April 12-27, 2019, Alumnae Theatre Company presents Michael Jacobs’ play Impressionism, which takes place in an art gallery. Audience members are invited onstage before the show begins, to walk around Teodoro Dragonieri’s set and Suzanne Courtney’s replicas of Impressionist artworks. Alumnae member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has researched some lesser-known women artists of the Impressionist period – here’s the first of her blog posts.
THE GIRLS IN THE GANG – Forget the water lilies. Here are some Impressionists you may not know.
If you were one of the many budding women artists who came to Paris in the second half of the 19th century, what were your career prospects? There was plenty of work painting china, wall art and other home decor items.
But if you wanted to be a star at the prestigious Paris “Salon” — the annual exhibit of the best of French art – you faced all the familiar obstacles.
Women were not accepted into the official art school, the École des Beaux Arts, though they could attend certain studios or take private lessons – provided they didn’t attend “life classes.” (For some reason it was okay for men to stare for hours at naked women, but not for women to do so. Since the study of the nude was central to serious art training, this was a bit of a disadvantage.) Respectable middle-class women also found it difficult to paint landscapes or the scenes of public life that were becoming fashionable, since they could go nowhere unchaperoned. And, of course, there were family pressures.
Nevertheless, a certain number of women did manage to break into what would become perhaps the most popular artistic revolutions of all time, Impressionism.
The male Impressionists were surprisingly supportive of their female colleagues (although the senior member, Manet, could be a pain). And the women Monet, Renoir, Degas, et al. shared insights with came with their own impressive array of talent. Berthe Morisot had already exhibited at the prestigious Salon several times when she met the Impressionists, a feat most of the group had not accomplished. Marie Bracquemond had her first piece accepted at the Salon when she was only 17.
The star of the female Impressionists was Berthe Morisot. Morisot’s mother was warned by an instructor that her daughter could become a successful artist – a result he felt would be “almost catastrophic” in a haute bourgeoisie family. Nevertheless, Berthe’s mother continued to encourage her. Morisot first exhibited at the Salon de Paris when she was 23. One critic wrote approvingly, “You see, ladies, one may be an artist and take part in public exhibitions of painting and remain, as before, a very respectable and very charming person.” Some years later she was introduced to the Impressionists by a family friend and mentor, the painter Édouard Manet. While convention limited her to domestic scenes, she quickly became one of the most admired of the group.
Morisot is also famous as part of a romantic Impressionist triangle. She and the married Manet likely fell in love (though it’s not clear they were ever, technically, lovers), but she eventually married his brother Eugène. Unlike other Impressionist partners, Eugène neglected his own career to support Berthe’s work. She continued to exhibit with the Impressionists, but unfortunately, both died young, Morisot at only 54. Her orphaned daughter, Julie, was treated as a member of the wider Impressionist family and appears in many of their paintings.
Berthe was not the only artist in the family. Her older sister, Edma, studied and exhibited with her and was a
strong support and influence. The sisters often modelled for each other. (That’s Edma and her baby in Morisot’s famous painting, “The Cradle.”) Unfortunately, Edma abandoned any serious attempts at art after her marriage – a common occurrence among women artists of the time.
Profiles of more female Impressionist artists to come!
See Impressionism the play onstage at Alumnae Theatre, April 12-27, 2019. Directed by Nicole Arends.