The Salon de Paris was the official annual exhibition of the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Sponsored by the government (until 1881) and judged by academicians, it was the place to be recognized as an artist in France of the 19th century. As time went on the juries became more conservative, specifically they were not receptive to the artists who came to be called Impressionists. So these artists broke away and held their own exhibitions beginning in 1874. Three of the women, dubbed “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism by Gustave Geffroy, were among these artists: Mary Cassatt, Marie Bracquemond, and Berthe Morisot.
Unlike Cassatt and Bracquemond, Berthe Morisot’s artistic aspirations were supported by her family. Her parents were even warned by Joseph Guichard, the artist who gave Berthe and her sisters lessons, “Given your daughters’ natural gifts, it will not be petty drawing-room talents that my instruction will achieve; they will become painters.” Of the three daughters two of them did just that, Edma and Berthe. Although Edma gave up painting after her marriage to a naval officer, Berthe went on to an illustrious career. Edma always supported Berthe’s decision to continue painting, even after her marriage, and they remained close throughout their lives.
Born on January 14, 1841, Berthe was the third child of an affluent bourgeois family. After the daughter’s initial instruction, and in spite of Guichard’s warning, Edma and Berthe followed in the footsteps of other artists and registered as copyists at the Louvre where they met and became friends with other artists. Both are thought to have studied under Camille Carot, who encouraged them to begin painting outdoors (plein air) and under Achile Oudinot, both painters of the Barbizon School. Berthe also briefly studied sculpture as well, but none of her pieces are known to survive.
Berthe’s first acceptance in the Salon was in 1864 when she was 23 years old. Edma was also accepted and they both exhibited together until Edma married in 1868. Berthe continued to exhibit regularly at the Salon until 1873, and beginning in 1874 exhibited with the Impressionists. By 1872, her career was firmly established when a private dealer, Druand-Ruel, purchased 22 of her paintings.
Edma wasn’t the only one to fall in love in the 1860s. At some point (sources vary) the sisters became acquainted with Édouard Manet. The families became close with Manet and Morisot influencing each others painting over time. Through Édouard, Berthe met his brother Eugène Manet. They married in 1874 and had one daughter, Julie, born in 1878.
Berthe worked in oil, watercolor and pastel and tended to paint domestic life and portraits. She frequently used family and friends as models, including her daughter Julie. Her selection of subjects was somewhat hampered by her gender and social status, although she did eventually paint nudes later in her career. But what was appreciated by many and in fact made her work stand out, were her feminine subjects and style.
Eugène Manet died in 1892 and Berthe’s own health wasn’t good. She followed him in death on March 2, 1895. Julie was just 15 years old and was left in the care of Stéphane Mallarmé, the French poet and critic, and good family friend.
“Only one woman created a style, and that woman is Madame Morisot. Her pictures are the only pictures painted by a woman that could not be destroyed without creating a blank, a hiatus in the history of art.” ~ George Moore