot’s pioneering developments as a painter first, woman second.

Featured image: Berthe Morisot – Reading (The Green Umbrella), 1873. Oil on fabric, Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1950.89. Photo © Cleveland Museum of Art.