Berthe Morisot was a painter and a member of the circle of painters in Paris who became known as the Impressionists. Undervalued for over a century, possibly because she was a woman, Berthe Morisot is now considered among the first league of Impressionist painters.
Born January 14, 1841, in Bourges, France, Berthe Morisot was the third daughter of a prominent and wealthy government official. The family moved to Paris in 1852, where her father served as the Judicial Adviser to the Auditor's Office. This powerful position, with its high salary and important political associations, allowed the Morisot's to lead a privileged lifestyle as members of the upper middle class. Berthe Morisot was a grand-daughter of the painter Fragonard and the sister-in-law of Manet, but her interest in painting was not the result of this connection. Berthe Morisot and her older sister Edma quickly developed both a passion and a high level of skill in drawing and painting. Alongside her sister, Berthe Morisot copied masterpieces at the Louvre and painted out of doors.
By age twenty, Berthe Morisot had met and befriended the important, and pivotal, landscape painter Camille Corot. The older artist instructed Berthe and her sister in painting and introduced them to other artists and teachers. Under Corot's influence, Morisot took up the plein air method of working. As art students, Berthe and Edma worked closely together until Edma married, had children, and no longer had time to paint so intensely as Berthe. Letters between them show a loving and cordial relationship, underscored by Berthe's regret at the distance between them and about Edma's withdrawal from painting. Edma wholeheartedly supported Berthe's continued work and the families of the two sisters always remained close.
Berthe Morisot first exhibited her paintings at the prestigious annual Salon in 1864, and her work was shown there regularly through 1873.In the winter of 1868-1869, Morisot's artistic career and personal life took an important turn when she was introduced to Edouard Manet. Manet's reputation and aesthetic innovations were well known to Morisot, and they began a lifelong friendship. He once gave her an easel as a Christmas present. He also interfered in one of her Salon submissions when he was engaged to transport it. Manet mistook one of Morisot's self-criticisms as an invitation to add his corrections, which he did, much to Morisot's dismay.
Over the course of the next five years, Manet would paint Morisot 11 times. While Morisot learned much from Manet, she never formally studied with him. Although traditionally Manet has been related as the master and Berthe Morisot as the follower, there is evidence that their relationship was a reciprocating one. Berthe Morisot had developed her own distinctive artistic style. Records of paintings show Manet's approval and appreciation of certain stylistic and compositional decisions that Morisot originated. He incorporated some of these characteristics into his own work. It was Morisot who convinced Manet to attempt plein air painting, which Berthe Morisot had been practicing since having been introduced to it by Corot. Perhaps Manet's greatest influence on her was the introduction of his brother Eugene to her family.
Morisot wed Eugene Manet in December 1874 at the mature age of 33, well after she was established as a professional artist. Earlier that same year, Edgar Degas asked Morisot to join a group of independent artists that included Degas, as well as Monet, Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. They later became known as the Impressionists. Berthe Morisot remained faithful to the Impressionists after others abandoned the movement, participating in seven of the eight exhibitions and single-handedly organizing the final show in 1886.
Eugene readily supported his wife's career, never asking her to abandon her painting for matrimony, yet despite his acceptance of her art, Eugene in particular and men in general appear extremely infrequently in Morisot's paintings. Eugene Manet was a writer and political activist. Their home at 4 rue de la Princess in Bougival on the Seine soon became a gathering place for artists and the literary lions of the day. Among her closest friends was the Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme. Morisot and Manet had a daughter, Julie, born in 1878. As a result of her marriage and motherhood, Berthe Morisot began focusing increased attention on domestic and family scenes in her paintings. Her wide range of subjects often included portraits of her mother, sisters, and nieces, as well as of her own daughter Julie. Morisot's delightful "Girl with a Basket", with its sensitivity, flourish, and style could be a particularly light and fresh late Manet.
In those days it was customary to say about any woman painter, as if it were the ultimate compliment, that she paints with almost the vigor of a man. But the beauty of Berthe Morisot's art is its femininity, which in her case is not to be confused with weakness, indecision, or an only partial achievement of a masculine standard. One would not want to "strengthen "Woman at Her Toilet" no more than one would want to endow its lovely model with the muscles of a wrestler.
Berthe Morisot's style continued to develop in her later years, Her brother-in-law, friend and mentor, Edouard Manet, died in 1883. After his death, Berthe Morisot came under the influence of Renoir. Morisot believed in the capabilities of all women. "I don't think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal and that's all I would have asked, for I know I'm worth as much as they," she once said. But Berthe Morisot lived in a time when equal treatment was rare.
Even though Berthe Morisot produced more than 860 paintings, her death certificate states she had "no profession". Morisot left her collection of Degas, Monet and Renoir paintings to her daughter, Julie Manet. After her death, she became known more for being a friend and model of Edouard Manet than an artist in her own right. Although Morisot's work was generally well reviewed when it was exhibited, she did not become known internationally as an artist until 1905, when the London Impressionist exhibition displayed 13 of her paintings. It took almost a full century before Berthe Morisot's work received the credit it deserved.