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 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.