In Search of Berthe Morisot

Self Portrait, 1885 (oil on canvas) by Morisot, Berthe (1841-95); 61×50 cm; Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, France; French, out of copyright

I assume most of you don’t know the name Berthe Morisot—although she does appear in my book, The Road Not Taken, in a scene where she discusses her own invisibility in history. During Women’s History Month, I want to do my own part to make artists like her visible again.

Morisot was an amazing Impressionist painter from the Monet/Manet era in Paris. (In fact, Manet was her mentor—and, in the end, her betrayer.)

In the heyday of Impressionism in Europe, particularly Paris, there were no women painters in any of the salons and galleries exhibiting the finest in paintings. Manet was a favorite among Impressionism fans. Famous in his own time, nice work for an artist. And he mentored a young woman named Berthe Morisot.

At one point, he insisted that a painting of hers be included in a grand Parisian gallery, or he wouldn’t allow his work to be shown. The gallery happily took Morisot’s painting—which should not be surprising, since she is a fantastic artist as fine as anybody working in her form, maybe even finer because she only painted women, although that might be my own criteria and not theirs.

As promised, a painting of Morisot’s was in the show. Next to it was a painting by her mentor. Unfortunately, he chose to exhibit a painting of Berthe Morisot in an elaborate gown (not suitable for painting in), with a small brush in her hand, as if she was dabbling. I don’t know Morisot personally, but I know she felt ridiculed for this depiction of her as a dilletante. Maybe Manet had limited tolerance for Morisot’s incredible outpouring of paintings?

Of course, we know where stories like this lead. Manet is remembered; Morisot is little-known and hard-to-find. In fact, even someone as passionate about feminism and women in the arts as me didn’t even know her name until I began researching Vincent Van Gogh for my book.

In a Villa at the Seaside, by Berthe Morisot, is part of the Norton Simon Museum’s permanent collection. 1874, oil on canvas.

Much as I love the work of the time, even the work of some of these well-known male artists, I of course find the erasure of women in all art history to be disturbing…annoying…maddening. Even worse is the futile search to see it on display where it deserves to be exhibited, right alongside the work of those well-known men. And without a dismissive little dabbling brush.

Today, Morisot’s work is on permanent exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum. I grabbed my colleagues for a first Covid-era outing to see her work, but when I asked the guide where Morisot could be found, he pointed to a partition blocking the outer edge of an exhibition space. Morisot, he explained, is part of the museum’s permanent collection, but shared her space with some Manet paintings on loan that needed to be returned. The section was closed for maintenance. Until Manet is gone, nobody can see Berthe Morisot’s work. 

I couldn’t believe it. Manet had screwed her again.

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