Berthe Morisot (January 14, 1841 – March 2, 1895) was a painter and a member of the circle of painters in Paris who became known as the Impressionists. She was described by Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt.
Morisot was born in Bourges, Cher, France, into a successful bourgeois family. According to family tradition, the family had included one of the most prolific Rococo painters of the ancien régime, Fragonard, whose handling of color and expressive, confident brushwork influenced later painters. Both Berthe and her sister, Edma Morisot, chose to become painters.
Berthe Morisot’s family moved to Paris when she was a child. Once Berthe settled on pursuing art, her family did not impede her career. She registered as a copyist at the Louvre. By age twenty, she had met and befriended the important, and pivotal, landscape painter of the Barbizon School, Camille Corot, who excelled in figure painting as well. 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.
Morisot’s first appearance in the Salon de Paris came at the age of twenty-three in 1864, with the acceptance of two landscape paintings. She continued to show regularly in the Salon, to generally favorable reviews, until 1873, the year before the first Impressionist exhibition.
Meanwhile, in 1868 Morisot became acquainted with Édouard Manet. He took a special interest in Morisot, as is evident from his warm portrayal of her in several paintings, including a striking portrait study of Morisot in a black veil, while in mourning for her father’s death (displayed at the top of the article). Correspondence between them bespeaks affection. 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.
Although traditionally Manet has been related as the master and Morisot as the follower, there is evidence that their relationship was a reciprocating one. Morisot had developed her own distinctive artistic style. Records of paintings show Manet’s appreciation of certain stylistic and compositional decisions that Morisot originated. He incorporated some of these characteristics into his own work.
It was Morisot who persuaded Manet to attempt plein air painting, which she had been practicing since having been introduced to it by Corot.
She also drew Manet into the circle of painters who soon became known as the Impressionists. In 1874, Morisot married Manet’s brother, Eugene, and they had one daughter, Julie. Julie Manet became the subject for many of her mother’s paintings and a book of her memoirs Growing Up with the Impressionists: The Diary of Julie Manet, was published in 1987.
Morisot painted what she experienced on a daily basis. Her paintings reflect the 19th-century cultural restrictions of her class and gender. She avoided urban and street scenes as well as the nude figure and, like her fellow female Impressionist Mary Cassatt, focused on domestic life and portraits in which she could use family and personal friends as models. Paintings like The Cradle (1872), in which she depicted current trends for nursery furniture, reflect her sensitivity to fashion and advertising, both of which would have been apparent to her female audience. Her works also include landscapes, portraits, garden settings and boating scenes.
Berthe Morisot died of pneumonia contracted while attending to her daughter Julie’s similar illness on March 2, 1895, in Paris and was interred in the Cimetière de Passy.