Becoming a Pro—Berthe Morisot

In 1874, a group of French artists opened an exhibit of paintings that shocked Paris, attracted crowds, and created a sensation. The paintings they showed were different from the traditional, careful pictures that had been exhibited year after year at the official Salon show in Paris.

Most of the people who crowded the new exhibition were shocked by what they saw. Critics wrote that the new painters, who called themselves Impressionists, had “declared war on beauty” and very few of their works were sold. It took courage to turn against the critics and persist in painting in a new and different style. The men who exhibited paintings at that exhibit included several who are now considered major artists, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas and Renoir. And there was one woman who earned a place among them in that first show—Berthe Morisot. She may not have realized it, but she too was forging a new role for women in art.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges, France. Like many daughters in prosperous middle-class families, she was given a good education and excellent artistic training. Even though women were not allowed to enroll in the professional art training available to men, there were artists willing to offer private tutoring for young women at home.

By the time of the first Impressionist show, Morisot was thirty years old. Some of her paintings had been accepted and shown at the official Paris Salon, but she was interested in exploring new ways of developing her art. Most women at that time gave up art when they got married, but Berthe Morisot was more interested in painting than in marriage. “Work is the sole purpose of my existence,” she declared. “Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view.”

Developing a career as a painter was difficult for a woman. Men were free to participate in the lively social gatherings in cafes and to attend private parties. It was there that painters met art dealers, arranged exhibits, and sold paintings. A respectable woman , like Berthe Morisot, could scarcely leave her home without a chaperon. She  had to rely on the men in the group to set up exhibitions and publicize the work of the Impressionists. Morisot was lucky because the Impressionist painters, especially her friend Edouard Manet, respected her work and opened opportunities for her to exhibit with the men. Eventually Morisot married Eugene Manet, brother of Edouard.

Morisot received her share of ridicule from critics who scoffed at Impressionist paintings because they considered them not as carefully finished as traditional paintings. One critic wrote: “If Mademoiselle Morisot wishes to paint a hand, ‘she gives as many brushstrokes, lengthwise as there are fingers, and the thing is done.”

Berthe Morisot stood firm in her decision to paint freely and offer a fresh, new view of the world. It took years of struggle by the Impressionists, but gradually an audience for their work grew. Despite finding it difficult to sell their paintings, many of them stayed together and continued offering group shows. It was not until 1879  that the group had a successful exhibit and started to make money.

Berthe Morisot was the first woman to become part of the Impressionist movement, but she was followed by others. Mary Cassatt, an American artist, joined the group in later exhibits as did another French painter, Marie Bracquemond. In 1894, the art critic Gustave Geffroy described the three women as “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of Impressionism.

As the twentieth century started, more and more women became professional artists, but it is enlightening to look back and learn about how they joined the art world as colleagues and equals.

Impressionist paintings, of course, can now be seen in major museums, there are also films and prints widely available. Several books have been written about the history of the Impressionists. One that I recommend highly is The Private Lives of the Impressionists (Harper Collins 2008) by Sue Roe, which is available in many libraries and bookstores.

Dancing through the Pain—Tanaquil LeClercq

Spring has arrived, bringing a feeling of hope and rebirth as flowers bloom and trees put out new leaves. It is a good time to think about people who have also managed to find a rebirth and hope after serious illness or loss. One of the most inspiring stories I’ve heard recently is about a dancer who overcame the assault of an illness that would have destroyed the lives of many others—Tanaquil LeClercq.

Born in Paris in 1929, the daughter of an American mother and a French father who was a poet and writer, Tanaquil was named after an Etruscan queen. When she was three years old, the family moved to New York. As a child, Tanaquil attended the French Lycée and began to study ballet. She won a scholarship competition at the School of American Ballet where she attracted the attention of its founder, George Balanchine.

Tanaquil LeClercq

By the time she was fifteen years old, Tanaquil began to appear in early Balanchine pieces at the Ballet Society, which later became the City Ballet. It was the beginning of a spectacular career during a time when ballet was becoming an important part of the American cultural world.  Balanchine, who had been born in Russia, and had experience in both classical ballet and in theatrical revues in London, developed a new style of ballet combining elements of traditional and modern dancing. He created a number of ballets for Tanaquil whose skills exemplified those needed in his new ballets. In 1952, he and Tanaquil were married. Both of their careers flourished.

Tanaquil LeClercq

Besides dancing in many of Balanchine’s most famous works, including “Symphony in C”, “Western Symphony” and “La Valse”, LeClercq also danced in many of the ballets choreographed by Jerome Robbins who also became a close friend. One of his most spectacular pieces was “Afternoon of a Faun” in which LeClercq dominated the stage with her long, graceful body and startling dancing.

During the 1950s, LeClercq toured with the City Ballet in America and Europe. It was on a tour in 1956, that polio found her. Although the Salk polio vaccine had become available in 1955 and most of the ballet troupe received the vaccine before leaving the U.S. on their tour, LeClercq delayed her shot saying she would get it after the flight. It was in Denmark that polio struck and LeClercq suddenly found herself placed in an Iron Lung.

The first two years after catching polio are the crucial time for regaining strength and mobility. Balanchine and LeClercq worked tirelessly together to revive the muscles that had been affected by polio. Balanchine devised special movements and exercise to restore Tanequil’s legs. He encouraged her to place her feet on his as he walked or danced, hoping that would allow her muscles to regain their strength. Being a spiritual man, he also prayed. Nothing helped. LeClercq gradually regained strength in her arms and upper body, but she was never again able to use her legs.

Both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, LeClercq’s closest colleagues, worked hard to keep up her spirits. Robbins wrote her a letter every day during the first year of her illness. But recovery from polio is painfully slow and incomplete and as time went on, LeClercq had to struggle on by herself. She and Balanchine divorced in 1969. And gradually she and Robbins drifted further apart.

The two men continued their careers and LeClercq worked hard to develop a new one for herself. She learned how to use her arms and upper body to demonstrate dance steps and she began to coach the dancers at the City Ballet. Her biggest opportunity came when Arthur Mitchell invited her to work with his newly established Dance Theater of Harlem. There she taught classes for more than a decade and during that time she also wrote and published two books.

Although her magnificent career as a dancer was cut cruelly short, Tanaquil LeClercq built a satisfying new life defying the tragedy of polio. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th anniversary season with a tribute to her. LeClercq attended in her wheelchair. She died two years later at the age of 71.

LeClerc’s life has been celebrated in a documentary film “Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq” (2013) which includes archival footage of her dancing as well as interviews with several people who knew her. The film can be streamed on Kanopy and other streaming services. Watching this film will allow you to spend an evening with a woman who was an amazing dancer and a gallant spirit.