When one utters the words "mothers" and "art" in the same breath the name Mary Cassatt usually follows in the next breath. The unfortunate factor in this is that in having become the painting icon for mothers, children, and women in general, Cassatt far overshadows another very worthwhile female artist who in many respects may well have been a much better painter. Unlike Mary Cassatt, who was an American expatriate living most of her life in Paris, Berthe Morisot was French. All too often in fact, she's referred to as a French Mary Cassatt. And while their subject matter in painting predominantly women and children is virtually indistinguishable, that's far from the case in terms of their style. Though Cassatt is often thought of as an Impressionist, and was in tune with them in terms of her use of colour and design, there was little in the way of Impressionist style in the way she handled her paint. That's not the case with Morisot. Berthe Morisot was an Impressionist through and through, her colours, her technique, her always carefully conceived compositions, all land her right in the middle of her male counterparts in the movement.
Berthe was born in 1841, the granddaughter of the French Rococo painter, Jean- Honoré Fragonard. She and her younger sister, Edma grew up in a wealthy, cosmopolitan, atmosphere of culture and learning. They were encouraged in their art at an early age by their father, a government bureaucrat and would-like-to-have-been architect. They both studied under the Realist painter, Camille Corot, and the Academic painter, Henri Fantin-Latour. And while Edma gave up painting to become a wife and mother, Berthe did not. She continued her studies, copying paintings at the Louvre (an accepted way of learning to paint at the time). There, one day in 1868, she met one of the better-known painters of her day, Edouard Manet. They became friends. He helped her in her painting, and used her as a model in some of his own (The Balcony, 1869). Later, their friendship led to marriage, not to each other, but to Eduoard's brother, Eugene. And though her brother-in-law no doubt influenced her art, it wouldn't be unfair to say she was something of an influence upon him as well; encouraging him to lighten and brighten his palette, and forego the use of black, a staple of the academic style, but a definite "no-no" for the Impressionists.
And there was no more dedicated Impressionist than Berthe Morisot. At a time when women might paint, but seldom exhibited their art, she had work accepted into all five Salon exhibitions between 1864 and 1868; and exhibited in all but one of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions during the ensuing years. Moreover, at a time when only women and children were considered appropriate subjects for female painters, Morisot's work contains a generous helping of impressive landscape efforts as well, though many have within them the obligatory female figures. Morisot died in 1895 having forged for herself a career in art marked not by commercial success, but a daring swim through the midst of uncharted Impressionist waters amongst sharp attacks by critics and the French bourgeoisie alike; not just for her loose, vibrant use of paint and colour; but accused of being a loose, and perhaps too vibrant a woman as well. And lest you think women's place in art has not changed much in the years since her death, keep in mind it was 1897 before women were admitted into the Ecole des Beaux-arts and well into the twentieth century before they were allowed to draw the nude figure in classes (and even then only those of their own sex).