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Berthe Morisot - Biography and Legacy

French Painter

Movement: Impressionism

Born: January 14, 1841 - Bourges, France

Died: March 2, 1895 - Paris, France

Berthe Morisot Timeline

"It is important to express oneself... provided the feelings are real and are taken from your own experience."

Berthe Morisot Signature
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Biography of Berthe Morisot


Berthe Morisot was born to Edmé Tiburce Morisot and Marie-Joséphine-Cornélie Thomas in Bourges, France, in 1841. The family was well-off and her father worked as a senior administrator for the local government. Her mother was related to the Rococo painter Jean-Honore Fragonard. Morisot had two older sisters, Yves and Edma, and also a younger brother Tiburce. In 1852, the family moved to Paris, where Morisot would live for the rest of her life.

As the daughters of a bourgeois family, it was expected that Berthe and her sisters would receive an artistic education. The painter Joseph Guichard, one of their private tutors, took them to the Louvre, where he taught them to learn by copying the paintings on the walls. Guichard notably warned the girls' parents that continuing their artistic education could be problematic: "Given your daughters' natural gifts, it will not be petty drawing-room talents that my instruction will achieve; they will become painters. Are you fully aware of what that means? It will be revolutionary - I would almost say catastrophic - in your haute bourgeoisie milieu."

However, Edma and Berthe continued to be taught even after this warning. After a while, however, Edma married a naval officer and moved away to have children, meaning she gave up her serious artistic pursuits. But, she did continue to encourage Berthe (with whom she was very close) to continue working.

Early Training and work

Morisot responded by registering as a copyist at the Louvre. When she was there, she got to know other artists including the landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. He encouraged her to start working en plein air, where she began to produce her first serious paintings. She studied painting extensively during this period, and was also taught sculpture, although none of her sculptural works survived.

In 1864, when Morisot was only 23, the official Parisian Salon accepted two of her landscape paintings. As a young woman, this was an almost-unheard-of achievement. One critic responded by saying, "You see, ladies, one may be an artist and take part in public exhibitions of painting and remain, as before, a very respectable and very charming person." She continued to show at the Salon for several years, where her work was generally well-received.

Mature Period

In 1868, Morisot met the effective leader of avant-garde painting in Paris, Édouard Manet. Manet famously wrote in a letter to Henri Fantin-Latour, "the [two sisters] Morisot are delightful. What a shame they aren't men; nonetheless they might, as women, serve the cause of painting by each marrying an academicien" (men who were jurors of the French Academy). Manet and Morisot immediately became quite close, and began to provide feedback on each other's work. Professionally however, Morisot was upset when Manet made his own additions to one of her Salon submissions more nonchalantly than Morisot desired, suggesting that Manet didn't see the relationship as wholly reciprocal.

Manet's portrait <i>Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets</i> (1872)
Manet's portrait Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets (1872)

Nonetheless, Manet evidently respected Morisot's opinion and work as an artist. Notably, Morisot prompted Manet to take up en plein air painting, which was a significant move in his artistic practice. Manet painted Morisot 12 times, making her his most frequent subject. He completed a particularly famous portrait of Morisot in 1872, where he depicted her wearing a black dress, with a confident, intelligent gaze. According to critic Sue Roe, Manet's 1868 work The Balcony depicts Morisot and "focused on her air of compelling beauty, her mystery and the complex inner struggle reflected in her face."

It has been suggested that the pair were romantically involved, but couldn't pursue a relationship as Manet was already married by the time they met. It stands to remember that Manet was quite the playboy of his time, regularly attending brothels and reportedly keeping company with many women outside of his marriage. Whether the two had a passionate affair, or Morisot was the exception to Manet's supposed habits, is unknown. Through the letters left by Morisot we do know she cared deeply for the charismatic Manet.

In 1872, Morisot sold 22 paintings to the private dealer Durand-Ruel, marking the start of her career as an established artist. Through her connection with Manet, Morisot was drawn into his circle of painters who were later known as the Impressionists. Manet himself refused to leave his more traditional art career and encouraged Morisot not to join the avant garde group. However, Morisot didn't take his advice and her work was included in the first ever exhibition of Impressionist painting in 1874, pointing to her importance within the growing movement.

Morisot's skill at gauging public taste is suggested by the fact that her work remained popular throughout her lifetime and she often outsold many of her contemporaries, including Edgar Degas (who was a frequent visitor at her family home, and is thought to compete with Manet for her attention), Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley. However, she was unrelentingly critical of herself and her own work. In a letter to Claude Monet, for example, she accused herself of "becoming a bronchial old lady...engaged in a war with my canvases. Do not depend on me to cover much wall space. I am not doing anything worthwhile despite my desire to do it."

In 1874, and at the relatively late age of 33, Morisot married Manet's younger brother Eugène. Some have suggested that theirs was a marriage of convenience, a second-best option when Morisot couldn't marry the older, already-married artist. Eugène was also an artist, but he agreed to give up his own career in order to help Morisot in hers. Upon their marriage, Edgar Degas gifted the couple a portrait of Eugène. Manet never again painted Morisot after the marriage.

Late Period

Unlike her sister, Morisot continued to paint while also carving out a life as a wife and a mother. In 1878, she and Eugène welcomed their first and only child, Julie. Morisot frequently painted her daughter, and as a child Julie also posed for several other painters such as Manet and Renoir.

Self-portrait by Berthe Morisot (1885)
Self-portrait by Berthe Morisot (1885)

Throughout her career, Morisot had close friendships with many members of the Impressionist circle, including Degas, Monet, Renoir, and the poet Mallarme. She continued to be actively involved in the Impressionist group, exhibiting with them every year except 1878. She even organized the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886 entirely single-handedly. After the demise of the Impressionist group as an organized movement she continued to exhibit with avant-garde artists, contributing several works to the Belgian group Les XX's show in Brussels in 1887 and four paintings in 1894 to that of its successor, La Libre Esthetique. Unusually, Morisot always exhibited under her maiden name instead of using a pseudonym or her married name.

Eugène Manet suffered from a period of poor health beginning in 1891 and finally died in Paris the following year. Three years later, their daughter Julie contracted pneumonia. Morisot nursed her back to health, but sadly picked up the illness herself and eventually died on March 2, 1895. After her death the poet Paul Valery wrote that "Berthe Morisot's uniqueness was to 'live' her painting, and to paint her life [...] she took up, put down, returned to her brush like a thought that comes to us, is clean forgotten, then occurs to us once again."

The year after her death, Morisot's artist friends, including Degas, Renoir, Monet and Mallarme, organized the first retrospective of Morisot's work, drawing together 380 of her paintings and paying tribute to her talent.

The Legacy of Berthe Morisot

Auguste Renoir's Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Julie Manet (1895)
Auguste Renoir's Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Julie Manet (1895)

Throughout her career, Berthe Morisot had to fight against preconceptions of women and their role. She was highly unusual in her decision to be an artist as well as a wife and mother, but many people inevitably saw her primarily in her traditionally female roles. Therefore, until recently it has been assumed that Manet was the "master" and Morisot the "student" in their relationship, but it is certainly arguable that they influenced each other in different ways.

Although she has been forgotten in some corners, Morisot was an important figure in the founding of Impressionism as a movement; she participated in their first exhibition and was a key artistic and social figure within their circle. Morisot was also a strong encouraging influence on other female Impressionist painters living in Paris at the time, such as Mary Cassatt and Eva Gonzalès.

Most Important Art

Zoom imageBerthe Morisot Famous Art

View of Paris from the Trocadero (1871-72)

This early work is one of the few fully realized landscape works Morisot painted. Completed just after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the work depicts a view of Paris as a city finally at peace. The view is painted from the top of a hill colloquially known as the Trocadero, today the site of the Palais de Chaillot, overlooking the Seine. Beyond it stretches the Champ-de-Mars, site of the 1867 Exposition Universelle just five years before, which Manet had painted, famously, from nearly the same spot as Morisot does in this work. Now cleared of the massive exhibition buildings, the Champ-de-Mars appears barren and brown, as if its grass has died during the winter. This once-bustling portion of the city, whose fecund fields that showcased industry now lie fallow in Morisot's depictions, mirrors the sort of windswept silence of the larger panorama. The gray sky, opening slightly to a splash of blue at the very top of the canvas, hints at the tumult of the events of the previous five years - the exposition, the war, the fall of Napoleon III's Second Empire, and the Paris Commune - and the notion that the proverbial smoke is, perhaps, finally clearing from Paris in their collective aftermath.

The three figures in the foreground are probably Morisot's sisters Yves and Edma, accompanied by Yves' daughter. They are separated from the cityscape beyond by a dark but porous fence, and the road on which they stand is a dusty beige, likely indicative of the way in which Morisot and her sisters, as bourgeois women, were excluded from the everyday life of the city and from many professional opportunities as artists. As the empty ground on the women's side of the fence suggests, this was not an appealing prospect. The painting gives no suggestion that the very ground of the Trocadero that the women stand on would be massively redeveloped just six years later for the 1878 Exposition Universelle, intended to demonstrate that France, and especially Paris, had recovered from the recent traumatic events.
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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Peter Clericuzio

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Peter Clericuzio
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First published on 15 Dec 2016. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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