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Two women artists who broke into the boys’ club

Published 11 August 2020

How do you succeed as an artist in 19th-century Paris when male social circles are closed to you? Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès are two women artists who found a way.

  • Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès are the only two women artists represented in the current exhibition Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection.

    Morisot, born in 1841, was six years older than Gonzalès. Both came from supportive families, which enabled them to bypass many of the challenges traditionally facing women artists, and both, in their adult lives, had supportive husbands. Morisot was given drawing lessons as a girl, since drawing was an accomplishment valued in privileged circles. She and her sister Edma soon realised that they wanted to take this further, and their family obliged, building a studio in the garden and arranging for the renowned painter Camille Corot to come to their home to give them lessons.

  • Poor Madame Morisot, the public hardly knew her.

  • It was not appropriate for haut-bourgeois women to go to a male artist’s studio or to frequent bars and cafés for discussions about art, so Morisot became the only member of the Impressionist group truly to be able to call herself ‘a pupil of Corot’. Other Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro called themselves this, but their training was informal, watching and listening to Corot while he worked or after the day’s work was done.

    Among these discussions was how to create an alternative to the strictures of the annual Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The idea of independent group exhibitions was born in the 1860s, and although Morisot could not participate in the café chat, the group who became known as the Impressionists valued her sufficiently to move their conversations to her family home. Morisot became a founder member of that group, eventually participating in seven of the eight exhibitions. She only missed the 1879 show following the birth of her daughter Julie some months earlier.

  • Berthe Morisot, Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert)

    Berthe Morisot, Young Girl on the Grass, the Red Bodice (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert), 1885.

    Oil on canvas. 74 x 60 cm. © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

  • Gonzalès’s father was the novelist and playwright Emmanuel Gonzalès, and he too provided a nurturing environment. Originally Eva trained with the academic painter Charles Chaplin, and women were able to study in private studios, paying for their tuition, although access to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was denied to them until the end of the nineteenth century. When she met Édouard Manet he was captivated by her appearance and intelligence, and she became his only pupil, much to Morisot’s chagrin.

    Manet is the point of connection between these two artists. Morisot had met Manet while copying in the Louvre, under the eagle-eyed chaperonage of her mother. The two families came from a similar background, and socialised frequently. Manet was drawn to Morisot’s beauty, and began a series of paintings of her in the late 1860s and early 1870s, large and small, in a variety of roles.

    Morisot was more than Manet’s muse. He admired her work and her commitment to painting outdoors, and learned from her. She did not always appreciate his attempts to correct and change her paintings, since from early in her career she regarded herself as a professional artist, not merely a gifted amateur. In 1874 she became Manet’s sister-in-law, when she married his brother Eugène.

    Manet’s large portrait of Eva Gonzalès, now in the National Gallery, was painted in 1870, and aroused strong feelings in Morisot. Her sister Edma wrote: ‘The thought of Mademoiselle Gonzalès irritates me, I do not know why. I imagine that Manet greatly overestimates her, and that we, or rather you, have as much talent as she…’ Morisot admitted that ‘Manet has never done anything as good as his portrait of Mademoiselle Gonzalès; it is perhaps even more charming now than when you saw it.’ There is no evidence of a close relationship between the two women, and although Gonzalès is often labelled an Impressionist (a term which is much more widely used today than it used to be) Gonzalès did not take part in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. Like Manet, she did not choose to consider herself an Impressionist.

    Manet believed that the Salon was ‘the real field of battle’, and resisted all attempts to persuade him to join the Impressionists’ ranks, and Gonzalès was also not tempted. She did not subscribe to the aesthetic of plein-air painting, although she shared a belief in depicting the subject matter of modern life. While to Morisot this largely meant paintings of her family and friends, Gonzalès was often drawn to images of the theatre and the street.

    Morisot’s two paintings in the Odrupgaard collection are characteristic of two phases of her painting career. Woman with a Fan (Portrait of Madame Marie Hubbard), shown at the very top of this page, was made in 1874, the year of the first Impressionist exhibition. It shows a close friend of her mother’s, casually reclining, wearing a delicate white peignoir and holding a fan. The handling of the texture of the garment shows the subtlety of Morisot’s approach, while the painting conveys something of the longeurs of the life of a woman of this class. The Young Woman on the Grass, the Red Bodice (Mademoiselle Isabelle Lambert) shown above was painted eleven years later, and shows an adolescent girl whom Morisot used as a model on several occasions. Positioned close to the viewer, she looks off to the side. Her red jacket contrasts vividly with the green background, and the brushstrokes are broader than in the earlier painting. The pansies (pensées) and the bird cage behind her suggest that she is contemplating her future.

  • Eva Gonzalès, The Convalescent (Portrait of a Woman in White)

    Eva Gonzalès, The Convalescent (Portrait of a Woman in White), 1877–78.

    Oil and charcoal on canvas. 86 x 47.5 cm. © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

  • One of the paintings by Gonzalès in the collection, and the only one to be shown in London, The Convalescent (Portrait of a Woman in White) is a combination of charcoal and oil on canvas, made in 1877–78. It is so delicate as to be almost invisible, the white gown as transparent as the woman’s apparent health. It is one of a number of explorations of white on white Gonzalès experimented with. Made two years before her marriage to the printmake Henri Guèrard, it also reminds us of Gonzalès’s tragically short life: she died in 1883 from a blood clot following the birth of her daughter, three days after Édouard Manet’s own death.

    These two women artists represent only a few of their peers, and were selected for the collection because of their connection to Impressionism and to Manet. Their privilege gave them an edge over many others, but we are reminded of Pissarro’s comment on Morisot’s death in 1895: ‘Poor Madame Morisot, the public hardly knew her.’