How the great Monet's girlfriend blurred the boundaries between masculine and feminine: The underestimated founder of impressionism Berthe Morisot
How the great Monet's girlfriend blurred the boundaries between masculine and feminine: The underestimated founder of impressionism Berthe Morisot

Less famous than male colleagues such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas or Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot is one of the founders of Impressionism. A close friend of Edouard Manet, she was one of the most innovative impressionists. Bertha, undoubtedly, was not destined to become an artist. Like any other young lady from high society, she had to enter into a profitable marriage. Instead, she chose a different path and became a famous Impressionist figure.

Berthe was born in 1841 in Bourges, one hundred and fifty miles south of Paris. Her father, Edmé Tiburs Morisot, worked as prefect of the Cher department in the Center-Val-de-Loire region. Her mother, Marie Josephine Cornelia Thomas, was the niece of Jean-Honore Fragonard, a renowned Rococo artist. Bertha had a brother and two sisters, Tibuurs, Yves and Edma. The latter shared the same passion for painting as her sister. While Bertha was pursuing her passion, Edma abandoned it, marrying Adolphe Pontillon, a naval lieutenant.

Harbor at Lorient, by Berthe Morisot, 1869. \ Photo:

In the 1850s, Bertha's father began working for the French National Audit Office. The family moved to Paris, the capital of France. The Morisot sisters received a full education suitable for women from the upper bourgeoisie, and studied with the best teachers. In the 19th century, women of their origin were expected to have lucrative weddings, not careers. The education they received consisted, in particular, of piano and painting lessons. The girls' mother enrolled Berthe and Edma in painting lessons with Geoffroy-Alphonse Chokarn. The sisters quickly developed a taste for avant-garde painting, which made them dislike their teacher's neoclassical style. Since the Academy of Fine Arts did not accept women until 1897, they found another teacher, Joseph Guichard. Both young ladies had great artistic talent: Guichard was convinced that they would become great artists, which is completely uncharacteristic for ladies with their wealth and position.

Reading, Berthe Morisot, 1873. \ Photo:

Edma and Berthe continued their studies with the French artist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, who was one of the founders of the Barbizon school and promoted plein air painting. That is why the Morisot sisters wanted to learn from him. During the summer months, their father rented a country house in Ville d'Avre, west of Paris, so that his daughters could practice with Corot, who became a friend of the family. In 1864 Edma and Bertha exhibited several of their paintings at the Paris Salon. However, their early work did not show any real innovation and depicted landscapes in the manner of Corot, and went unnoticed at the time.

Left to right: Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets, Edouard Manet, 1872. \ Berthe Morisot, Edouard Manet, approx. 1869-73 \ Photo:

Like several 19th century artists, the Morisot sisters regularly went to the Louvre to copy the work of the old masters. At the museum, they met other artists such as Edouard Manet or Edgar Degas. Their parents also interacted with the upper bourgeoisie involved in the artistic avant-garde. Morisot often dined with the Manet and Degas families and other prominent personalities such as Jules Ferry, an active political journalist who later became Prime Minister of France.

Eugene Manet with his daughter in Bougival, Berthe Morisot, 1881. \ Photo:

Bertha became friends with Edouard Manet and since she often worked together, Bertha was considered his student. Despite the fact that the girl was pissed off, her friendship with the artist remained unchanged and she posed for him several times.The lady who always dressed in black, except for a pair of pink shoes, was considered a real beauty. Edward made eleven paintings with Bertha as a model. Were they lovers? No one knows, and this is part of the mystery surrounding their friendship and Manet's obsession with the figure of Bertha.

Eventually Bertha married his brother, Eugene, at the age of thirty-three. Edward made his last portrait of Bertha with a wedding ring. After the wedding, Edward stopped portraying his daughter-in-law. Unlike her sister Edma, who became a housewife and gave up painting after marriage, Bertha continued to paint. Eugene was selflessly devoted to his wife and encouraged her to this passion. Eugene and Berthe had a daughter, Julie, who appeared in many of Berthe's later paintings.

The artist's sister at the window, Berthe Morisot, 1869. \ Photo:

While some critics have argued that Edward was a major influence on Bertha's work, their artistic relationship probably went both ways. Morisot's painting had a noticeable influence on Manet. However, Edward never imagined Bertha as an artist, only as a woman. Manet's portraits had a bad reputation at the time, but Berthe, a true contemporary artist, understood his art, and he in turn used her as a model to express his avant-garde talent.

Bertha perfected her technique by painting landscapes. From the end of the 1860s, she became interested in portrait painting. She often painted bourgeois interior scenes with windows. Some experts saw this kind of representation as a metaphor for the condition of the upper class women of the 19th century, locked in their beautiful homes. The late 19th century was a time of codified spaces. Women ruled in their homes, while they could not go out unaccompanied.

Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight, Berthe Morisot, 1875. \ Photo:

Instead, Bertha used windows to reveal scenes. In this way, she could bring light into rooms and blur the line between inside and outside. In 1875, while on her honeymoon on the Isle of Wight, she painted a portrait of her husband. In this painting, Bertha turned the traditional scene upside down: she depicted a man in a room looking out of a window at the harbor, while a woman and her child strolled outside. She erased the boundaries established between the female and male spaces, demonstrating a great deal of modernity.

Unlike her male counterparts, Bertha had no access to Parisian life with its breathtaking streets and modern cafes. And yet, like them, she painted scenes of modern life. Scenes painted in wealthy homes were also part of modern life. Bertha wanted to depict modern life in stark contrast to academic painting focused on antique or imaginary subjects. Women played a decisive role in her work. She portrayed them as resilient and strong figures, illustrating their reliability and importance, rather than their role in the 19th century as mere companions of their husbands.

Summer Day, Berthe Morisot, 1879 \ Photo:

At the end of 1873, a group of artists, tired of abandoning the official Paris Salon, signed the charter of the "Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers." Among the signatories were Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas.

A year later, in 1874, a group of artists held their first exhibition - a decisive milestone that gave rise to Impressionism. Edgar Degas invited Bertha to take part in the first exhibition, demonstrating his respect for the woman artist. Morisot played a key role in the Impressionist movement. She worked on an equal footing with Monet, Renoir and Degas. Artists appreciated her work and considered her an artist and friend, and her talent and strength inspired them.

Port of Nice, Berthe Morisot, 1882. \ Photo:

Bertha not only chose modern objects, but also treated them in a modern way. Like other Impressionists, this topic was not so important to her. Bertha tried to capture the changing light of a fleeting moment, not portray someone's true resemblance. Beginning in the 1870s, she developed her own color palette using lighter colors than in her previous paintings. White and silver with a few darker touches have become her trademark.Like other Impressionists, she traveled to the south of France in the 1880s, and the sunny Mediterranean weather and colorful landscapes made a lasting impression on her painting technique.

With her painting Port of Nice in 1882, she innovated outdoor painting. Bertha boarded a small fishing boat to paint the harbor. Water filled the bottom of the canvas while the port occupied the top. Eventually, she repeated this cropping technique several times. With her approach, she brought great novelty to the composition of the picture. In addition, Morisot portrayed the landscape in an almost abstract way, showing all her avant-garde talent. Bertha was not just a follower of Impressionism, she was indeed one of its leaders.

The artist usually left pieces of canvas or paper without color. She saw it as an integral part of her work. In Young Girl and a Greyhound, she used colors in the traditional way to depict her daughter's portrait. But in the rest of the scene, colored brushstrokes are blended with empty surfaces on the canvas.

Young girl and greyhound, Berthe Morisot, 1893. \ Photo:

Unlike Monet or Renoir, who tried several times to get their work accepted in the official salon, Bertha always followed an independent path. She considered herself an artist belonging to a marginal art group: the Impressionists, as they were ironically called at first. In 1867, when Bertha began working as a freelance artist, it was difficult for women to pursue careers, especially as an artist.

As a woman from high society, Bertha was not considered an artist. Like other women of her time, she could not make a real career, because painting was just another woman's leisure time. Art critic and collector Theodore Duret said that Morisot's life situation overshadowed her artistic talent. She was knowledgeable about her skills and suffered in silence because, as a woman, she was considered a dilettante.

Peonies, Berthe Morisot, approx. 1869 year. \ Photo:

French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé, another friend of Morisot, promoted her work. In 1894, he invited government officials to purchase one of Bertha's paintings. Thanks to Stéphane, she exhibited her work at the Luxembourg Museum. In the early 19th century, the Luxembourg Museum in Paris became a museum displaying the work of living artists. Until 1880, academics chose artists who could exhibit their art in a museum. The political changes that have occurred with the annexation of the French Third Republic and the constant efforts of art historians, collectors and artists have made it possible to acquire works of avant-garde art. The museum exhibited works by the Impressionists, including Bertha, which was a milestone in the recognition of her talent, making Morisot a true artist in the eyes of the public.

The Shepherdess Resting, Berthe Morisot, 1891 \ Photo:

Together with Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, Berthe was the only living artist to sell one of her paintings to the French national authorities. However, the French state bought only two of her paintings in order to keep them in its collection.

Bertha died in 1895 at the age of fifty-four. A year later, an exhibition dedicated to the memory of Berthe Morisot was organized in the Paris gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel, an influential art dealer and popularizer of impressionism. Fellow artists Renoir and Degas oversaw the presentation of her work, contributing to her posthumous fame.

On the banks of the Seine at Bougival, by Berthe Morisot, 1883

Due to the fact that Bertha was a woman, she quickly fell into oblivion. In just a few years, she has gone from fame to indifference. For almost a century, the public completely forgot about the artist. Even the eminent art historians Lionello Venturi and John Rewald barely mention Bertha in their bestsellers on Impressionism.Only a handful of discerning collectors, critics and artists have noted her talent. Only at the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st, interest in the work of Berthe Morisot was revived. Curators finally dedicated exhibitions to the artist, and scholars began to explore the life and work of one of the greatest Impressionists.

In the next article, read about what caused the scandal and discontent around the portrait of Albrecht Durer - an artist whose work has been criticized, while causing admiration.

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