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Berthe Morisot

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A woman painter was a rare phenomenon in the mid nineteenth century and in the aesthetic camp hostile to official art, there was only one. Berthe Morisot participated in most of the Impressionist’s exhibitions. Berthe Morisot was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Jean-Honoré Fragonard and the artist painter Marguerite Gérard were distant relatives on her father’s side. Her father, Edmé Tiburce Morisot, held senior administrative positions. Berthe was born on 14 January 1841 in Bourges, in the administrative region of the Cher, because her father was then prefect of the Cher. Her mother, Marie-Cornélie Thomas, also from a prominent family, was the daughter of an inspector of public finances. Mrs Morisot oversaw her four children’s education, inviting teachers into their home. But it was upon the initiative of their father, an art collector, that three Morisot sisters started drawing lessons.

The girls’ first professor took them to Camille Corot. He did not give lessons per se; he gave advice, and this advice formed the basis of Berthe’s Impressionism. The Morisot sisters regularly went to the Louvre to copy the old masters. The museum was the site of constant meetings between painters. It was there they met Henri Fantin-Latour around 1860. He introduced Berthe and Edma to the engraver Félix Bracquemond, who became a faithful friend of the Impressionists.

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Berthe Morisot, Woman and Child on a Balcony, 1872. Oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Private Collection.
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Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872. Oil on canvas, 56 x 46 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

It was only in 1867, while she was copying Rubens at the Louvre, that Berthe was introduced to Édouard Manet by Fantin-Latour. Soon afterwards, Manet and his wife and the Morisot family were constantly inviting themselves to each other’s homes. Berthe met Degas at Manet’s house and from that moment on Degas came nearly every Tuesday to Mrs Morisot’s. From their first meeting, Manet preferred Berthe and in 1868, she posed for him in The Balcony. Berthe’s letters show at what point Manet’s opinion became important to her. She was unable to remain indifferent to his lack of attention.

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Édouard Manet, The Balcony, between 1868 and 1869. Oil on canvas, 170 x 124.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Berthe was always prone to self-doubt and torment. Finally the Salon opened and she saw her painting had been included. The late 1860s and the early 1870s was an especially painful period for Berthe. Her two sisters were married; only Berthe, now thirty, still lived with her parents, although she was much courted. No one knows her true relationship with Édouard Manet, but in early summer of 1870 she posed for him again.

Manet’s 1870 Repose (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), is a remarkable psychological study of a young woman. Executed in the style of a sketch, the painting makes for a particularly vivid portrait. The model has flung herself against the back of a sofa; one gets the impression she just sat down for an instant and became lost in thought. The expression on her face was not meant to be seen; sadness had momentarily covered her eyes.

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Édouard Manet, Repose (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), c.1870-1871.
Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 73.5 cm.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

Two years later, Manet painted Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (private collection), which depicts a completely different Berthe. She looks younger here, her huge eyes in shadow gaze distractedly and her lips are poised to release a pensive smile. The stray hairs that fall from under her eccentric hat (“the latest fashion”) indicate she participated in bohemian culture. The predominance of black in the painting lends a mysterious character to the image of the young woman. The psychological complexity and many nuances of feeling that are difficult to put into words expressed the very essence of Berthe Morisot’s remarkable individuality and uniqueness. With his eleven portraits, Manet contributed as much to the memory of Berthe Morisot as she did for herself through her own painting.

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Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (private collection)

The year 1870 formed a line of demarcation between two eras for Berthe, as it did for the other painters. She learned that Degas and Renoir had left to join the army. Her brother was taken prisoner by the Prussians. Berthe stayed in Paris like Édouard Manet. Manet was indignant and tried to persuade her to leave. But Berthe was steadfast in her decisions. The national guard requisitioned her studio and turned it into quarters.

Berthe Morisot, View of Paris from the Trocadéro, 1871-1872.
Oil on canvas, 45.9 x 81.4 cm. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara.
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Berthe Morisot, On the Lake of the Bois de Boulogne, 1884.
Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. Private Collection.

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