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berthe morisot
Edouard Manet

Happy Birthday, Berthe Morisot, Impressionist Painter

January 14, 2009
by Liz Colville
While lesser-known than her male peers, Berthe Morisot helped usher in the Impressionist movement in the 1860s by displaying her portraits and scenes of everyday life at prominent exhibits like the Paris Salon.

Early Days

Berthe Morisot was born on January 14, 1841, to an upper middle-class family in Bourges, France. Her grandfather was the famous Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Morisot “decided early on to be an artist and pursued her goal with seriousness and dedication.”

Morisot went beyond the usual requirement that women of her class take up painting as a “genteel hobby,” according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which hosted an important exhibit on Morisot in 2005. Even though most married women of the time devoted themselves to home life, Morisot never gave up her art, as did her own sister Edma when she married; instead, Berthe Morisot was an active participant in one of the most famous artistic periods in history.

Notable Accomplishments

At the age of 21, Morisot began training with French landscape painter Camille Corot, a stint that lasted from 1862 to 1868. She and her sister Edma were “nurtured by visits to the Louvre to copy masterpieces and painting out of doors under the direction of Corot,” a “legendary” landscape painter.

According to an NPR story, Morisot was “discovered” by Édouard Manet. Though Manet stirred controversy with his paintings of “blasé nudity,” such as “Luncheon on the Grass,” he influenced many artists, including the young Morisot, who was 27 when painter Henri Fatin-Latour introduced them. Morisot became friends with Manet, discussed painting techniques with him and also “posed for several paintings by Manet, who clearly found her to be a fascinating subject,” reports an article about the two artists on Suite101.com.

In 1864, Morisot appeared in her first exhibit of the Paris Salon, a prestigious annual exhibit showcasing the work of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, or French Academy. Morisot painted domestic portraits or landscapes that included human subjects in bold brushstrokes, an aesthetic that male counterparts like Edgar Degas were promoting in their own work.

Against Manet’s advice, Morisot allied herself with a “fledgling group of painters” that would later be referred to as the Impressionists; it included Degas, Claude Monet, Jean Renoir and Camille Pissarro. Over the next dozen years, Morisot would be a crucial champion of the Impressionist movement even as others moved on from it: she participated in all but one of the group’s annual shows, organizing the final one in 1886.

The WebMuseum hosts images of several of Morisot’s portraits and landscapes, including “Study: At the Water’s Edge” (1864) and “Marine (The Harbor at Lorient)” (1869).

The Rest of the Story

Morisot married Édouard Manet’s brother, Eugène, but it’s been suggested by more than one writer that it was Édouard Manet and Morisot who loved one another. Morisot gave birth to her daughter, Julie, in 1873, and found companionship and a muse in her only child, the subject of several of her paintings. Indeed, many of Morisot’s works reflect the importance of family, and often featured her sister and mother as well as her daughter.

An article in the Washington Post on the NMWA’s Morisot retrospective notes that the painter’s later work approached the bold “post-Impressionist” style of artists like Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.

Morisot continued to paint up until her own death. She was widowed in 1892, and died three years later on March 2, 1895, having completed some 860 works over the course of her life. Morisot died of either influenza or pneumonia, allegedly after nursing her daughter back to health from an illness. Julie Manet preserved and promoted her mother’s legacy after her death, and became a painter herself.

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