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Berthe Morisot

French Painter

Berthe Morisot Photo
Born: January 14, 1841
Bourges, France
Died: March 2, 1895
Paris, France
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It is important to express oneself... provided the feelings are real and are taken from your own experience.
Berthe Morisot Signature

Summary of Berthe Morisot

When the second Impressionist exhibition opened in the spring of 1876 in Paris, one sharp-tongued critic described its participants as "five or six lunatics, one of which is a woman." The woman, of course, was Berthe Morisot, who in spite of her gender became a leading figure of the most famous artistic movement of the 19th century. The label of "lunatic," however, was an aberration. Morisot cultivated her artistic talents and achieved success at an early age with acceptance to the Salon at age 23, and tenaciously held on to her rank at the forefront of French painters until her death 30 years later. Though frequently self-critical of her own work, and barred by social conventions from pursuing the same subject matter as her male counterparts, Morisot nonetheless developed the connections and familial support that enabled her to carve out her own independent career as an artist for more than three decades and leave a permanent mark on the direction of French art.

Key Ideas

Biography of Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot Photo

Berthe Morisot was born to Edmé Tiburce Morisot and Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas in Bourges, France, in 1841. The family was well-off and her father worked as a senior administrator for the local government. Her mother was related to the Rococo painter Jean-Honore Fragonard. Morisot had two older sisters, Yves and Edma, and also a younger brother Tiburce. In 1852, the family moved to Paris, where Morisot would live for the rest of her life.

Important Art by Berthe Morisot

View of Paris from the Trocadero (1871-72)

View of Paris from the Trocadero (1871-72)

This early work is one of the few fully realized landscape works Morisot painted. Completed just after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the work depicts a view of Paris as a city finally at peace. The view is painted from the top of a hill colloquially known as the Trocadero, today the site of the Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Seine. Beyond it stretches the Champ-de-Mars, site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle just five years before, which Manet had painted, famously, from nearly the same spot as Morisot does in this work. Now cleared of the massive exhibition buildings, the Champ-de-Mars appears barren and brown, as if its grass has died during the winter. This once-bustling portion of the city, whose fecund fields that showcased industry now lie fallow in Morisot's depictions, mirrors the sort of windswept silence of the larger panorama. The gray sky, opening slightly to a splash of blue at the very top of the canvas, hints at the tumult of the events of the previous five years - the exposition, the war, the fall of Napoleon III's Second Empire, and the Paris Commune - and the notion that the proverbial smoke is, perhaps, finally clearing from Paris in their collective aftermath.

The three figures in the foreground are probably Morisot's sisters Yves and Edma, accompanied by Yves' daughter. They are separated from the cityscape beyond by a dark but porous fence, and the road on which they stand is a dusty beige, likely indicative of the way in which Morisot and her sisters, as bourgeois women, were excluded from the everyday life of the city and from many professional opportunities as artists. As the empty ground on the women's side of the fence suggests, this was not an appealing prospect. The painting gives no suggestion that the very ground of the Trocadero that the women stand on would be massively redeveloped just six years later for the 1878 Exposition Universelle, intended to demonstrate that France, and especially Paris, had recovered from the recent traumatic events.

The Cradle (1872)

The Cradle (1872)

The Cradle is arguably Berthe Morisot's most famous painting. It depicts Morisot's sister Edma gazing down at her daughter Blanche, who is asleep in a cradle behind a gauzy veil. This relatively early work is the first example of Morisot's treatment of the theme of motherhood, which would become a recurring subject in her work, in part due to the era's social limitations placed on women and their ability to explore public places without chaperones. Although the painting was generally admired by critics when it was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, Morisot failed to sell it and eventually decided to keep it within her family.

Morisot's painting relies on two interlocking triangles, one encompassing the visible part of Edma's body and the other, slightly taller, formed from the veil, thereby creating a balanced composition which implies a harmony and subconscious link between parent and child. Edma is drawing the translucent curtain closed around the cradle, protecting her daughter from the viewer and emphasizing the private nature of their relationship. The close cropping of the scene (the edges of the cradle itself are eliminated by Morisot's choice of framing) both suggests the privileged nature of the view we have to the scene and invites a comparison with photography, a medium with which the Impressionists were famous for considering. It is difficult to read Edma's expression, however, as there is no direct rapport between her and Blanche, whose eyes are closed. It has been suggested that Edma, who like Berthe painted extensively before her marriage to a naval officer in 1864, appears wistful, seemingly yearning for the time she spent as an artist before settling into the traditional, stable role of motherhood. Thus, just as the veil screens her daughter's form from our clear view, our impressions of her own thoughts remain shrouded in mystery.

Dans le Blé (In the Wheatfield) (1875)

Dans le Blé (In the Wheatfield) (1875)

This painting depicts a scene in the village of Gennevilliers, just outside Paris, now a suburb of the French capital, where Morisot's husband's family, the Manets, owned property. The location is typical of that chosen by many Impressionist artists, such as Monet, both as a place to work and for their paintings' subject matter. The painting presents us with a comfortable visual composition of three horizontal zones of color, punctuated by the figure of the young boy to the right of center. The eponymous wheat hints at the traditional farming character of the area, and immediately catches one's attention as it occupies the prime central space on the canvas.

The ears of wheat, however, remain rather indistinct in keeping with Morisot's loose brushwork. Instead, Morisot renders the buildings in the background in slightly sharper detail, revealing in particular the smokestacks of the dirty, sooty factories on the horizon. They act as a reminder of the changing nature of the landscape from agrarian to increasingly industrial, a reminder of the growing city and the disappearance of the virginal rural past in the face of an increasingly modern future. The homely figure with his belongings slung over his shoulder who is emerging in the foreground from the edge of the wheatfield, opposite the factories, arguably represents the archetypal rural villager attempting to escape this inevitable march of industrialization. We might therefore read Morisot's painting as a seductive representation of the countryside and a quiet protest against the transformation of modern life, a theme that is extremely popular among French painters from the Realists to the post-Impressionists.

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Peter Clericuzio

"Berthe Morisot Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Peter Clericuzio
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First published on 15 Dec 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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