[Press Release, Musée Marmottan Monet, February 2012] From 8 March to 1 July 2012, the Musée Marmottan presents the first major retrospective of the work of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) to be held in Paris for almost half a century. One hundred and fifty paintings, pastels, watercolours and drawings in red chalk and charcoal, from museums and private collections all over the world, retrace the career of the Impressionist movement’s best-known woman painter. Works selected for the exhibition cover the whole of Berthe Morisot’s artistic career, from her earliest works c. 1860, to her untimely death at the age of 54, in 1895.
The exhibition opens with an exceptional group of self-portraits, and portraits of Morisot by Edouard Manet (the celebrated painter of Olympia was her brother-in-law). As a founder member of the Impressionist group, and a leading figure in Paris’s artistic and literary circles, Berthe Morisot was also a close friend and associate of Degas, Renoir, Monet, and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
Berthe Morisot’s artistic training, in company with her sister Edma, is captured in the latter’s portrait of Berthe, the sisters’ copies of Veronese painted in the Louvre under the direction of their art master Joseph Guichard, and the View of Gardens of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli by Jean-Baptiste Corot (with whom Berthe later studied). Edma was Berthe’s painting companion until 1869, and her favourite model from 1869 to 1873. Edma abandoned painting after her marriage, and Berthe continued alone, pursuing her career as a leading member of the Impressionist group. At the first Impressionist exhibition, held at the gallery of Paris photographer Nadar in 1874, Berthe Morisot’s work stood out for its feminine subject-matter and delicate style, and her skill in transcribing the limpid atmosphere and light touch of watercolour in her oil paintings, giving her work a particular freshness.
From 1873-4 onwards, cousins, friends and professional models posed for portraits showing women dressed, or dressing, for the ball – including Morisot’s last studies in black – or intimate scenes of everyday life revealing the evolution of the artist’s palette towards more pastel hues, prompting comparisons with Watteau, Bonington and Fragonard. Her daughter Julie, born in 1878, naturally became Berthe Morisot’s favourite model, and the subject of fifteen paintings executed between 1882 and 1888, forming the centrepiece of the exhibition. Beyond Morisot’s fascination for the theme of childhood, the paintings testify to the brilliance of her mature style: colours, handling and painterly effects embody ‘Impressionism par excellence’.
The final part of the exhibition is divided into two sections, one devoted to landscape – a subject treated by Berthe Morisot throughout her life, and the genre of choice for her late experiments in the dissolution of form, c.1894-95 – the other, to Berthe’s three versions of the Cerisier (‘Cherry Tree’) and the Petite Bergère allongée (‘Young shepherdess reclining’) and the last portraits of Julie, works underscoring Berthe Morisot’s late but key interest in large-scale compositions and – from 1885 onwards – in drawing. In this closing section, landscapes bordering on abstraction face contemporary portraits captured in clean, delicate outlines, each echoing the other and illustrating the rich diversity of artistic experimentation (drawing, and the dissolution of form) with which Morisot engaged in her last years.
The exhibition layout takes a fresh look at the work of Berthe Morisot. More than a painter of women and children, a self-conscious bridge between the painting of the 18th and 19th centuries, the exhibition invites us to see in her one of the Impressionist movement’s most innovative, least dogmatic artists – the only member of the group to identify and explore the link between Renoir’s drawings and the dissolution of form achieved later, by Monet.
Berthe Morisot was born January 14, 1841, in Bourges, France. She was married to Eugène Manet, the brother of the great Edouard Manet, and was the granddaughter of the great rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Berthe and her sister Edma developed their artistic skills by studying and copying works of the Old Masters at the Louvre Museum. They also studied with landscape painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot to learn how to paint outdoor scenes. Berthe Morisot worked with Corot for several years and first exhibited her work in the prestigious state-run art show, the Salon, in 1864. She would earn a regular spot at show for the next decade.
Throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s, Morisot befriended the impressionists, and in 1874, refused to exhibit at the official Salon, choosing rather to exhibit in the first independent show of Impressionist paintings, which included works by Degas, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Alfred Sisley.
That same year, she married Eugène Manet, who was also a painter. The marriage provided her with social and financial stability while she continued to pursue her painting career. Able to dedicate herself wholly to her craft, Morisot participated in the Impressionist exhibitions every year except 1877, when she was pregnant with her daughter.
Eugène died in 1892. Although she was never commercially successful during her lifetime, she did outsell a number of her fellow impressionists, including Monet, Renoir and Sisley.
In 1895, she contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 54.