Another brilliant but overlooked female artist? Yep.
A masterpiece of French Impressionism you've probably never seen because it's by a woman
Berthe Morisot, Portrait of Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight (1875). Oil on canvas.
This lovely image caught my attention the other day. It’s a painting by the nineteenth century French artist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895). She was a direct contemporary of Claude Monet and the Impressionist crew and exhibited alongside her male colleagues from the 1870s, but was barely known then or now. In my opinion she should be regarded as one of the superstars of French Impressionism.
The painting is a set inside a boarding house on the Isle of Wight in which a man is sitting by the window looking at the scene outside. There’s a little garden, a woman and a child, and some boats bobbing in the sea beyond. It was painted in 1875 while Morisot was on honeymoon with her husband, Eugene Manet. And in fact it’s quite a rare thing to see a portrait of an artist’s husband before the 20th century. So that in itself is quite remarkable.
Now you might look at this painting and think it’s a lovely chocolate-box impressionist painting of a dilettante bygone era. It absolutely plays to our romantic ideas about life for the leisured classes in the nineteenth century. It’s a carefree holiday by the seaside, which you see often in impressionist painting. And, in part, that’s true. Beautiful colours, beautiful people, beautiful clothes, beautiful flowers. Nothing dark or stormy here. Nothing unsettling. But there’s more to this image than that, and I’m going to come back and talk more about what I see in it in the video below.
But I wanted to draw attention to the reason why I saw this image in the first place. It’s because Dulwich Art Gallery in London has just announced that they will be putting on a big exhibition of Morisot’s work next year which will be the first big show of her work in the UK since the 1950s.
This not a painting I’ve seen before, although having seen it now I would count it as one of the masterpieces of the Impressionist movement. But the reason why it’s not a familiar image, unlike other impressionist masterpieces by for example Monet or Renoir or Cezanne, is because it was painted by a woman.
Berthe Morisot was one of those rare people in the nineteenth century: she was a serious female artist, who wanted to exhibit her work, wanted it to be collected, and wanted to be acknowledged in the same way as her male counterparts. That was always going to be an uphill struggle because there were simply less opportunities as a woman to become a successful artist. She wasn’t able to access the same institutions or the same spaces or the same networks as men.
And indeed her work wasn’t acknowledged in the same way during her lifetime, even though she exhibited alongside and in the same exhibitions as the big impressionist painters. And over the years since then that has been compounded by the scarcity of scholarship about her and the fact that her paintings weren’t collected by major museums in the same way as male painters. So Morisot hasn’t been visible.
It’s only now, in recent years, that great female artists are starting to be recognised in the way they deserve. And Morisot’s reputation has grown significantly in the past fifteen years. You can see that in the prices that her work now makes at auction. In 2013, Morisot became the highest priced female artist with this painting from 1881, which sold for nearly $11 million at auction.
So it’s worth just clocking that: the fact that it has taken this long for Berthe Morisot to have her moment. And it’s something that we are seeing happening with other female artists too: artists like Alice Neel and Faith Ringgold and several others. That’s not to say that women are anywhere near on the same footing as male artists, but things seem to be shifting. And I for one cannot wait to see this exhibition in London.
Over the paywall jump: I talk about ways to look at Morisot’s Eugene Manet portrait in a short video. Plus links to more on Morisot. And join the community and share your thoughts!