Berthe Morisot broke all the rules, including the ones about how to break them. Painting? Sacre bleu! In mid-19th-century France a woman wasn’t supposed to have any sort of career, much less painting, much less painting in the alarming new style of those disreputable Impressionists. On the other hand, if she was going to flout convention, shouldn’t she have been brazen, bohemian, scandalous?
She wasn’t. Morisot’s career was a cause without a rebel. Apart from taking painting seriously, she preserved bourgeois decorum as daughter, wife, mother. She mastered technique and shunned self-promotion as ardently as ambitious American artists now master self-promotion and shun technique. She had an equal share in the notoriety of the group that launched Impressionism. But she achieved her place among these very determined men with an art deliberately feminine.
It’s worth noting that she was a beautiful woman. The most famous image of her is a portrait by her friend Edouard Manet: Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets. All in black — tall black hat, black ribbon around her neck, black dress with small bouquet. Large brown eyes, an expression both frank and reserved, a hint of amusement on sensuous lips. What doesn’t show is her severe, stoical, persevering will. She concealed it, even from herself. Her vivid, sage letters and diaries, generously sampled here, are full of doubts and frustration, a not unusual perfectionist knack for extracting failure and despair from success. Sometimes her self-reproaching voice is the voice of her mother, the voice of fretful middle-class propriety. Not that her family ever really stood in her way. She was sent to early lessons with the famous, gentle, and resolutely independent Corot. And she had a brush-wielding older sister. ”Behind every great woman is another woman,” Higonnet wittily observes.
Morisot kept painting after marrying Eugene Manet, Edouard’s brother, when she was 33. He encouraged her, but it was probably the lateness of the marriage that made the difference. By then she had found her style, and her con dence. At 30 she had produced her most famous painting, The Cradle — her sister ”solemnly contemplating her infant daughter.” In her 860 paintings, she made the most of the limitations that applied to her alone among the original Impressionists. No brothel scenes like those of Degas, not even Monet’s railway stations — no paintings of places where a woman couldn’t respectably linger. Landscapes and, above all, domestic scenes, family scenes. She held ; her own at the Impressionist exhibitions, made friends with the charming Manet and scathing Degas, found a soulmate in the rarefied poet Mallarmé. Only after her early death at 54, in 1891, was her role in the movement submerged in standard art histories.
One of the virtues of this biography, Berthe Morisot, is that it isn’t 900 pages long. Resisting the American biographical penchant for great slag heaps of detail, Higonnet, a Frenchwoman who teaches art history at Wellesley, gives us the essential Morisot in a little over 200 pages, along with sharp sketches of the other Impressionists, including the other woman among them, the expatriate Philadelphian Mary Cassatt. This is a memorable portrait of an admirable woman, as elegantly simple and light in touch as a Manet, or a Morisot.