186 – Morisot and Motherhood

Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau, 1872. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

My series of talks, Women Artists, 79-1879 (the first 1800 years) comes to an end on Monday, 6 February with Week 5 – Getting Real. The title refers to the artistic movement known as Realism, which may or may not be relevant to Rosa Bonheur (a problem I will consider on Monday). Realism was, in many ways, an essential stepping stone to Impressionism, and it is there that the series will end. But why grind to a halt in 1879? Well, it’s not a stop, it’s a pause. As it turns out, it is also a beginning. What followed was a greater, if faltering, acceptance of women within the world of art. At least, the situation was slightly better than before, but that is not saying much. However, there were enough women working in the 20th Century to allow for another series of five two-hour lectures on them alone. Don’t worry – I’m not planning to do that, as you can see in the diary! The precise reason for the date? Well, you can find out below, or sign up for the talk on Monday. For now I’d like to look at one of the works of one of the Greats (pace Nochlin), Berthe Morisot. It’s what she did (or didn’t do) in 1879 that is relevant.

A woman sits behind a cradle – the ‘Berceau’ of the title – and looks down at the child lying within. Her chin rests on her left hand, with her right hand lying at the foot of the cradle. A curtain hangs over what we assume to be a window behind her, and the cradle is similar curtained. It sits at the bottom of the painting, its length parallel to the picture plane.

It’s actually not entirely clear what the curtain at the top left represents – it could be in front of a window, but, as the woman does not appear to be contre jour – literally ‘against the day’, but meaning ‘backlit’ – that is by no means certain. Nor is it clear why there would be a fold in this curtain, apart from its function for the composition of the painting, leading our eye down towards the sleeping child, just like the woman’s gaze. On the far right a metal pole rises and curves round in a brief and broadly curving spiral, and it is from this that the fabric hanging around the cradle hangs. In addition to the white, muslin-like fabric, there is a pink decoration as well. To modern eyes this might, still, signify that the child is female, but had the blue/pink gender stereotype already been fixed in the late 19th Century? It certainly hadn’t in the 18th.

The woman’s hand is not just resting on the end of the cradle, but also holding the curtain, thus screening us from the sleeping child behind. The tiny head is turned towards us, the eyes shown as sketchily drawn lines, tight shut, fast asleep. The little right arm is bent at the elbow, so that the hand rests just behind the head. There is a lot of white at the bottom of this painting – the whole extent of the bassinette, not to mention the veil-like fabric enclosing the child. Not every artist is as good with white in all its coloured variety as it picks up the reflected shades from surrounding objects, and is modelled itself by different coloured lights and their resulting shadows, but Berthe Morisot was one of the artists who was. Throughout there are delicate hints of blue and pink, particularly along the lacey trim of the canopy.

This can only be the child’s mother – an assumption you probably made from the outset. She is just one in a long line of theme and variations played on a subject which starts with the Virgin Mary. Our secular Madonna nods to her immaculate predecessor in the muted grey-blue stripes of her bodice. Like any happy couple the mother and child mirror one another, the bent arm and head-on-hand pose reflected from adult to baby. The hem that comes down on the diagonal above the mother’s head – parallel to her left arm – is cut off by the opposing diagonal of the falling canopy. The diagonals frame the mother beautifully, as well as suggesting a rocking motion – left to right, right to left – which could echo the movement of Le Berceau itself. Although our view of the child is veiled, the mother has privileged access, able to see her baby directly behind this cloth: we are witnessing a private moment of contemplation.

The accepted practice of the Impressionists was to paint en plein air (‘outside’) in front of the motif (the subject, effectively), spontaneously depicting what they saw when they saw it, and trying to capture their initial sensations. And yet this is an interior, and the expert composition suggests that nothing was left to chance. But then, it was also painted before the Impressionist movement officially started – or at least, two years before the first exhibition of the group that would later become known as The Impressionists took place. However, by 1872 many of the ideas were already current, and the ‘movement’ went in many different directions. As it happens, this painting was included in the 1874 exhibition, and that is significant. You could argue that the Impressionists, however diverse in their styles and intentions, formed the first artistic group to include a woman from the outset. How did Berthe Morisot get there? Well, incredibly supportive parents for a start. She and her two sisters, Yves and Edma, were all given lessons by Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and Joseph Guichet. Berthe and Edma continued, inseparable, copying works in the Louvre, and having their works accepted at the official salon – although their mother complained that the paintings were hard to find (and indeed, oone year, for one of her daughters, she failed). They got to know Manet and Monet, and before long Berthe was studying plein air painting with Corot. There was a problem though: young ladies could not go out unchaperoned, and Berthe would later write to Edma, telling her how frustrated she was by her inability to head out on her own, constantly waiting for the maid to be ready to accompany her. But at least there was a maid – the Morisot’s were well off – which is one of the things that enabled Berthe’s career. Edma married in 1869, and her artistic career fell by the wayside. As Madame Pontillon, she continued to model for Berthe – and this is her, with her daughter Blanche, Berthe’s niece. Berthe formed a firm friendship with Edouard Manet, and some believe they were in love – but he was a married man. However, in 1874 she married his brother Eugène, also an artist: there couldn’t have been a more supportive background.

The group exhibited in 1874 as ‘The Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers etc.’ and ‘Mlle MORISOT (Berthe)’, as she was listed in the catalogue, was represented by nine works (as was Monet), four oils, two pastels and three watercolours. Le Berceau was no. 104 in the catalogue. There were seven subsequent exhibitions, in 1876, ‘77, ‘79, ‘80, ‘81, ‘82 and ‘86. Of the ‘famous’ Impressionists, Monet and Renoir only exhibited in four: they got fed up with being counter-cultural. Only Camille Pissarro exhibited in all eight, and next to him, in terms of ‘loyalty to the cause’, was Berthe Morisot, who was represented in seven. Which one did she miss? The fourth exhibition, in 1879. And why did she miss it? Her daughter Julie had been born on 14 November 1878, and she was too ill. I don’t quite understand it, as there must have been a ‘back catalogue’ to choose from, and someone else could have helped. Admittedly, of course, there was no obligation to exhibit (and, as an independently wealthy woman, she really didn’t need to – but that wasn’t the point). All I can say for now is… it wouldn’t have happened to a man. Not that it stopped her in the long run, and indeed Julie, and her relationship to Julie, and for that matter her husband’s relationship to Julie, became some of the major subjects of her work. And Julie herself also became an artist. Although many women’s careers were curtailed by marriage and children – Edma Morisot Pontillon being a case in point – that was not always the case. Lavinia Fontana had eleven children, and ended up painting for the Pope. Mary Beale had three. Sadly, one died in infancy, but the other two worked as her assistants – at least for a while. And Berthe Morisot went on to contribute to the remaining four Impressionist exhibitions. Even if she wasn’t represented in 1879, two other women were: Mary Cassatt and Marie Braquemond, both for the first time. So as well as being a ‘hiatus’ (and definitely not an end), 1879 was also a form of beginning.

One last question: what did Edma Morisot, Madame Pontillon, think of motherhood? I’ll leave you to decide: the interpretation of art is, ultimately, a personal thing. But however you read this expression, the delicacy with which it is painted, and the complexity of thought it allows, are what persuade me that Berthe Morisot was a Great Artist, and the ideal conclusion to this series of talks on Monday. But please remember: however many women I may have been able to discuss, some in depth, others fleetingly, there are many more I wasn’t able to include – so watch this space! And keep an eye out for the Berthe Morisot exhibition which will open in Dulwich in April.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “186 – Morisot and Motherhood

  1. Dear Richard I bought a ticket for the lecture this evening but was not sent a ticket, receipt or reminder…but my credit card was charged. I have been attending your lectures faithfully for years and this has never happened before. I would really like to watch the lecture but believe you do not record them…if that is the case, is it possible for you to arrange a refund? Many apologies for being a bore. Best wishes Caroline Goddard


      1. Dear Richard – I am afraid no email has come through…and I suspect that there is a problem with my email. Please could you send it to my husband’s email address – caagoddard@gmail.com


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