Not much has been written in English about the life and work of French painter Berthe Morisot.
She was born in 1841 in Bourges into a wealthy and educated family. Her father was Tiburce Morisot, a government official, and her mother, Marie Cornelie, married him when she was sixteen. Berthe had two sisters and a brother. It was her sister Edma who became very close to her in their formative years.
When Berthe was sixteen, her mother Cornélie decided all her daughters should be able to draw. She took them to an unknown drawing teacher named Geoffrey Alphonse Chocarne, who gave the young ladies their first lessons. That was a very common activity for wealthy young ladies, and Berthe most likely was taught a second language and classical literature by her governess and her mother. Besides painting, Berthe took piano lessons and studied etiquette. At the time, being occupied with household chores in the morning and running errands in the afternoon was part of the female world. Upper middle class women occupied themselves with domestic frivolities. Since a young lady’s beautiful and elegant appearance was essential to that society.
In Berthe Morisot’s biography, author Anne Higonnet writes, “Each of the nineteenth century woman’s multiple daily occupations required a special outfit, functionally appropriate, of course, but more important signifying that duties were being fulfilled and rank maintained.”
Berthe and Edma Moriset decided that their lessons with Chocarne were tedious. Their older sister Yves chose sewing over drawing. Their mother switched them to a painter named Joseph Guichard, who lived just down their street. In 1857, after a few painting lessons with his new students, Guichard introduced Berthe and Edma to the Louvre Museum in Paris. During the first year, they learned by looking at paintings and then later by copying them. At that time, it was common knowledge that any aspiring painter had to go to the Louvre and copy the old Masters.
In the book Berthe Morisot, Anne Higonnet writes, “Berthe worked from Titian, Veronese and Rubens, indicating a decided preference for those models then considered primary colorists. On the days set aside for copying, the halls of the Louvre were thronged with painters young and old, both man and women. For if virtually all “original” professional painters were then men, many women made their living copying masterpieces, not as lessons but as products for sale. The Louvre was the most open art school of all, a place where students of many persuasions could watch and meet each other. All the copyists’ work was out on their easels, proclaiming their interests and their talent. For Edma and Bertha, trained in seclusion, the Louvre meant exposure not only to painting’s history but suddenly to the other art student’s of Paris.”
By 1860, Berthe Morisot had decided she was not satisfied with her teacher Guichard, and she wanted to paint outdoors. Berthe Morisot painted “plein air” (outside), before any of the future Impressionists.
Berthe Morisot was only nineteen when she and her sister were introduced to Camille Corot. He very much liked painting on the banks of the Oise River, near their house, and was the kind of teacher who gave them their own creative space. It might have been because they were young ladies, and he didn’t want to impose his own view too strongly on them. Corot was known by the Parisian avant-garde for challenging the art standards of the Académie des Beaux Arts.
The Morisot family was happy to have Corot, along other artists, writers and musicians, as part of their social soirees. They held these every Tuesday, so that their daughters could advance in their careers and social lives.
Edma and Berthe Morisot continued to paint at the Louvre. In 1864, they decided they were ready to submit their work to the Salon. This was a prestigious event held every spring in Paris and judged by professional luminaries, mostly members of the Academy or other official art institutes. Even Corot, their teacher, had been rejected many times in his youth.
Berthe was accepted in 1865 for the first time, and subsequently almost every year after that. As both sisters continued to paint at the Louvre with their mother chaperoning them, they inevitably acquainted themselves with many fellow painters, such as Edouard Manet, who was introduced to them in 1868 by their friend Fantin-Latour. A great friendship between the two families developed.
The Manets and the Morisots were alike in many ways. Anne Higonnet writes in Berthe Morisot, “Both mothers were pillars of grand-bourgeois domesticity: model wives, mothers, and hostesses. Their children were about the same age and had cultural interests in common. The 1868 encounter was therefore as much one between two compatible families as between Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.”
The soirees took place in the homes of both families and allowed the sisters to meet a large number of painters and other new acquaintances. These gatherings were where new ideas and trends came to life.
A year after meeting the Manets, Edma got married to Adolphe Pontillon, changing forever her relationship with Berthe, who felt very lonely, insecure and abandoned. It took Berthe a long time to readjust.
Many letters were exchanged between them in which Edma seemed to reminisce about her life as a painter while Berthe discussed her own situation as a young, single woman.
They both realized that marriage and maternity were not really compatible with a career in painting.
Berthe became a closer friend to Eduard Manet, who expressed his opinions about her work, sometimes putting in final touches or telling her that her work looked unfinished.
In letters to her sister, Berthe explained how submitting her work to the Salon in 1870 caused her to feel accomplished professionally, but at the same time, miserable and anxious because she was not sure of herself.
In 1873 at age 32, Berthe Morisot wrote that she was reading Darwin. This was considered unsuitable for a woman, especially an unmarried one.
It was around this time that Eugene Manet became more alluring to her as a prospective-spouse. After all the negative press on Morisot’s work by the critics, Eugene became more devoted and supportive of her work. They had been friends for many years and he wooed her with letters, companionship and constructive criticism of her paintings.
Berthe was thirty-three years old when they got married. In a letter to her brother, she describes Eugene Manet as an excellent man who sincerely loves her.
The wedding was a civil ceremony and not ostentatious. She wore a plain dress since she was an older woman.
They spent the next four years, traveling, painting together, and enjoying marital bliss. Manet’s mother wasn’t very keen on Eugene’s choice for a wife, but all was forgiven and forgotten when, in 1876, Berthe gave birth to their daughter Julie.
She had kept a distance from the Impressionists group meetings and avoided participating in making any political decisions. Degas seemed too demanding and not very diplomatic or popular, mainly because he kept the policy of not accepting applications from painters who also wanted to exhibit at the Salon. But now being a young mother and dedicating herself to her family, Berthe withdrew from the second exhibit for the Impressionists. More then fifthteen thousand people showed up to the exhibit, and even though there were still negative reviews from the critics, painters were able to sell their works. The exhibit was finally a financial success.
Berthe Morisot wrote in her journals that she wanted to fully dedicate herself to her work and family. For that she allowed less people and social events into her life.
Just as her mother had done, she taught Julie, her daughter, to write and paint and disapproved of sending her for formal school education.
The family left Paris on summers and visited with relatives in the countryside. Berthe would spend some time sketching and painting outdoors, and her daughter Julie would busy herself with her cousins.
During their marriage, her husband Eugene dedicated himself to helping Berthe with painting sales, and exhibitions. Her main focus in painting became domestic life and the world of a woman. She painted Julie many times, as well as other female relatives. Her husband also posed as a model for several sketches and paintings along with Julie.
By the time Julie was 10, Berthe had lost her dearest friend, Edouard Manet. The death of Edouard’s brother Gustave, and a few months later, their mother, Mrs. Manet, followed this tragedy.
After all, life expectancy at the end of the 19th century was less then 45 years for a white male in Europe. Eugene, Berthe’s husband, was no exception. When he reached his mid fifties he became ill and never recovered. He died in 1892.
Berthe became a widow at age 51, and by her writings, expressed deep unhappiness with the losses in her life.
She moved to a smaller house and dedicated Thursday evenings to visits and soirees with her very close friends, Degas, Mallarmmé, Renoir, Mary Cassatt and many others. Anne Higonnet writes in Berthe Morisot, “Work, concerts, theater, and dinners visits to and from old friends - the rhythm of the year before resumed. Morisot was producing more pictures then ever. She painted everyday, concentrating, never satisfied with what she had done, always striving toward an ideal”.
Her life went on like that for three years after she became a widow.
On February 1895, Berthe Morisot became ill. She caught a cold that turned into pneumonia.
A short time later, Berthe Morisot passed away. Her dearest sister Edma was there, holding her hand.
Berthe Morrisot was buried at the Passy cemetery, next to Eugene and Edouard Manet. Morisot left her own paintings to her closest friends, who she hoped would always remember her. After her death her, name and achievements faded gradually away. Nearly a century passed before Berthe Morisot came to light as a pioneer in the history of women in the arts.