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: Berthe Morisot and Her Circle


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The thirty paintings in the exhibition called Berthe Morisot and Her Circle, which will open with a Member's Preview on November 10, 1953, and continue through December, 27, tell a unique story of talent and friendship. These paintings, all of which have been lent by Berthe Morisot's daughter, Mme Ernest Rouart, come from the house at 40 Rue Valéry, formerly 40 Rue de Villejust, where the artist actually painted the majority of the loans and where she entertained the other painters represented in the exhibition. The twenty paintings by Berthe Morisot provide an opportunity to evaluate her importance as a member of the Impressionist Group, while the ten paintings by her brother-in-law Edouard Manet and her friends Degas, Monet, and Renoir present a history of the range and intimacy of her associations. Despite the fact that her paintings were first exhibited by Durand-Ruel in New York as early as 1886, the story of her career is still little known in this country, and, after viewing her works, there is little more to say because her paintings tell the story. As Paul Valéry has written, "She paints her life and lives her painting."Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in Bourges where her father was Prefect. A few years later the family moved to Paris, where her father became Conseiller à la Cour des Comptes. Although she was brought up in a cultured and refined atmosphere, with every possible advantage, her education was highly orthodox. Fortunately, her parents, who spoke constantly of paintings and traveled everywhere to see them, proved sympathetic to her request for lessons in painting, and provided her with instruction of a much higher caliber than that of the "finishing school" type. However, it was in the end due to her own strength of character and mature temperament that she developed into a professional painter of the first quality.From the time she was sixteen she pursued her studies with the same devotion and fire with which she latter pursued her painting. After three years with Guichard, a follower of Delacroix, her parents arranged lessons with the celebrated Corot. Berthe Morisot, as well as her sister, who shared Corot's instruction, greatly profited from six years of the old man's wise counsel. She painted out-of-doors with him, often at Ville d'Avray. To encourage his débutantes Corot allowed them to copy his own landscape, but at the same time urged them to work from nature. In this and in other subtle ways he contributed to her rapid development as a draftsman and her love of landscape painting. His influence can be seen in the background of her earliest painting, Under the Lilacs, in the present exhibition. This work recalls Corot, but only superficially, for the young Berthe had absorbed the lesson without becoming an imitator. Corot has introduced her to a new world, that of creative art expressed through one's personal observations of nature and life.During her holidays Berthe Morisot traveled to all parts of France, and occasionally to Italy and Spain, to study the great paintings of the past. When in Paris she spent hours at the Louvre, the best possible school she could have attended. She copied the works of Mantegna and Veronese, Rubens and Boucher, but most of all the paintings by the masters of light. It was while actually copying a painting by Rubens in the Louvre that she was introduced to Edouard Manet by their mutual friend Henri Fantin-Latour. Many young artists had met at the Louvre, but this meeting, which took place in 1868, marked a turning point in Berthe Morisot's life. The perceptive young woman developed a great admiration for Manet which is reflected in his influence in a number of her paintings in this exhibition. Before long Mme Morisot and her daughters were invited to Mme Manet's Tuesday-evenings-at-home. Consequently, Berthe not only became better acquainted with the hostess, who can be seen in Manet's Portrait of the Artist's Parents in this exhibition, but also the painter and his young brother Eugène. In addition to the members of the Manet family she had the privilege of meeting under intimate circumstances some of the most distinguished artists of the century, including Baudelaire, Zola, Chabrier, Saint-Saëns, Degas and Puvis de Chavannes.Because of this association Berthe Morisot has frequently been called Manet's pupil. She was actually not his pupil but his fellow worker, each benefiting from the friendship. Manet taught Berthe Morisot the free manipulation of the brush which was characteristic of Impressionism and which she employed with marked success in recording her immediate impressions of life around her. On the other hand she persuaded Manet to paint out-of-doors. Although Monet and Renoir were already doing so, Manet had preferred his studio. Thus, the fact that Berthe Morisot had as a very young woman discovered her own gift for painting en plein air was to influence deeply the course followed by Manet. Within a short time she met other members of the group with whom she shared honors at the first Impressionist exhibition held at Nadar's in 1874.The same year Berthe Morisot spent her summer holiday with the Manet family at Fécamp, and in December she married the artist's younger brother, Eugène. Henceforth she was to spend her winters in Paris and her summers in the country, mostly at Bougival, or traveling. Eugène Manet encouraged his wife to join the Impressionists in their struggle against academic doctrine. She participated in every Impressionist exhibition with the exception of that in 1879, the year when her only child Julie, now Mme Rouart, was born. By and large, her paintings were very favorably received. She devoted every effort, not expended on her painting, to the Impressionist cause, counseling and encouraging her friends who so often met at the house which Eugène Manet built at 40 Rue de Villejust on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. She thoroughly enjoyed receiving Manet and his wife, Degas, Renoir, and the others in her white salon, hung with paintings which are now in this exhibition. She counted among her very close friends a number of musicians and writers, the closest of whom was perhaps Stéphane Mallarmé, who occasionally read his latest works before an audience composed of painters whose names are today household words. The picture of this salon recalls eighteenth-century France, but in this case the hostess was a woman of immense creative talent. She did more than guide the conversation, she participated in heated discussions on the importance of light in painting, especially light created by the use of color as found in such canvases as Eugène Manet and His Daughter at Bougival.Although Berthe Morisot shared this interest in light and color with the other Impressionists, she retained her own individuality in her treatment of them in her paintings. For example Two Children Playing could have been painted only by this woman who loved to bathe her paintings in light. In most of these works of her early maturity she employed an unusually free brush stroke. This is especially noticeable in the painting called In the Garden in which the brush strokes, at first glance, appear to move in every direction in an uncontrolled manner, but, on a second look, seem to animate the subject in a most vigorous way. This method was certainly the result of Berthe Morisot's own inspiration. She found it adapt to painting on the spot. The canvases dated between 1879 and 1889, portraying a series of charming scenes of her happy family life, are remarkable for their freshness. Her grandson, Denis Rouart, has called these paintings "Feasts of Light."After the death of her brother-in-law Edouard Manet in 1883, Renoir became her closest friend among the Impressionists and, after the death of her husband, Eugène Manet a few years later, she turned to Renoir more and more for advice as well as friendship. Like him, and also Cézanne, she had begun to suspect some of the dangers of Impressionism, with its emphasis on light at the expense of other elements. And, like Renoir, she applied herself with greater concentration on line and form. Her ability as a draftsman became clearly efficient in her last works, such as the Girl Sitting on the Sofa. Although still bathed in light the color has been subordinated to an over all harmony in which her draftsmanship results in a very firm pattern. Although her drawings, alas, have not been included in this exhibition, they must be mentioned, for her ability to manipulate chalk or pencil has never been surpassed by another woman. Her watercolors must also be mentioned, for in this field she equaled the best of the Impressionists. With a few simple brush strokes, mostly transparent washes, she was able to express herself completely. In pastel too she was a past master, ever so sensitive to the play of light on color in her surroundings.Berthe Morisot reached her full maturity as a painter two or three years before her untimely death at the age of fifty-four. She created an art which remains fresh because it remains free of artificiality of any sort. Her choice of content was natural. She must always be considered a painter of nature whether it be landscape or children playing underfoot in her studio, for she captured the color of the first as easily as she observed the gestures or movements of the second. The methods through which she expressed herself were always appropriate. She was able to embellish commonplace sights with exquisite harmonies, never overstating her point, but presenting it with delicacy and nuance. Paul Valéry has described her paintings simply as "The diary of a woman who expresses herself by color and drawing."Berthe Morisot died in 1895 of typhoid fever. Realizing that the end was approaching, she named Renoir the guardian of her daughter Julie, then sixteen, to whom she wrote a touching letter to instruct her to make generous gifts to the other Impressionists and to suggest that she invite her young cousins to come to live with her in the house on the Rue de Villejust. The street has since been renamed the Rue Valéry because the distinguished French writer shared the house after his marriage to one of the cousins. A few years after her mother's death, Julie married Ernest Rouart, the son of one of the greatest collectors of the work of the Impressionists. M. and Mme Rouart continued to live in the house, where every picture served to remind them of the glory of French art. With characteristic generosity, they presented the Louvre with some of the paintings by Manet and Morisot, which attract so many American tourists today. Mme Rouart, now a widow, continues to live in the house where she receives all of those interested in her mother's paintings and her mother's associations with the same vivacious mind and spirit which must have been Berthe Morisot's. Mme Rouart's generosity has made it possible for the American tour of her collection to include the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Berthe Morisot: Self Portrait, 1885-1886. Oil on canvas. Lent to the exhibition, Berthe Morisot and Her Circle by Mme Ernest Rouart, Paris.
  2. Berthe Morisot: In the Garden, 1883. Oil on canvas. Free, vivacious brushstrokes marked the artist's middle Impressionist technique.
  3. Berthe Morisot: Eugène Manet and His Daughter at Bougival, 1881. Oil on canvas. This portrait shows Morisot's interest in out-of-door subjects bathed in light.
  4. Berthe Morisot: Two Children Playing, 1886. Oil on canvas. Julie Manet and Marthe Givaudan, daughter of the artist's concierge.
  5. Berthe Morisot: Girl Sitting on a Sofa, 1893. Oil on canvas. A late painting of the artist's niece, Jeanne Pontillon, afterwards Mme Paul Valéry.
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Berthe Morisot and Her Circle," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 42, no. 25 (November, 1953): 126-131.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009