I know little about art with the exception of a passing acquaintance with the Impressionists from taking French in school. Sadly, as in many other areas of my education, it was the male Impressionists we learned about not the women. Although left out of our books, they weren’t absent and today we look at Marie Bracquemond who, with Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, has been called one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism.
Marie Anne Caroline Quivoron was born on December 1, 1840 near Brest in northwestern France. Her father died shortly after her birth and her mother’s second marriage resulted in frequent moves before they finally settled in Étampes, south of Paris. As a girl, she first painted a birthday present for her mother using pigment from crushed flowers. A family friend, impressed by her efforts, gave her a box of watercolors.
Beginning instruction in her teens under M. Wasser, she was accomplished enough by 1857 to have a painting accepted by the Paris Salon. This led to an introduction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and work in his studio. Her exposure there led to commissions for original work as well as making important copies in the Louvre.
She didn’t stay in Ingres’s studio for long, considering him a “despot” with “low esteem of women artists.” In a letter in 1860, she said of M. Ingres: “He wished to impose limits. He would assign to them [women] only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes. . . . I wish to work at painting, not to paint some flowers, but to express those feelings that art inspires in me.”
It was in the Louvre that Marie met Félix Bracquemond. Félix was a prolific printmaker, painter and ceramist. He was prominent in both literary and artistic circles and friends with many Impressionists, although he didn’t share their preference for color over line or working outside the studio. He was also loud, arrogant, and some would say obnoxious. Marie was always properly chaperoned by her mother and sister, Louise, and Félix asked a friend to arrange an introduction.
For two years Marie and Félix were inseparable in the Louvre. They analyzed masterpieces and surely discovered their differing tastes, but Marie found herself submitting to his dominant personality. Their engagement lasted for two years, but finally they married in 1869 in spite of her mother’s opposition. Their only son, Pierre, was born the following year. Always in delicate health, Marie’s health began to decline after the birth.
Their relationship was tempestuous. Félix had no prejudice against women as artists, but according to Pierre, no one, male or female, could change his staunchly held opinions. However, he did teach Marie quite a lot. He introduced her to many other artists as well as new media. Working together at the Haviland studio in Auteuil, Marie designed dinner service plates and created faience tile panels and became very accomplished.
In the late 1870s, Marie’s style began to change under the mentorship of Monet and Renoir. This was more than Félix could tolerate. According to Pierre, he only grudgingly allowed her to exhibit a few of her pieces, three in a private gallery in rue Lafitte and five at the Dudley Gallery in London in 1881. A further influence on Marie was Gauguin, who came to stay with the Bracquemonds in 1886 at Félix’s invitation.
Félix became increasingly critical of Marie’s work and called her ambitions “incurable vanity.” She also tired easily trying to work in addition to keeping up her household responsibilities, which she prioritized. Marie always attended Sunday mass, which gave Félix one more thing to criticize.
Weekly gatherings on Sunday at the Bracquemond home frequently ended in arguments. According to Gustave Geffroy, Félix was “both augumentative and authoritarian. He adored debate . . . but his weakness was that he always wanted to be too right, and if anyone disagreed with him ever so little it would end with growing rage.”
Marie finally gave up the struggle, painting only a few private works after 1890. One of her last paintings was The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sèvres. Most of what we know about Marie’s life comes from an unpublished memoir written by Pierre, La Vie de Félix et Marie Bracquemond. In it he fails to describe Marie’s last years. Evidently, Félix never stopped railing against the Impressionists, but Marie never stopped loving them.
Marie Bracquemond died in Paris on January 17, 1916. Three years after her death, 156 of her works were assembled for a show at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. Only four of those works are now on public display.
Jean-Paul Bouillon and Elizabeth Kane, “Marie Bracquemond“, Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 5, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984 – Winter, 1985), pp. 21-27