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  • Elizabeth Corrall

The Forgotten Voice of Berthe Morisot and Impressionist Women

When I was recently studying the Impressionists and their impact on a changing world at university the only mentions of the female body and its agency that I could find were the references of prostitution in some of Manet’s most famous works. The course contained many references to the women who roamed the streets, painted lurking on street corners, their bodies juxtaposed by the upper class. One of the most famous paintings by the impressionists, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère can be read as one such transaction: the woman, whilst dominant in the piece appears passive to the man (who’s space is the viewers) leaning in towards her reflected in the mirror. As the chaos of a nighttime bar surrounds her, the female presence is dumbed down by the male view of a woman’s body. 


It was not socially acceptable for women to paint in public in the age of Impressionism: meaning that all the references to working women are told from the male perspective. But that doesn’t mean women didn’t have a voice. Women were at the heart of the impressionists, their work secret and concealed in ‘domestic’ spaces that were in the past ridiculed for not being extravagant in a fast paced and evolving world. Painting often in secret, these women captured part of the visual culture of impressionist France that was concealed and highly feminine. 

Berthe Morisot, The Artist’s Sitter at a Window, 1869

 

Berthe Morisot was only meant to paint as a hobby, hiding her painting materials away when visitors came to her house. She simultaneously played the role of an upper-class woman who could not leave the house alone and an artist who helped define and create arguably one of the most impactful European art movements there has ever been. Her swift brush strokes that leave unblended streaks of colour give her paintings the sense of a fleeting moment. They capture the feeling of flowing dresses, dappled light shining through windows and the landscapes that her gender constrained her to painting. These factors were not a limitation to Morisot, rather, the domestic spaces and the women inside them that she painted highlight how Morisot created a reflection of the other side of femininity in the nineteenth-century. The beauty of female bodies and their existence overrules any landscape they could be situated within.

 

Morisot was celebrated in her era, displaying her works frequently at the Salon with names that are now household ones. She sold countless works and yet there was always the sense that her work was lesser than her male counterparts. The feminine story that artists such as Manet and Degas were able to convey of working women rubbing shoulders with the upper class in a modernity that was focussed on transaction and consumption is, of course, just as valuable to the story of Impressionism as Morisot’s works. It has always stuck with me, however, how Morisot is pushed aside to make room for the male perspectives on the women of the nineteenth-century.


Berthe Morisot, The Artists Daughter, Julie, with her Nanny, 1884


Morisot’s paintings are a double-edged sword. Hidden at their birth at risk of judgement and scrutiny that a woman would partake in such a male activity, yet celebrated when they were in the Salon, a male dominated exhibition space. The delicacy of the woman outshined by the male perspective of the beauty of womanhood. It creates this divide where women must be either or, they cannot be bothforms of a woman. The two can coexist but are never to be seen from the same perspective.

 

It was striking to me that the women that my art history course chose to remember were only the ones from the male perspective, the ones who were painted by men and intrinsically for men. The women, Morisot being only one of a long list of names including Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond, and their domestic perspectives which were shut away from society yet celebrated when they had the chance are mere footnotes.

  

Soft, delicate expressions of womanhood were beautifully captured from the gaze of the women experiencing it will forever be some of my favourite paintings from the Impressionists. Morisot and the female impressionists all helped shape a period of art that is forever celebrated and exhibited. These women hide behind the names of Manet, Degas and Monet yet their works created the same impact on the art world. I am hopeful that as Morisot and all the other female impressionists receive more and more dedicated exhibitions their stories will be brought back into the history of art and will remain there as an important perspective on the changing world that Impressionism depicted.


Berthe Morisot, In the Dining Room, 1886

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