The Sisters MorisotA few years ago when the women's rights movement was at its most militant, art historians, especially the female variety, dug deep into the past and came up with a wealth of feminist activities in the arts. And, although the male of the species had always dominated nearly every aspect of the arts up until then, today I wonder if there has not been a sort of abandonment of the arts by men as they've turned to seeking more profitable venues for their efforts. I rather doubt if polls exist upon the male/female ratios in any of the arts, but I have kind of an intuitive feeling that the numbers are at least equal in most areas, and very possibly men may be a minority in some areas. This has long been the case in the field of dance and I think this may be the case now in interior design (where men have fled to architecture) and painting (where men have gravitated toward photography, the cinema, and various electronic media).
Two French sisters stand out as interesting examples of the relationship of women painters to the male-dominated art community of their time. Edma and Berthe Morisot both were talented amateurs who admired the Barbizon painters of the mid-1800s and who later studied for a number of years under Jean-Batiste-Camille Corot during the 1860s. The sisters exhibited legitimate talent, displaying in five Salon shows during the latter half of the decade. In 1869 Edma got married and followed traditional custom. She gave up her art for her family. About the same time, Berthe met Edouard Manet and fell under his influence. She also met his brother, Eugene, and fell under his influence as well. She married him.
Unlike her sister however, Berthe refused to abandon painting in favour of domestic chores. Her family could well afford to pay someone else to fulfil that obligation. Instead, to her brother-in-law's dismay, she allied herself with the Impressionists and showed regularly in their scandalous little exhibits. As an Impressionist, her work became more painterly, her style looser, yet her technique remained delicate. Like her friend and the other token female Impressionist, Mary Cassatt, she painted from a female point of view, her subject matter tending toward women in domestic scenes, her palette much lighter and more pastel than those of her male counterparts. And nearly a hundred years ahead of her time, her thinking was quite that of the modern-day feminist. She is quoted by Higonnet: "I don't think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that's all I would have asked, for I know I'm worth as much as they."
Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 June 1998