Who Are “Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism?

September 15, 2020

For centuries, the art created by women has been overshadowed and essentially ignored in favor of the domains of male artists. The reason for such a matrix is quite simple: patriarchy. However, with the sprawl of the second wave of feminism, a generation of women coming from various social sciences decided to become part of history and discover an astonishing legacy of female artists who very much participated in the development of modern art.

The most relevant text that changed this paradigm in the field of art history and laid the foundation for further research is certainly Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? written by Linda Nochlin in 1971, while another and equally important essay that is specifically focused on Impressionism, as technically the first modern art movement, is called Modernity and the spaces of femininity by Griselda Pollock.

This particular analysis was centered on the astounding and overtly forgotten painterly practices of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt who stood at the forefront of Impressionism. Championed for their innovative, modern depictions of women and the spaces they inhabited while claiming their autonomy, these two artists along with Marie Bracquemond formed an informal trinity described by Gustave Geffroy, the Parisian journalist, and early promoter of the movement, as "Les trois grande dames" of Impressionism.

The rest of this text will focus on the oeuvre of each artist, but before we come to that it is mandatory to note few facts relevant for the proper understanding of the social context of the time when the three women lived and worked.

How Women Impressionist Painters Came To Be

Namely, the 19th-century France was a highly patriarchal environment where young, unmarried girls were banned to leaving their home without a chaperone (they were expected to obtain the household or spend the time dealing with decorative arts in the company of other women), and a great majority of women were unable to obtain formal art education. Nevertheless, the ones privileged enough to study art adjusted the learned craft to their own devices by painting the portraits of their inmates and their everyday.

Although the paintings produced by the female Impressionists were perceived by the male critics as "feminine," their small canvases saturated with pastel palettes and loose brushstrokes reflect the first impulses of articulated demand for women’s emancipation. Truth to be told, looking from the contemporary stance the works of Morisot, Bracquemond, and Cassatt seem definitely more socially engaged then the ones by their male peers.

All the way throughout the 20th century, the domains of women Impressionists were undervalued by the historical canon, but thanks to the feminist intervention these bold women gradually gained a much deserved critical attention and further interest of the scholars.

  Editors’ Tip: Women Impressionists

This stunning 400-page compendium, published to accompany the important traveling exhibition which goes to San Francisco in the summer of 2008, corrects this longstanding oversight, presenting the pioneering painters Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, and Marie Bracquemond alongside each other for the first time, reproducing their oil paintings, pastels, watercolors, drawings and etchings and offering a cogent rebuttal of familiar Impressionist narratives.

Featured image: Mary Cassatt - In the Box, circa 1879. Oil on canvas, 17 in (43.1 cm) x 24 in (60.9 cm). Private collection. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Berthe Morisot

Perhaps the best positioned female artist in the Impressionist movement was Berthe Morisot. Her works were admired by Édouard Manet, her brother in law and the one who invited her to join the group. Before she officially started exhibiting in the Impressionist exhibitions, Morisot already painted innovative works featuring a modern woman.

Together with her sister Edma, the artist was tutored in arts privately by Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichard. While Edma departed from painting, Berthe continued and by 1864 she exhibited alongside very few women at the Salon de Paris. In 1874 she dismissed the mainstream and joined the ranks of the Impressionists, and participated in seven of their eight group shows.

Morisot passed away at the age of fifty-four of pneumonia, much earlier than her male peers. Nowadays cherished for her paintings, watercolors, and drawings representing women and children, Morisot is particularly saluted for the way she embraced and extended modernity on the bases of gender.

In 2018, kicking off at the Barnes Foundation and going on view subsequently at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie in Paris, and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, was a traveling exhibition of Morisot's works that put her on the map and made her name more famous around the world.

  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 Impressionist canon. Lush illustrations from throughout Morisot’s career 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, the critical reception of her work, the subjects and settings she 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 (portrait of Edma Morisot), 1873. Oil on fabric, 46 cm (18.1 in) x 71.8 cm (28.2 in). Collection Cleveland Museum of Art. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Bracquemond

The second female Impressionist from the three grand dames was Marie Bracquemond who had to struggle more than her peers due to the lack of financial support. The artist was mostly self-taught, although she took lessons at a private Parisian studio run by the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. After departing from this studio, Bracquemond started receiving commissions, including a painting of Cervantes in prison.

From 1864, she exhibited at the Salon on a regular basis, and under the influence of the Impressionists, her style changed much as her paintings grew larger and her colors more vibrant. Gradually, Bracquemond started painting plein air, and was mentored by Monet and Degas. She exhibited three times with the Impressionists, but due to the pressure imposed by her husband, the established painter and engraver Félix Bracquemond, she ultimately withdrew from art in 1890.

Featured image: Marie Bracquemond - On the Terrace at Sèvres, 1880. Oil on canvas, 88 cm (34.6 in) x 115 cm (45.2 in). Collection Musée du Petit Palais. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Cassatt

The founding member of the Impressionist movement and the only American, Mary Cassatt released an impeccable body of work that can be perceived as protofeminist, as the artist depicted women, as she once stated, as subjects, not object. She arrived in Europe from a privileged background in the States and was mentored by Jean-Léon Gérôme and Édouard Frère.

In 1874, Cassatt settled in Paris where she began exhibiting her works in the Salon. Three years later, Degas invited her to join the Impressionists, and she participated in four of the eight exhibitions. Cassatt acted as an independent and rather successful portrait artist and printmaker mostly focused on the depiction of the women’s spaces. Despite the fact she was fully committed to art without any desire to form a family, she explored continually the relationship between mothers and their children.

As a public persona, Cassatt stood boldly for women's equality, urging for equal travel scholarships for students, and the right to vote in the 1910s. Cassatt was the promoter of Impressionism and had a major role in introducing the new painterly tendency to American patrons through her family connections and personal friendships.

In 2016, Mary Cassatt had a grand retrospective at the Yokohama Museum of Art in Japan and has been performing well in auctions.

  Editors’ Tip: Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris

Acclaimed and beloved for her paintings of women and children in intimate, informal settings, Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) was the only American artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists in Paris. Cassatt celebrated women in an age of rapid female advancement, and she explained her affinity for depicting children, saying they are “natural and truthful,” two of the qualities that her generation of artists was energetically pursuing. This beautiful book, edited by a preeminent Cassatt scholar, brings together more than sixty important works that span the entirety of Cassatt’s career. Included here are works across all media in which Cassatt worked—oils, pastels, drawings, and prints—as well as numerous documentary sources that combine to convey a full and nuanced account of Cassatt as an American artist in Paris.

Featured image: Mary Cassatt - The Boating Party, 1893 - 1894. Oil on canvas, 900 mm (35.43 in) x 1,173 mm (46.18 in). Collection National Gallery of Art. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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