Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782, Kimbell Art Museum

Vigée-Le Brun: Woman Artist of Revolutionary France is major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until May 15.  Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s Self-Portrait from the Kimbell Art Museum explains her quite well. She shines with the confidence and elegance of a woman who would eventually become an international superstar. It shows off her top-notch artistic skills. Touches of brilliant red for the ribbon, sash, lips and cheeks to add sensual pizzaz. Portraits are not my favorite genre of painting, but Vigée-Le Brun’s portraits are always dazzling. The light radiating through her earring is just the right touch. One reason we never hear her mentioned among France’s top ten or twenty painters is that she was a painter of royalty who supported the wrong side of the French Revolution.  It is only last year that France gave her a major retrospective, although her international reputation was strong back in her day.

Jacques-Francois Le Sevre, c. 1774
Private Collection

  
Vigée-Le Brun compares well with Jacques-Louis David and the very best French artists of her time. For the most part, she was fairly traditional rather than an innovator.  Her style has elements of the late Rococo and Neoclassical styles, but with the addition of some naturalistic features. She was largely self taught, having learned from her painter father before he died when she was 12.  Her mother was a hairdresser. She set up her own studio at age 15, supporting herself, mother and younger brother.  After her mother remarried, she painted her stepfather, Monsieur Le Sevre (whom she really didn’t like, though I can’t discern it in the painting.)  She was only about 19 at the time she painted it, around the same time she entered the Academy of Saint Luke, the painter’s guild.

Vigée-LeBrun was earning enough money from her portrait painting to support herself, her widowed mother, and her younger brother. T – See more at: http://www.nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/%C3%A9lisabeth-louise-vig%C3%A9e-lebrun#sthash.AhJDfSMB.dpufsupporting herself, her mother and younger brother.   After her mother remarried, she painted her stepfather. The portrait of Monsieur LeSevre, is superb, though the artist was probably no older than 19.  Around the same time, she joined the Academy of St. Luke (the painter’s guild). She soon made her way to the top. A few years later, she was called to work at Versailles, becoming the personal painter of Marie Antoinette. She commanded some very high prices for her work. 

Joseph Vernet, 1778, Louvre Museum, Paris

In 1778, she painted Joseph Vernet, a distinguished older painter of seascapes whom she greatly admired.   He counseled her to always look at nature.  I had seen the Vernet portrait in a NMWA exhibition a few years ago, a monumental exhibition that brought to light many of the gifted female artists of the era. the Met describes Vernet as her mentor, and it’s easy see the affectionate expression in this portrait. It has a wonderful harmony of various blacks and grays. 

Painters are sometimes divided into those who are great draftsmen (like Michelangelo and Ingres) or great colorists (like Titian and Rubens). Vigée-Le Brun combines drawing ability and an exquisite sense of color. (There are several drawings in the exhibition.)  Vigée-Le Brun’s father, Louis Vigée was a pastel artist and the self-portrait she did in pastel is just lovely. It combines loose, free lines with delicate, subtle modeling to make the face pop out.  What other artists can make black, white and gray so interesting?

Self-portrait in Traveling Costume
1789-90, pastel, Private Collection

Marriage, Her Husband and Daughter

In 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter, art dealer and a great connoisseur who fostered an appreciation of northern artists. He was the grandnephew of Charles Le Brun, founder of the French Academy. Together they traveled to Flanders and the Netherlands to study the northern artists. She was a greater painter than he was, but it was a connection of great mutual benefit for both of them. In 1780, a daughter, Jeanne Julie, was born. Julie became the subject of many of her mom’s paintings.  A real gem of the show is the portrait of her daughter looking in a mirror. It simultaneously gives us a frontal and profile view. It is also a very sentimental painting.

Julie LeBrun Looking in a Mirror
c. 1786, Private Collection

One self-portrait by her husband is in the exhibition. He was probably the most important art connoisseur and dealer in France in his time. Pierre Le Brun is credited with writing the most important book on Netherlandish art and elevating the reputation of one of the world’s most popular Old Masters, Johannes Vermeer.

In 1783, Vigee-Le Brun gained entry into the prestigious Royal Academy, one of only four women in the elite group.  There was some conflict of interest, because her husband’s profession as an art dealer could have disqualified her. However, King Louis XVI used his influence to promote her. Even at the relatively young age of 28, she commanded higher prices than her peers.

At the time, history painting, meant to instruct and moralize, was considered the highest category of painting.  The canvas she submitted for admission into the French Academy was an allegorical piece meant to inspire virtue, Peace Bringing Back Abundance.  As the name suggests, prosperity comes from staying out of war. While the classical Grecian style of this painting is not the taste of today, it’s her colors that I love. Unfortunately, peace would not remain in her life and in France for very long. 

Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780, Louvre Museum, Paris

When Marie-Antoinette fell from favor and lost her life, Vigée-Le Brun had reason to be afraid. She left France for Italy, with her daughter and without her husband.  She was quickly accepted into the Accademia di San Lucca in Florence. She was asked to add her portrait to the the Corridoio Vasariano at the the Uffizi, an obvious sign that her reputation preceded her. This self-portrait in the Uffizi Gallery, painted in 1790, is one of her most famous paintings (below). According to the Metropolitan Museum, the ruffled collar was meant to show her affinity to Rubens and Van Dyke. The cap is reminiscent of self-portraits by Rembrandt, but the brilliant red sash and the use of color contrast is strictly Elisabeth Vigee – Le Brun.  It shows greater spontaneity than some of her royal commissions.  A few years earlier she had been criticized for breaking with convention by painting self-portraits with an open mouth, making them look less serious.

Self-portrait, 1790, Uffizzi Gallery, Florence

With her out of the country and the Reign of Terror going on in France, her husband was forced to divorce her. (When the aristocracy lost power, he also lost his major clients.) She remained in exile for 12 years, but painted in the Austrian Empire, Russia and Germany.  Her services as a painter were in high demand and she commanded high prices from her lofty, aristocratic clients.   In particular, she painted many Russian aristocrats, including one owned by the National Museum for Women in the Arts which is not in the current exhibition.

Portraits of Russian and Foreign Aristocrats

Duchess Elizabeth Alexyevna, 1797
Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg

Many of the paintings on view at the Met are from private collections, suggesting that many portraits may still be owned by descendants.  None of her paintings from Russian museums are on loan to the United States, because of diplomatic problems at this time. The exhibition going to National Gallery of Canada in June will have several paintings from the Hermitage that are not in the New York show.  These paintings were included in the Paris, where the exhibition started.

Vigée Le Brun painted at least five portraits of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexyevna, but the example here has a sumptuous red cushion and a transparent purple shawl, that sets off nicely against white skin, dress and long flowing hair. 

Duchess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris
1793, Private Collection

Vigée Le Brun also enjoyed depicting personifications and allegory, as did many of the artists of this era.  At one time she painted her daughter as the goddess of flowers, Flora.  When she painted the beautiful Duchess von und zu Liechtenstein, she imagined her as Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. The colors shine brightly, though a rainbow which I expected to discern in real life, at the exhibition can’t be found in the painting.

In general, she greatly flattered her sisters.  It would seem that she only painted women who were beautiful.  At the Metropolitan show, about 5/6 of the paintings portray female sitters.  She carefully considered all props, and how to reflect the personality of the sitter.  Vigée Le Brun figured out how to bring out their best features and reflect the personality of the sitter. 

Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya, 1796, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

 
The use of materials, props and settings is crucial to her goals. A portrait of Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya has a large outdoor background taken from the natural world, a Romantic setting. The countess looks dreamy and wistful.  In general, there is a very wide variety to the types of colors she used, and the harmonies she created.  The National Museum of Women in the Arts currently has an exhibition on Salon Style, which includes portraits by Vigee Le Brun, among other French women artists.  An unattributed pastel of Marie Antoinette would appear to be by Vigee-Le Brun, too, or at least copied from a painting by her. 

 

Vigée-Le Brun’s Legacy and Queen Marie-Antoinette

 
From a strictly historical perspective, however, her connections to the French Royal family may be the most important contribution.  From her many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, historians can look for clues into the life and character of this demonized queen.  It’s difficult to figure out if Marie-Antoinette was really as bad a person as history portrays her.  I saw the Kirsten Dunst movie about her and more recently a play about her, both of which show her as a tragic figure who was a foreigner and really didn’t really know how to fit into the world into which she married. We may never really know.   Marie-Antoinette may have wanted Vigée Le Brun to soften her image. Several portraits of her are in the exhibition. The bouffant, powdered hairdos don’t beautify her to me. Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, a large, flamboyant group portrait loaned shows the young queen with three children and an empty cradle.   It emphasizes that the Austrian-born queen had recently lost a child.  So even in this sumptuous setting there is great sadness and loss. 

Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, 1787, Musée National des
Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Madame Royale and the Dauphin Seated is a portrait of the two oldest children when the were around 3 and 6 years old. The princess’ satin dress is brilliant display of Vigee Le Brun’s skill at portraying texture. The pastoral background is nostalgic and adds to the sense of innocence.  It gives no hint of what’s to come. The prince died of tuberculosis in 1789, ate age 7. (Dauphin County, Pennsylvania is named after him.) Marie-Therese, named for her grandmother, was imprisoned between 1789 until 1795. She was queen 20 days in 1830 and lived until 1851, but generally had a very sad life.  There is actually one landscape painting in the exhibition (and there were several landscape drawings in the Paris exhibition), but Vigee Le Brun is first and foremost a portrait painter.

Madame Royale and the Dauphine Seated, 1784, Musee National
des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Between 1835 and 1837, Vigée Le Brun wrote her memoirs. A remarkably great artist and a remarkable woman, she lived to be 86.  She is appreciated much more than for her paintings of  many Marie – Antoinette. When I took a college Art History class that started with the French Revolution and went to about 1850, we didn’t cover Vigée-Le Brun. David, the academic teacher who influenced so many students, was treated like a god in my class. I find it curious that Vigée-Le Brun remained completely loyal to the royal family, while David was such a politician. He painted for the king, turned into a revolutionary and then easily switched gears to become Napoleon’s artist. He secured his reputation for posterity.  With this exhibition traveling to Paris, New York and Ottawa, Vigée-Le Brun’s reputations will go up a few notches, putting her in a rank equal rank to that of David. The Metropolitan has a complete list of paintings in the exhibition.  See the Met’s video of her.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Heaven and Earth: The Middle Ages in Hildesheim and in Greece

Archangel Michael, First half 14th century tempera on wood, gold leaf 
overall: 110 x 80 cm (43 5/16 x 31 1/2 in.) Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

Gold radiates throughout dimly-lit rooms of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Byzantine Art from Greek Collections.  Some 170 important works on loan from museums in Greece trace the development of Byzantine visual culture from the fourth to the 15th century. Organized by the Benaki Museum in Athens, it will be on view until March 2 and then at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles beginning April 19.  The National Gallery has a done a great job organizing the show, getting across themes of both spiritual and secular life spanning more than 1000 years.  The exhibition design is masterful and includes a film about four key Greek churches. The photography is exquisite and provides the full context for the Byzantine church art.

There are dining tables, coins, ivories, jewelry and other objects, but it’s the mosaics which I find most captivating, and this exhibition allows a close-up view.  Their nuances of size and shape can be closely observed here, but not in slides or in the distance. Byzantine artists gradually replaced stone mosaics with glass tesserae, painting gold leaf behind the glass to portray backgrounds for the figures.  It was the Byzantines created these wondrous images by transforming the Greco-Roman tradition of floor mosaics to that of wall mosaics.

Van Eyck, St John the Baptist, det-Ghent Altarpiece

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently hosted another exhibition of the Middle Ages, “Treasures from Hildesheim,” works from the 10th through 13th centuries from Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany.  Even though Greek Christians of Byzantine world officially split from Rome in the 11th century, the two exhibitions show that the art of east and west continued to share much in terms of iconography and style.  Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, from the 15th century, contains a Deesis composed of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist, in its center, proving how persistent Byzantine iconography was in the West.  That altarpiece shows the early Renaissance continuation of imagining heaven as glistening gold and jewels.

Church architecture evolved very differently however, with the Latin church preferring elongated churches with the floor plan of Roman basilicas. The ritual requirements of the Orthodox Church resulted in a more compact form using domes, squinches and half-domes.  Fortunately, the National Gallery’s exhibition has a lot of information about Orthodox churches, their layout and how the Iconostasis (a screen for icons) divided the priests from the congregation. 

Reliquary of St. Oswald, c. 1100, is silver gilt

Both cultures re-used works from antiquity.  In the East, the statue heads of pagan goddesses could become Christian saints with a addition of a cross on their foreheads.  In the west, ancient portrait busts inspired gorgeous metalwork used for the relics of saints, such as the reliquary of St. Oswald, which actually contained a portion of this 7th century English saint’s skull.   Mastering anatomy, perspective and foreshortening was not as important an aim as it was to evoke the glory and golden beauty of heaven as it was imagined to be.  The goldsmiths and metalsmiths were considered the best artists of all during this period in the west.

Mosaic with a font, mid-5th century Museum of 
Byzantine culture, Thessaloniki
Photo source: NGA website

Perhaps the parallels exist because many artists from the Greek world went to the west during the Iconoclast controversy, spanning most years from 726 to 843.  Mosaic artists from the Byzantine Empire peddled their talents in the west, particularly in Carolingian courts of Charlemagne and his sons.  From that time forward certain standards of Byzantine representation, such as the long, dark, bearded Jesus on the cross. While we seem to see these images as either icons or mosaics in Greek art, they become symbols in the west, often translated into sculptures of wood, stone or even stained glass.

An interesting parallel of the two exhibitions is the early Byzantine fountain, a wall mosaic of gold, glass and stone in the NGA’s exhibition, which compares well to the 13th century Baptismal font from Hildesheim, showing the Baptism of Christ.  The font mosaic is from the Church of the  Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki.  It is thought to emulate the fountains and gardens of Paradise.  One can visualize of the context in which the fragmentary mosaic was made by watching the film in the exhibition, which shows another wondrous 5th century church in Thessaloniki, the Rotonda Church.
A Baptismal Font, 1226, is superb example of Medieval
metalwork from Hildesheim Cathedral.
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum had a life-size wooden statue of the dead Jesus, dated to the 11th century, originally on a wood cross, now gone. Wood carvers out of Germany were masters of emotional expression.    In the iconic Crucifixion image in the Greek exhibition, a very sad Mary and Apostle John are grieving at the side of Jesus.  It’s poignant and emotional, with knit eyebrows, tilted heads and a profoundly felt grief. 
Golden Madonna is wood covered in gold, made for St. Michael’s Cathedral before 1002

The iconographic image of the Theotokos, a Greek type is normally a rigid, enthroned Mary who solidly holds her son, a little emperor. The format expresses that she is the throne, a seat for God in the form of Baby Jesus.   From Hildesheim, there is a carved  statue which dates to c. 970, carved of wood and covered with a sheet of real good.  Both heads are now missing. At one time the statue was covered with jewels, offerings people had given to the statue. In the west, this type became common, called the sedes sapientaie, but the origin is probably Byzantium.
Although heaven is more important than earth, and God and saints in heaven are more powerful than humans, sometimes medieval artists have been capable of revealing the greatest truths about what it’s like to be a human being.  In the icons, there is great poignancy and beauty in the eyes.  At times the portrayal of grief is overwhelming, as we see on an icon of the Hodegetria image where Mary points the way, the baby Jesus but knows He will die.  On the reverse is an excruciatingly painful Man of Sorrows.

Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, last quarter 12th century, tempera and silver on wood, Kastoria, Byzantine Museum. On the Reverse is a Man of Sorrows
The Metropolitan exhibition of course could not bring the two most important works from Hildesheim, the bronze relief sculptures: a triumphal column with the Passion of Christ and a set of bronze doors for the Cathedral.    Completed before 1016, I often think of the figures on the relief panels on those doors as one of the most honest works of art ever created.  As God convicts Adam of eating the forbidden fruit,  Adam crosses his arm to point to Eve who twists her arms pointing downward to a snake on the ground.  We may laugh because God’s arm seems to be caught in his sleeve as he points to Adam. Though this medieval artist/metalsmith (Bishop Bernward?) may not have understood anatomy and perspective, he understood how easy it is for humans to pass the blame and not take responsibility for their actions.  
The Expulsion, before 1016, detail of bronze door, St. Michael’s, Hildesheim
Medieval artists in both the Greek and Latin churches are normally not known by name.  After all, their work was for God, not for themselves, for money or for fame.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Manet and Morisot: The Tale of Love and Sadness in the Portraits

Manet, The Repose, 1870, Rhode Island School of Design.   Berthe Morisot is at rest,
but the seascape behind her could symbolize an inner restlessness behind
her calm demeanor. 

Why hasn’t the love story of painters Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot been told in film?  (Both Manet and Morisot are represented in large numbers at the exhibition, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, formerly at Musée d’Orsay, but now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and onto the Art Institute of Chicago this summer.  Morisot was the subject of a large retrospective at Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, last year, and her work, like much Impressionism, is so much better when viewed in real life rather than reproduction.)

Manet, a “people person” and painter of people, is the one artist of the past I would wish to meet above all others.  Morisot, one of his muses, is the artist with whom I empathize more than any other.  She loved in a painful way, but her only consolation was to marry his brother.

Berthe Morisot, The Harbor at Lorient, 1869, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Manet’s portraits of her are compelling.  Manet , a man of paradox, painted realistic themes in an audacious style  which was shocking to the mid-19th century. Yet he was conventional, proper, well-dressed and conservative in so many ways.  His political ideas were progressive, but he was patriotic and enlisted in the National Guard during the Prussians’ siege of Paris in 1870. Deeply hurt by art criticism, Manet’s honor was also so important to him that he challenged an art critic to a duel by sword. Duels were remnants of the medieval era, very rare in 19th  in 19th century France.  The charismatic artist was the ultimate elegant Parisian, the first modern painter but deeply rooted in the past.  


Portrait of Édouard Manet, by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1867, Art Institute of Chicago
Fantin-Latour  introduced Manet and Morisot, an important personal
and artistic relationship. 

Last week I watched a movie about Modigliani, but the story of Manet and Morisot’s love, perhaps an unrequited love, is far more interesting.  An actress with the soulful eyes and depth of Juliette Binoche would be an ideal choice to play Berthe, although there are younger stars like Audrey Tautou who could do justice to her character.  I can think of many actors who could be the confidant, dapper Manet With the right script and right director, this story in film could be even more interesting than films of artists like Jackson Pollock, Vincent Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo, artists known for their tempestuous lives.

Manet, The Balcony, 1868, in the Salon of 1869,
now in Musée d’Orsay, Paris

While waiting for this film to be made, we can track the story and trace much of the love and feeling in Manet’s 12 portraits of Berthe. She was his leading muse, as he painted her more times than anyone else.  Many of Manet’s people are distinctive for their air of nonchalance, and they end up revealing themselves if only by expressing a desire not to let us get to know them.  Manet had many female models but Berthe was different, as he tapped into her soul and seemed to know the longing and wistfulness that was inside.  These portraits are tantalizing and mysterious, and they come in many forms, but leave us guessing the extent of their relationship. Manet’s The Repose, at the top of this page, shows Berthe relaxed and dreaming on a sofa, but the image of a Japanese sea storm above her suggest turmoil may lurk beneath her quiet demeanor.


Manet first painted Berthe Morisot in The Balcony, but with two figures not in communication with each other or with the viewer.  Berthe’s black eyes grab all the attention.  Hers is the only face which is revealing, while the others have expressive hand gestures.  The second woman who posed for Manet, violinist Fanny Claus, appears vapid and vacant next to the pensive Berthe leaning on a green balcony.  The man, painter Antoine Guillemet, enters from behind and a boy is vaguely seen in the black background.  The womens’ white dresses are in daylight, vividly contrasting with darkness behind while a plush dog and porcelain planter below Berthe’s feet add textural richness of the painting.  It is “focused on her air of compelling beauty, her mystery and the complex inner struggle reflected in her face.”  (Sue Roe, reference below)

Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Muff, 1869

By most accounts, excluding her own, Berthe Morisot was stunning.  Her beauty comes across in her deep, dark eyes and delicate, chiseled features we see in Manet’s portrayals of her.  She was elegant and filled with social refinement.  One contemporary account described her as so full of politeness and graciousness towards others as to make acquaintances of less manners uncomfortable.  Yet she broke with convention in pursuit of career in art and in the pursuit of a art style outside of tradition.                
                                  

She and Manet came from similar background, he as the oldest of three boys and she as the youngest daughter in a family three girls and one younger boy.  Their parents walked in the same social circles.  He spent time in the Navy, and it was awhile before his father finally agreed that he could pursue a career in art instead of law.  Though it was hardly typical of women to become painters at the time, it seems that the Morisot parents were encouraging of the daughters who studied under a famous artist, Camille Corot.  Berthe was the most serious, the only one to continue that career through marriage and motherhood.  

Photo of Berthe Morisot, c. 1870

However, Manet was 9 years older and married when they met copying paintings at the Louvre copying in 1867.  Each of them had already submitted paintings which had been accepted in France’s annual Salon, the yearly review of what was in judges’ views considered the best art of the time.  Édouard Manet’s reputation was controversial on account of his subjects and the way he painted them.  Berthe was very taken with him immediately, but of course younger French painters who were interested in breaking new artistic ground, including Monet and Renoir, also revered Manet. 
   

Manet, Berthe Morisot with Fan, 1872

It appears that Berthe’s mother was her chaperone whenever she went to Manet’s studio, as befitted her social class.   Manet wife was Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch piano teacher his father had hired years earlier to teach the Manet brothersHe married her shortly after his father died, perhaps out of obligation to protect the reputation of his father, a judge. It’s likely that the older Manet was the father of a mysterious son she brought into the marriage, Léon Leenhoff, another favorite model of Manet’s.  Léon always referred to Manet as his godfather, but was probably a half-brother.  Manet’s marriage was not an easy love and he had other liaisons.  However, he was always protective of his family name and loyal to this immediate family, although no children were born in the union. In his will, it was made clear the inheritance would pass from Suzanne to Léon(Some writers believe Manet was the father, but if that were true, social conditions would not force him to cover that the boy was born out of wedlock.)

The letters of Berthe Morisot were published by a grandson who edited them, perhaps leaving out things intended to remain private.  In letters to her mother and sisters, she confessed strong feelings for Manet, fraught with jealousies, frustrations and the pain that it could not be more.  Much of her self-doubt has to do with her frustrations as an artist, a situation most artists have at some point.  Personally, I cannot stand when writers attribute female artists’ inner difficulties primarily to gender politics. Suggestions that Morisot and Manet were in competition or that he tried to hold her back are off the mark.  In letters between the mother and other sisters, it’s clear that the mom feared for her youngest daughter who pined for Manet and sometimes didn’t eat.  Berthe was unable to stay away from him, and he appears to have been quite attached, too.    As friends, they shared an intellectual and artistic kinship.

Manet, Berthe Morisot with Violets, 1872

Berthe Morisot with Violets, 1872, seems for many observers to express the growing love between Manet and Morisot.   To me, it is Manet’s painting of her in which Berthe seems the most forthright and the most confident.   Berthe’s gaze is usually quite intense, a characteristic also found in the few photographs which exist.

However, in Berthe Morisot with a Fan, 1872, she covers her face, hinting that real intimacy with the artist was socially forbidden.   Berthe Morisot with a Veil , 1874, also conveys the social blockage in the relationship.   While working closely with Berthe, Manet began to loosen his brush work and get more of Impressionist swiftness to his paint.  There is more spontaneity as time goes on and Manet adds many more light colors to his canvases.   

Manet sometimes lightened his colors, but he rarely lightened his palette while painting Berthe Morisot.  Does he see a sadness in her that does not brighten over time?  Or is there a darkness that he sees and knows?  Her hair was black and painting the contrast of exquisite blackness and lighter tones was his specialty.  He certainly painted her with greater verve and style than many other portraits, including those of his wife and of Eva Gonzalès, a 20-year old student who came to studied under Manet.  Berthe was envious of that relationship, although a portrait of Eva Gonzalès caused him much difficulty and was not successful.  

Manet, Berthe Morisot in Profile, 1872

To a certain extent, the portraits seems to grow in their sense of intimacy as time goes on, and Berthe seems increasingly relaxed with Manet.  Portait of Berthe Morisot in Profile, 1872,  shows Berthe in movement with spontaneous gestures.  Her expressive fingers and long hand add to a sense of elegance and she appears less serious than previous depictions.   Clearly Manet found a fascinating subject.

Professionally, each artist helped and encouraged the other.  On one occasion Manet complemented her on a painting and then started touching it up.  She did not object and sent it to the Salon, where it was accepted.   It was a painting of her mother and her pregnant sister,  now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Manet, Berthe Morisot Reclining, 1873

When Degas, Pissaro and Monet wished to break out of the Salon and start their own salon des indépendentes in 1873, Manet refused to join them and opted only for the traditional road to success.  This inner conservatism reflects a paradox in his character.  He also advised Berthe Morisot not to rock the boat, not join in their venture, which became the first Impressionist exhibition and almost an annual event.   Berthe, however, kept her own counsel and continued to exhibit with the Impressionists until 1886, when Impressionists were finally accepted and no longer needed an alternative venue.  Of the 8 Impressionist exhibitions, the only one she skipped was in 1879, after giving birth to her daughter in November of the previous year.

Manet, Berthe Morisot in Mourning Hat, 1874

We know  Berthe Morisot was a highly determined woman to follow her chosen path and not be deterred by the man of her dreams when she disagreed.  However, that doggedness often hid behind a shell of quietness and, at times, depression.  Edouard Manet’s paintings of her variously capture her allure, her elegance, her intelligence and a pensiveness tinged with tragedy.   He painted Berthe Morisot in a Mourning Hat in 1874, during the same year her father died.  The texture is rough, the eyes are enormous and the color contrast is bold.  Her color is pale and she appears emaciatedIt’s an expression of the sadness she was holding deeply within her at the time.   


Manet, Violets, 1872, was a gift to Berthe Morisot

Manet gifted an exquisite still life of violets in 1872 to Berthe.   He painted Violets with a swift, fresh and textural style, signed it and dedicated to her.  Note that it includes a fan, a symbol Berthe holds in several of his earlier paintings of her.   He only painted her in clothing, and she never painted him.

Berthe clearly gave Manet an outlet  and a means to express his feeling for her in painting.  In these portraits of her, we also see the workings of her psyche.  On the other hand, he seemed to appreciate Victorine Meurent (the other favorite model who posed in Olympia, The Luncheon on the Grass, The Railway and later became a Salon painter), for the versatile expressions she could give to a painting’s message. In other words, paintings of Morisot are all about Berthe Morisot. Victorine would have had greater freedom than Berthe in some respectsBerthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were expected to behave according to their social standing.    (American Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were important Impressionists who had a professional relationship and bond of friendship similar to the Morisot – Manet duo.  The time period was fascinating not only for how the artists related to each other, but to contemporary writers, poets, musicians and intellectuals.

Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Island of Wight, 1875

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait, 1884

Édouard Manet suggested to Berthe that she marry Eugène his brother, a situation that promised they could continue indefinitely to see each other, but in the company of others.  The mother’s criticisms of Édouard had been out protectiveness for the daughter, but her hesitation about Eugène was because he lacked a profession.   Eventually, at age 33, Berthe and Eugène married.  Four years later at age 37, she gave birth to her only child, Julie Manet.  Berthe Morisot did many portraits of her daughter and her husband which suggest affection and domestic happiness. 

 By all accounts, Eugène Manet was kind and extremely supportive of his wife’s career and provided much administrative support for the Impressionists in general.  His famous brother certainly overshadowed him in every way, but there is no evidence that he was jealous of his brother for any reason.  He must have realized Berthe’s extreme fondness and  probable preference for Édouard.  Once they were married, the older Manet seems to have stopped painting her.

 Compared to her brother-in-law Édouard’s work, Morisot’s own paintings have smaller and lighter brushstrokes, and a lighter palette.  Her  form is not deliberate as that of Manet.  In a self-portrait of 1884, we recognize the same chiseled features and delicacy that Manet portrayed, and self-confidence.  Their styles were already well developed when the met.  Differences in their styles reflect the differences between their teaching:  Morisot learned from Corot, the master of outdoor painting in diffused light of day, while Manet studied under Thomas Couture whose techniques are recognized in his  heavier brushwork.  Manet’s dark backgrounds reflect his admiration of Spanish painters Goya and Velazquez.  Her forms were more diffused, silvery and more true to the goals of Impressionism.

Manet, Self-Portrait with Palette, 1878, sold at a London auction for approximately $33 million 2010

Though he was criticized in his early career, by the time the Impressionists were accepted and recognized, Manet was esteemed as the leader of new way of seeing and painting in a modern technique.  Like his father, Manet received France’s highest honor, the prestigious Légion d’honneur before he died.  Advocating for this success and protecting the honor of his family was extremely important in the end, despite his progressive political and artistic ideas.  Both Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot died fairly young,  he of syphilis (like his father) in 1883, and she of pneumonia a little more than 12 years later.  

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Berthe Morisot and Julie Manet, 1894

(When the diary of Julie Manet was compiled and published many years ago, I read the book, Growing Up with the Impressionists, in which Julie Manet expresses her thoughts and feelings about her family and the important artists who were their friends.  From what I remember, she seems to have had a fondness for everyone except Edouard Manet’s wife Suzanne, whom she found overbearing, perhaps reflecting her mother’s feelings.)  Berthe Morisot was devastated when Manet died, and again when her husband Eugène died in 1892.  Berthe and daughter Julie were extremely close. Berthe was nursing Julie who had pneumonia when she caught the bug and suddenly died in 1895. Her friends Renoir, Monet and Degas put together a large solo exhibition of her work shortly afterwards.

An orphan at age 16, Julie was left to the guardianship of painter Auguste Renoir and poet Stéphane Mallarmé.  A few years later Julie married a painter, Ernest Rouart.  She became an artist, as did cousins Jeannie and Paule Gobillard.  Julie Manet lived until 1966, nearly 88 years, in contrast to her mother, father and uncle.  

Renoir did several portraits of Julie Manet, including a painting of the Berthe Morisot with her daughter towards the end in 1894.   Morisot‘s hair appears to have changed from black to gray rather quickly after the loss of Manets, both of Édouard and then her own Eugène, who she had undoubtedly  loved dearly.  He was kind and generous to her.   When the older Manet died, his estate held a key indication of Berthe’s personal importance to him — seven of the paintings of her were found in his possession.  While Manet’s wife had the financial and social benefits of  marriage, he painted her less often.  

Manet, Young Woman with a Pink Shoe

In grad school, I took a seminar, Manet and Degas, and remember reading Manet and His Critics, as well as the novels of Émile Zola. Many books have come out since that time. Marni Kessler published an important article in The Art Bulletin about Manet’s paintings of Morisot, which I’ve not read. I’ve read The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe and quoted her above; The Judgment of Paris  by Ross King, and a biography, Rebel in a Frock Coat: Édouard Manet, by Beth Archer Brombert, each book very well documented.   Impressionist Quartet, by Jeffrey Meyers, a book I’ve not read, insists they were lovers.  Perhaps the most recent book to cover the Manet-Morisot relationship is Roberto Calasso’s book, La Folie Baudelaire, which has a chapter about the relationship as well as Manet’s connections to Degas. 

Brombert says of Manet, “He hungered for critical and popular success but refused to yield to the taste of the day; he was the leader of a new school who dissociated himself from it as soon as it gained cohesion; he was a man of public diversion and the most private of lives.”   

Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875-80

Manet’s greatness is in the paint and the experimental ways of presenting his subjects.  At a time when painting had to compete with photography, he asserted the importance of texture and presented the ambiguities of modern life.  I could not imagine Van Gogh without the influence of his rich, tactile paint and color juxtapositions as seen in the  sofa of The Repose , the green of The Balcony and the lush purple Violets.  Morisot’s style intersects with Manet’s at times, but in most ways she is closer to Pissarro, Renoir, Monet.  She and Manet inspired each others’ artistic evolution, as did Degas and Cassatt, who excelled in the artfulness of their compositions. 

Morisot’s Women at her Toilette, above, features a mirror and centers on a female figure, as in Manet ‘s very important painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, but her tones are always more silvery and form is less defined.  Morisot’s work is also a masterpiece, but the figure and mirror merge into the overall impression.  Manet’s woman at the Folies-Bergere is an icon who reminds us of what remains when participating in the excitement of the fleeting, contemporary world. Manet is best known for painting ambiguities, while the purest Impressionist compositions of  Morisot, Renoir and Monet keep the figure merely a part in the whole painted arrangement.  In her modern compositions, Morisot holds her place in the path to 20th century abstraction.  

Manet was the right person born at the right time to be pivotal in the changing world of art.  Morisot loved him but was independent, carving out her own reputation, in her time and in our time. (Here’s a blog with a wide variety of Morisot’s paintings.)  Having been soulmates unable to live together in love, Manet and Morisot respected each other until the end.    Our pictures of them together remain in our imagination.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016