by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art Institute of Chicago
Woman at her Toilette by Berthe Morisot, 1875-80

The First Lady of Impressionism

By Roderick Conway Morris
DULWICH, London 2 June 2023


'I like only novelty and things from the past,' declared the Impressionist Berthe Morisot, and her work achieved a unique combination of bold innovation and affinity with certain artists, both French and English, of the 18th century.

She showed her work at all but one of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris between 1874 and 1886, (missing the 1879 exhibition, as she was unwell following the birth of her daughter Julie). Her paintings were auctioned at the Hôtel Drouot the year after the First Impressionist Exhibition fetching higher prices than those of her male colleagues Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley.

The artist is now the subject of a charming and revealing exhibition, 'Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism', at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, staged with the collaboration of the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which has the largest collection of her works and documents related to her, significantly added to only last year with a donation from her great-great grandchildren.

Berthe's father, Edmé Tiburce Morisot, had aspirations to be an artist but trained as an architect before becoming a civil servant and being appointed Prefect and then Senior Advisor to the Court of Auditors. She was born in Bourges in south-west France in 1841, but the family moved to Paris when she was 11.

Her father gave her early drawing lessons and, since she displayed natural talents, professional teaching was arranged. From 1858 both she and her sister Edma were taught by Joseph-Benoît Guichard, who had been trained by Ingres and Delacroix. Introductions to Corot and Daubigny followed and expeditions to paint en plein air at Auvers-sur-Oise and Fontainebleau, favourite resorts for landscape painters of the era.

In 1868 Henri Fantin-Latour introduced Morisot to Manet, who asked her to pose for one of his now best-known works, 'The Balcony' (1868-69). She did not become his pupil, even though he was 11 years older. Their artistic relationship developing into one of mutual influence. Among her contributions was to urge him to lighten his palette.

Eighteenth-century French art had fallen from favour following the Revolution but was gradually attracting interest again. In 1855, the Louvre had on display only seven paintings by Boucher, nine by Chardin, three by Fragonard and a solitary Watteau, but a landmark show at Gallerie Martinet in 1860 showed 433 works of that period from private collections.

In 1864 Morisot became friends with the painter Léon Riesener. Grandson of Louis XVI's cabinet maker and cousin of Delacroix, he was a connoisseur of the art of the previous century. He was also one of the prime movers in the revival of pastels, that quintessential medium of the earlier period, which Berthe went on to use in many of her works.

Riesener's Parisian home on the Cours la Reine was a virtual shrine to the rococo tastes of the ancien régime, where the 'salon was hung with splendid Gobelins tapetries after Boucher: some representing music and hunting as pendants; others gardening and fishing, and a large one dancing.' Despite her radical tendencies in painting, Morisot was clearly captivated and Riesener's décor and furnishings became a model for her own subsequent homes, while she also began to draw inspiration from the masters of the 18th-century in her painting.

Morisot had already been particularly struck by a portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Boucher on show at the 1860 Gallerie Martinet exhibition and, in a precocious demonstration of her admiration for the rococo, she made a daring fashion statement by rejecting the black boots then à la mode and insisted on wearing dainty pink satin shoes à la Pompadour.

Having exhibited regularly at the Salon between 1864 and 1873, where she received favourable reviews, not least for her technical expertise, Morisot then showed several works at the First Impressionists Exhibition in 1874 and, unlike some of her fellow Impressionists, never returned to the Salon thereafter.

At the end of that same year she married Eugène Manet, Edouard's brother. The couple did not go on their honeymoon until August 1875. Their first destination was the Isle of Wight, which had become popular after Victoria and Albert established their summer retreat there, at Osborne, in the late 1840s. The island was the venue of one of the most important events of the social calendar, the annual regatta of the Royal Yacht Squadron at West Cowes. Berthe and Eugène rented Globe Cottage on the waterfront near the RYS Clubhouse.

When they dined in London soon afterwards with James Tissot at his impressive studio-residence she recorded: 'Tissot tells me that during regatta week at Cowes we saw the most fashionable society in England.' Tissot had brilliantly captured the colourful scene in his canvas 'The Ball on Shipboard' the previous year. Berthe and Eugène also went to the races at Goodwood, where they encountered another compatriot: 'Gustave Doré was there with a group of women of fashion.'

But Berthe's determination to paint while in Cowes at times threatened to become a kind of Madame Hulot's Holiday. Her attempts to capture images en plein air were impeded by pedestrians and boats failing to stand still long enough. When she stationed herself at the upstairs window of the cottage, she concluded: 'The view from my window is pretty to look at but not to paint. Views from above are almost always incomprehensible.'

Taking to a boat proved no more satisfactory: 'Everything sways, there is an infernal lapping of water; one has the sun and the wind to cope with, the boats change position every minute, etc.' Having set up in a more remote field, she was mobbed by unruly village children and chased away by an angry farmer. While she would have liked to have some of the children pose for her, communication proved difficult: 'My English is so horribly bad, and Eugène's is even worse.'

The visit to London was more artistically productive. When Monet and Pissarro saw the works of British landscape painters there in 1870 the latter recorded: 'The watercolours and paintings of Turner, the Constables and the Cromes certainly had an influence on us.' In Morisot's case it was the 18th-century English portraits that were to have a lasting impact on her work.

Examples of these were rare in Paris. The Louvre only acquired a Romney in 1897, a Reynolds in 1905 and a Gainsborough in 1937. So Morisot's visit to the National Gallery was a revelation. As she wrote to Edma: 'What I saw gave me a great desire to become thoroughly acquainted with English painting.' And Romney, Reynolds and Gainsborough - all of whom shared her love of painting women and children - were the English artists to have the greatest influence on her subsequent work.

The canvases Morisot showed at the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 included landscape views from the Isle of Wight and of the Thames, and also 'At the Ball', the first of many half-length portraits of elegantly dressed women, clearly inspired by English examples. The model is holding a fan depicting a scene of a fête galante in the manner of Watteau, reflecting Morisot's passion for this artist and his era.

At the end of the decade she completed 'Woman at her Toilette' (1875-80). This masterpiece combined the shimmering light and silvery fabrics of Watteau, the delicious flesh tones of Boucher and Fragonard, and the free and fluid brushwork of the great English portraitists of the 18th century.

This and other works displayed at the Exposition des Artistes Indépendants in 1880 marked the beginning of Morisot's mature period and elicited high praise, even purple prose, from the critics. Charles Ephrussi wrote of the artist as one 'who grinds onto her palette flower petals, then spreads them on her canvas with lively strokes.' Another, Paul Mantz, declared: 'Since the 18th century, since Fragonard, no one spreads lighter colours with such intelligent boldness.'

This identification of Morisot with Fragonard by her admirers gradually led to the legend that she was related to him. By the time her great friend Stéphane Mallarmé was writing the preface to the catalogue of a posthumous exhibition of her work, in 1895, organized by the poet with Manet and Degas, he was referring to her as Fragonard's 'great-grand niece'. However, recent research has revealed this to be entirely mythical.

Morisot was sufficiently wealthy never to have to rely on sales to support herself, but this did not prevent her from being as committed as any of her less comfortably off colleagues. Every Thursday, in the elegant surroundings of her house and later, after the death of her husband, Eugène, in 1892, in a smaller apartment, she presided over a salon, frequented by the likes of Mallarmé, Caillebot, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Whistler - thereby maintaining yet another tradition stretching back to the 18th century, which had proved such an inspiration to her as an artist.

Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; 31 March - 10 September 2023

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024