The Extraordinary Life of Alexandra David-Néel

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1933 in Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1933 in Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel is one of the most extraordinary women I have ever read about. She was a Buddhist scholar and teacher, a prolific writer, and from an early age an inveterate, often solitary, traveler. She became an opera singer to support herself and traveled over much of China and Tibet disguised as a beggar. However, she is probably most well-known as the first western woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa.

Alexandra David-Néel was born on October 24, 1868, to a French father, Louis Pierre David, and a Belgian mother, Alexandrine Borghmans David. Louis David was a school teacher turned revolutionary journalist who fled France after Louis Napoleon’s coup d’etat in 1851. He settled in Louvain, Belgium where he met Alexandrine. She was 20 years his junior and they were not well-matched in intellect or interests.

Although, Alexandra grew up in Belgium, her father received permission to travel to Paris shortly before her birth so that she could be born a French citizen. Alexandra’s memories of her childhood sound bleak. She remembered her father as aloof and her mother as being primarily interested in social concerns. She felt neglected and unloved.

As a child, Alexandra had a longing to travel, but not to see sites and people; she was looking for solitude. She found this to an extent in reading, but also ran away on several occasions. The first was when she was five years old and was found in a nearby forest. At fifteen, she ventured farther afield, walking from Ostend where the family was vacationing, into the Netherlands and crossing over to England. Another time, Alexandra traveled by train to Switzerland and hiked over the Saint-Gotthard Pass through the Alps. Both trips were without her parents knowledge and ended when she ran out of money.

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1886 (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1886 (source)

As a young woman, she rejected Catholicism and began to study comparative religions. She attended lectures and discussions at the Theosophical Society in Paris, which is where she probably first encountered Buddhism and became fascinated by Far Eastern cultures. But the place in Paris which made the most dramatic impression on Alexandra was the Musée Guimet, a museum devoted to Asian art. The museum was founded by Émile Étienne Guimet, who was commissioned to study religions of the Far East by the minister of public instruction in France. There in a small reading room, Alexandra found her longed for solitude and as she would say later, her vocation.

In 1890, Alexandra decided to use the money from a small inheritance to travel to India. She traveled by ship to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then by train all over the Indian sub-continent. On her journey she studied the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit under Annie Besant, and yoga with Swami Bhaskarananda of Varanasi. She was gone for almost a year and as before, returned home when she was almost out of money.

Louis David had had a reversal of fortune, and Alexandra needed to find a way to support herself. She had always been talented musically and decided to become an opera singer. Beginning in 1896, she toured with several opera companies, including Opéra Comique and L’Opéra d’Athènes, until she took a position as director with Casino de Tunis in 1902. The next year, she changed directions and became a journalist, writing for both English and French magazines.

It was in Tunis where Alexandra met and lived with Philippe-François Néel, a Frenchman who was working in Tunis as a railroad engineer. A friend remembered their relationship as one of affection and mutual respect, but it was definitely out of the ordinary. On August 3, 1904, Alexandra and Philippe were married at the French consulate in Tunis. Five days later, they returned to France and went in different directions.

Later that year in December, Alexandra’s father died. Her trip home and the cold reception from her mother launched her into a period of deep self-analysis and a realization of what her life would be like if she pursued marriage and motherhood. She came to the conclusion that “freedom for her was the most important thing in life,” and she had to create her own life on her own terms.

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1924 at Lhassa, Tibet (source)

Alexandra David-Néel c. 1924 at Lhasa, Tibet (source)

Alexandra wrote of her struggles to Philippe. “You are the best husband one could dream of, I acknowledge it without hesitation and it is for that reason I am tormented by a situation that is extremely painful for you.” He accepted her position, at least in time, with good grace, and although they never had a conventional marriage, Philippe never asked for a divorce and continued to support her in many ways until his death 40 years later.

Between her father’s death and 1911, Alexandra began building her life on her terms. She studied, attended lectures, wrote articles, and took short trips, including the occasional visit to see Philippe. She knew she wanted to go back to India and finally felt ready in August of 1911. In her previous travels, especially to Indochina with the opera company, she felt that she belonged in the east.

Once in India, she had a wide range of experiences, from garden parties and lunch with the wives of the Governor of Madras and the British Viceroy, to visiting ashrams and staying with friends in the “native quarter.” She collected information from every source for future articles. In 1912, she decided that she wanted to interview the 13th Dalai Lama. She was the first western woman granted an audience with him and he was so impressed with her knowledge of Buddhist doctrine that he encouraged her to learn the Tibetan language.

In 1910, the Dalai Lama had been granted refuge in Darjeeling in the province of Sikkim, in the Himalayan foothills. While there Alexandra also met Sidkeong Tulka, the Crown Prince of Sikkim and at his invitation traveled to Gangtok, the capital, to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. She eventually took a small apartment in the monastery of Podang outside Gangtok, where she hired a tutor to help her with the language. She took frequent trips on foot and horseback to remote monasteries, traveling with porters for her camping gear and at first Darwasandup, her interpreter, and later Yongden, a boy who would be her traveling companion for the rest of his life.

From 1914 to 1916, Alexandra spent a winter secluded in a cave in the Himalayas and twice crossed the border illegally into Tibet. The first time to visit the Chorten Nyima monastery and the second to visit Tashilhunpo. On her return from the second visit, she was deported from India because of these crossings. By this time, she was determined to visit Lhasa, and now she knew she would have to enter through China.

Aphur Yongden c. 1933 (source)

Aphur Yongden c. 1933 (source)

Alexandra and Yongden left India and traveled through Burma, Japan, and Korea, usually staying at Buddhist monasteries, and arrived in Peking on October 31, 1917. They began their time in China by staying roughly three years at the Kumbum monastery near Lake Koko Nor. It was an unusual privilege for a woman, extended to her because of her age and her association with the Dalai Lama, but it couldn’t last indefinitely. (Yongden was a lama and could have stayed if he chose.)

When they left the monastery, they traveled to various places, even up to the Gobi desert on two occasions. Much of the area, at the time, had not been accurately mapped and knowing their ultimate destination was Lhasa, they took circuitous routes to avoid suspicion. It was dangerous. There were bandits in addition to the usual dangers women face. Alexandra carried a pistol, which she never had to use, although she did fend off an attacker with a small whip on one occasion.

Finally, they reached a small mission, north of Lichiang along the Mekong River from which they intended to approach Tibet. Saying that she was going on a short trip to collect botanicals, she dismissed her porters and took off alone with Yongden. Once away from the others, Alexandra assumed her disguise as a peasant woman. She darkened her hair and extended it with braids of yak hair, darkened her face, and put on a rough robe made of wool. They looked like a peasant woman traveling with her son, a lama journeying to Lhasa.

In the Kha Karpo mountains at Dokar Pass, Alexandra and Yongden crossed the border into Tibet. They still had hundreds of miles to go over uncharted territory. Most of the rivers and mountains they crossed didn’t appear on any map that they knew of, and in many cases had probably never been seen by westerners. The terrain was rough; the Dokar Pass itself is at an elevation over 14,000 feet and the weather at times was brutal. In order to avoid attracting attention, Alexandra only used the white tent she carried in her pack when it could blend in with the snow and help provide camouflage.

The most anticipated and tense moment came at the toll bridge at Giamdo Dzong. From here they would take the China Road to Lhasa, but first they would need a pass. Alexandra believed that the best way to learn about a people and their culture was to live among them. This trip had proven that idea true. Because Yongden was a lama, they were welcomed into the homes of many peasants and she was accepted as his mother. At the toll bridge, the same was true. Yongden went into the checkpoint to request passes, she sat on the doorstep and chanted. No one appeared to give her a second thought.

The same held true when they finally arrived at Lhasa. They arrived in February just in time for the month long celebration of the New Year. Instead of having the way cleared for her by servants as in the past, this time Alexandra was simply one of the thousands of celebrating pilgrims, and she loved it. She watched processions and tested her disguise by going to tea shops, bazaars, and having conversations with people at the inn where she stayed. Finally it was time to try for her ultimate goal, visiting the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama.

Yongden approached two Tibetan villagers and offered to show them the Potala. They gladly accepted the opportunity to have a lama accompany them, and Alexandra humbly walked behind the three men. As at the checkpoint, no one paid her any attention and she was able to feast her eyes on the Palace and the view of Lhasa from the roof. She was satisfied.

Potala Palace at Lhasa (source)

Potala Palace at Lhasa (source)

They had been in Lhasa for two months and Alexandra chose to return home via India. She wanted to make the point that the British government couldn’t prevent her from going to Lhasa. She took the precaution of stopping at Gyantze and having David Macdonald, the British Trade Agent, verify her journey. She had been gone for almost fourteen years.

Alexandra and Yongden returned to Tibet via the Soviet Union in 1937, where they circumambulated the holy mountain Amnye Machen and stayed at Tachienlu (now Kangding), so that Alexandra could read and translate more sacred literature. They returned from their final journey in 1946 and settled in Digne-les-Bains, in southeastern France. There, Yongden died in 1955 at the age of 56. Alexandra continued to study and write until close to her death on September 8, 1969, just one month before her 101st birthday. At her request, Yongden’s ashes were mixed with hers and they were scattered in the Ganges River at Varanasi.

Alexandra wrote over 30 books and numerous articles, including My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City (1927) and Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), her most famous work.

Lhasa in 1938, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-07-089 / CC-BY-SA (source)

Lhasa in 1938, Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-07-089 / CC-BY-SA (source)

Resources
A Mystic in Tibet – Alexandra David-Néel
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller

 

Poetry, History, and Dime Novels: The Literary Works of the Fuller Sisters

Metta Victoria Fuller (source)

Metta Victoria Fuller (source)

Sisters Frances Auretta and Metta Victoria Fuller both made their mark on the literary world of the 19th century. Frances became well-known for writing history, particularly of the Northwest, while Metta wrote primarily popular fiction, including the newly popular Dime Novels. Although they made their mark writing in different genres, they began their careers in much the same way, writing for local publications in Ohio and for the Home Journal (now Town and Country), founded by Nathaniel Parker Willis and George Morris. By 1848, they had moved to New York City together where they met with immediate success.

“One in spirit and equal in genius, these most interesting and brilliant ladies – both still in earliest youth – are undoubtedly destined to occupy a very distinguished and permanent place among the native authors of this land.” ~ N. P. Willis

Frances was born in Rome, New York, on May 23, 1826, the oldest of five daughters of Adonijah and Lucy Fuller. The family moved several times, including to Erie, Pennsylvania, where Metta, the third daughter, was born on March 2, 1831. They finally settled in Wooster, Ohio in 1839, where the girls were able to attend a female seminary. There they both discovered a love of literature and a talent for writing. By the time they moved to New York City in 1848, they were both published and welcomed into literary circles.

Around the same time the sisters moved to New York, Frances published her first novel, Anizetta of Guajira: or The Creole of Cuba. In 1851, she published jointly with Metta a book of poetry, Poems of Sentiment and Imagination. Later in life, Frances referred to it as “mistaken kindness which induced  her friends to advise the publication of these youthful productions.” The time Frances spent in New York was shortened, however, because their father died in 1850 and she needed to return to Ohio to help the family,

Metta’s first novel, The Last Days of Tul, a story about Mayan civilization, had been published in 1847, when she was only fifteen. When Frances returned home, she decided to remain in New York and over the next couple of years her success surpassed that of her sister with the publication of several novels including, The Senator’s Son, or, The Maine Law; a Last Refuge (1853) a temperance novel, and Mormon Wives (1856) a fictional attack on polygamy. In 1856, she married Orville James Victor and began work with him as an editor of Cosmopolitan Art Journal. She also served as the editor at Home magazine, a Beadle & Company monthly.  In 1860, she took over editing the art journal so that Orville. would be free to develop a new series of books for Beadle in the new  “Dime novel” genre.

Together Metta and Orville had nine children, but it didn’t keep her from writing. In 1860 alone, she wrote three “dime novels” and she went on to publish over 100 under the pseudonym Seeley Regester. Her books were very popular. Two of her best-known works are Maum Guinea and Her Plantation “Children” (1862) and The Dead Letter (1866). She also wrote for periodicals of the time including Godey’s Lady’s Book. Over the decades she was able to adjust her style of writing to suit the times, from reform literature to satire and whimsey. By 1870, she supposedly received $25,000 for a group of stories.

Frances Fuller Victor (source)

Frances Fuller Victor (source)

After Frances left New York, the family moved to St. Clair, Michigan where she met Jackson Barritt from Pontiac. They were married on June 16, 1853, and took up homesteading near Omaha, Nebraska. The marriage didn’t survive and Frances decided to rejoin Metta in New York. When she arrived Orville had begun to edit Beadle’s dime novels and Frances fit right it. In 1862, she wrote two novels for the series that portrayed Nebraska farm life, East and West; or, The Beauty of Willard’s Mill (1862) and The Land Claim: A Tale of the Upper Missouri (1862). She also obtained a divorce in March of 1862 and in May married Orville’s brother Henry Clay Victor.

Henry was a naval officer and in 1863 was reassigned to San Francisco, California. There Frances became a regular contributor to the San Francisco Bulletin and the Golden Era, a literary weekly. One of her contributions was a series of society articles under the pseudonym Florence Fane which were evidently quite humorous.

In 1865, after Henry resigned from the navy, the couple moved to Oregon, where Frances discovered her literary strength in writing history. In addition to submitting stories and poems to western periodicals, she wrote The River of the West: The Adventures of Joe Meek (1870) a biography, and a travel book entitled All Over Oregon and Washington (1872). In doing her research, Frances conducted interviews with many of the pioneers who were still living as well as going through family papers and archives amassing a huge amount of material.

Henry was lost at sea in 1875 and Frances had to make her living through her writing. She collected many of her stories and poems written for periodicals and published them under the name The New Penelope (1877) through the Bancroft Publishing House. She had known Hubert Howe Bancroft for many years and he was aware of her writing and desire to publish a history of Oregon. He planned to publish a series of books on the History of the Pacific States and asked her to come work for him. In need of money, Frances took his offer and moved back to San Francisco.

Frances remained with Bancroft until 1790 through the publication of the twenty-eighth volume of a planned thirty-nine. Although Bancroft claimed authorship of the entire series, it has been established that Frances was the author of both volumes on Oregon; the volume on Washington, Idaho, and Montana; the volume on Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming; and much of the material in the volumes on California, the Northwest Coast, and British Columbia.

In 1890, Frances returned to Oregon to live the remainder of her life. Metta had died of cancer on June 26, 1885, and Frances had no children, so she continued her literary efforts in the place she had come to love. She revised some of her earlier work and was commissioned by the state legislature to produce The Early Indian Wars of Oregon, published in 1894. She continued writing for the Oregon Historical Quarterly until her death on November 14, 1902.

The Oregon Daily Journal, Portland, Oregon, 15 Nov 1902, Sat • Page 6

The Oregon Daily Journal, Portland, Oregon, 15 Nov 1902, Sat • Page 6

Resources
“Victor, Frances Auretta Fuller” by Franklin Walker, Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume III, eds. James, Edward T. et al.
“Victor, Metta Victoria Fuller” by William H. Taylor, Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume III, eds. James, Edward T. et al.
Historian of the Northwest. A Woman Who Loved Oregon: Frances Fuller Victor” by William A. Morris, The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 3.
Victor, Metta Victoria Fuller“, by Orso, Miranda (2002).

The Momentous Discovery of Agnes and Margaret Smith

Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt by Berthold Werner (source)

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt by Berthold Werner (source)

In St. Catherine’s monastery at Mount Sinai, there is a special decorated box with an outer wooden cover and an inner glass cover. Inside the box, carefully wrapped in silk is a manuscript which is the oldest extant copy of the four canonical gospels in Syriac. This manuscript was first discovered and photographed by Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, two middle-aged ladies who undertook the journey by camel to the monastery in the late 19th century.

This wasn’t the first journey they had taken. Agnes and Margaret Smith, identical twins, were raised by their father who had a love of travel. Their mother died soon after their birth on January 11,1843, and he decided to raise them on his own. This included educating them “as though they were boys.” At some point he discovered that the girls had a talent for languages and told them that when they learned a language, he would take them to the country where it was spoken. With this incentive, they learned French, Spanish, German, and Italian and were rewarded with wonderful travels.

Irvin in the early 19th century, about 30 miles southwest of Glasgow where the sisters grew up (source)

Irvin in the early 19th century, about 30 miles southwest of Glasgow where the sisters grew up (source)

John Smith was a self-made man, a solicitor with a client base that gave him a respectable income. All of this changed when one of his clients, John Ferguson, died leaving what was at the time, the largest estate to be settled in the courts of Scotland. Ferguson was the recipient of the fortunes of four unmarried uncles who died intestate. He was also a distant relative of John Smith. This event made two great changes in the lives of the sisters. First, on the death of their father, they would become very wealthy, and second their father had to go to America to settle much of the estate. The girls were put into a boarding school, Birkenhead, near Liverpool, having to leave the small town of Irvine where they had grown up.

After the return of John Smith, the sisters continued their education at Birkenhead, then went on to a year of finishing school in London. The family moved to Kilbarchan, a village closer to Glasgow from which Smith could administer the foundation which received the bulk of Ferguson’s wealth. He also might have been thinking of the sister’s futures, hoping to introduce them to appropriate society for young women of wealth. Smith was a practical man, their lifestyle didn’t change drastically, and he framed his will so that the girls wouldn’t be left destitute in the event they married fortune hunters. Sadly, this became important sooner than expected. John Smith died when the girls were only 23 years old.

Bereft of their beloved father and without close relatives to interfere, the sisters decided to take a trip to Egypt. Some may have considered their trip too soon after their father’s death, but they had been raised not to worry too much about what others thought, and traveling brought back many wonderful memories of him. They had been raised strict Presbyterians and Egypt at the time, prior to many ancient archaeological discoveries, was considered the Holy Land, and with a planned trip to Jerusalem after sailing down the Nile, this silenced many critics. This trip (worthy of a post all its own) confirmed for the sisters a maxim that they would abide by for the rest of their travels, that you shouldn’t travel in countries where you don’t know the language. Their journey overland in Europe, down the Danube to Constantinople, then by steamer to Alexandria went without difficulties as the sisters spoke most of the languages they encountered. However, when they reached Egypt, they didn’t speak Arabic. This is something they would remedy on returning home.

Traveling party on a later trip to Cyprus (source)

Traveling party on a later trip to Cyprus (source)

When Agnes and Margaret returned home, there wasn’t much to hold them in the small town of Kilbarchan, so they moved to London. Over the next 15 – 20 years, the sisters would continue their studies learning ancient Greek and Hebrew, but also learning to speak Arabic and modern Greek. Of course they also continued to travel, including one interesting adventure to Cyprus and Greece where they traveled over the Peloponnese on horseback.

It was also during this time that both sisters met and married wonderful men who were very well-suited to them. After a 12 year courtship, Margaret married James Gibson in 1883. Unfortunately, he died only three years later in October of 1886. Margaret was so distraught that Agnes was afraid to leave her alone. Needing to get away, but not wanting to take a long trip, the sisters went to Cambridge for a month. It was here that Agnes met Samuel Lewis, who she married the next year.

Samuel Lewis was an administrator of the Parker Library, an expert in ancient texts, a collector and an inveterate traveler. He also was very gregarious and frequently brought home guests, introducing Agnes and Margaret to academic circles which were usually closed to women. Ironically, Agnes’s marriage also lasted only three years, ending with Samuel’s death in 1891. As had become their pattern, the sisters began planning another trip, this time to Sinai to travel in the footsteps of Moses.

Mount Sinai, the designated place where Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments, was also the site of St. Catherine’s monastery. Agnes and Margaret were aware of the recent discoveries at the monastery, including Codex Sinaiticus, discovered by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1859, and hoped to gain access to manuscripts. A friend and paleographer, Rendel Harris, had recently been to the monastery and had a good relationship with the monks. He told Agnes about a cache of manuscripts written in Syriac which he had not had time to examine. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic once spoken over much of the Middle East, and you won’t be surprised to learn that Agnes began to study it.

Over the months of planning, Agnes obtained a working knowledge of Syriac, and Harris also convinced the sisters to learn to use a camera. Once in Cairo, Egypt, (this time able to speak Arabic) they were able to hire an excellent dragoman, to organize their trip across the Sinai desert to the monastery, as well as introduce themselves to the Patriarch of the Greek Church. Supplied with letters of introduction from the Archbishop and Rendel Harris, the sisters set out for Suez. On January 28, 1892, they began their nine-day journey across the Sinai desert by camel.

Two pages from the Sinaitic Palimpsest (source)

Two pages from the Sinaitic Palimpsest. You can see how the underwriting from the original text shows through. (source)

The party was warmly received by the Prior of the monastery and Galaktéon, the librarian who fondly remembered Rendel Harris. Once their camp was set up in the garden, the sisters attended the afternoon church service, but on Monday February 8, they began the work they had come to do. Although Galaktéon didn’t understand why they wanted to see the oldest manuscripts as opposed to the beautiful illuminated volumes, he gave them access to the dark closet Rendel Harris remembered. There Agnes found an intriguing volume whose pages were stuck together.

Using their tea kettle to steam the pages, they were able to open the manuscript and discovered it was a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a manuscript whose pages have been recycled. The vellum has been scraped to remove the original text and been written over. Over time, however, the original words begin to show through. Agnes could read enough of the underlying Syriac to tell that she was looking at an old copy of the four canonical gospels. The upper layer was a text about the lives of women saints dated 778 CE, so the underlying gospels must be much older.

Agnes and Margaret photographed the entire manuscript as well as other documents, taking 1000 pictures over all, and hurried back to England to tell scholars about their find. Their challenges weren’t over. They had to develop their photographs, which they did themselves, and Agnes had to convince Professors Robert Bensly and Francis Burkitt, Syriac experts, of the value of their find. This she did and the next year a second expedition was mounted, this time including Bensley and Burkitt with their wives, and Rendel Harris.

The second expedition resulted in the transcription of the manuscript, and cataloging of all of the Syriac and Arabic texts in the library. These catalogs translated from Syriac to Greek by Agnes and and Arabic to Greek by Margaret were invaluable to the monks and to future scholars. Although, the expedition was filled with tension and mutual suspicion, eventually the manuscript was published.

The Syriac Sinaiticus, or Sinaitic Palimpsest, as it is now called, dates to the late 4th century and is the oldest known copy of the gospels in Syriac. It was the most important manuscript find since the Codex Sinaiticus and over time launched Agnes and Margaret into serious careers. Their work wasn’t honored by the University of Cambridge, which didn’t admit women, but they received honorary degrees from the universities at Halle, Heidelberg, Dublin and St. Andrews.

Resources

Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice
Professor Janet Soskice videotaped 52 minute lecture at Catholic University’s Mullen Library (2009)
(I highly recommend both the book and the lecture by Professor Janet Soskice.)
How the Codex Was Found by Margaret Dunlop Gibson at Internet Archive
“Sisters of Semitics: A Fresh Appreciation of the Scholarship of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson” by Rebecca J. W. Jefferson, Medieval Feminist Forum (free download)

Would you be interested in reading more about the sisters adventures? If so, let me know in the comments.

Agnes Smith Lewis, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Agnes Smith Lewis, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Margaret Dunlop Gibson, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

Margaret Dunlop Gibson, original photo by Kaihsu Tai (source)

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 3 – Berthe Morisot

"Berthe Morisot Painting" (1865) by Edma Morisot (source)

“Berthe Morisot Painting” (1865) by her sister Edma Morisot (source)

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.

"The Mother and Sister of the Artist" (1869/70) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“The Mother and Sister of the Artist” (1869/70) by Berthe Morisot (source)

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.

"The Cradle" (1872) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“The Cradle” (1872) by Berthe Morisot (source)

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.

"Eugène Manet à l'Ile de Wight" (1875) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Eugène Manet à l’Ile de Wight” (1875) by Berthe Morisot (source)

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.

"Child Among the Hollyhocks" (1881) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Child Among the Hollyhocks” (1881) by Berthe Morisot (source)

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.

"Reading" (1873) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“Reading” (1873) by Berthe Morisot (source)

“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

Resources

Berthe Morisot“, The Famous Artists
Edma and Berthe“, Women in the Act of Painting

“Les Trois Grandes Dames” of Impressionism – Part 2 – Marie Bracquemond

Marie Bracquemond (source)

Marie Bracquemond (source)

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.

"Woman with an Umbrella", 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“Woman with an Umbrella”, 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

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.

"On the Terrace at Sèvres", 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“On the Terrace at Sèvres”, 1880, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

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.”

"Under the Lamp", 1887, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“Under the Lamp”, 1887, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

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.

"The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sevres", 1890, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

“The Artist’s Son and Sister in the Garden at Sèvres”, 1890, by Marie Bracquemond (source)

Resources

Jean-Paul Bouillon and Elizabeth Kane, “Marie Bracquemond“, Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 5, No. 2 (Autumn, 1984 – Winter, 1985), pp. 21-27