"Real painters understand with a brush in their hand". Berthe Morisot
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a remarkable Impressionist painter known for her soft touch and pastel colors. In this post, I take a closer look at her life and work.
Key Facts and Ideas
- She had no formal art education. At the time, most female artists were barred from attending official art institutions. However, she did learn from many accomplished artists such as Joseph Guichard, Camille Corot, Achille Oudinot, and Édouard Manet. Unfortunately, she destroyed many of her student works out of disappointment.
“I do not think any man would ever treat a woman as his equal, and it is all I ask, because I know my worth." Berthe Morisot
- She was accepted to the prestigious Paris Salon exhibition in 1864, when she was just 23. A remarkable feat. Although she is known for her paintings of intimate domestic scenes, it was two landscapes that were displayed at the first Salon. I was unable to confirm which two paintings, but below is one of her landscapes from around that time to give you an idea of what they may have looked like. She was subsequently accepted to six more Salon exhibitions.
- Despite her success in the Salon, she joined with the Impressionists from 1874; a movement formed by the many artists who were rejected by the conservative Salon judges. She ended up displaying work at all Impressionist exhibitions bar one in 1878 (the year when her daughter was born).
- She was a pivotal figure of Impressionism, yet she is often overshadowed by her famous contemporaries like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. Art critic Gustave Geffroy referred to her as "les trois grandes dames" (the three great ladies) of Impressionism; the other two being Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond.
- She was primarily an oil painter, but she also worked extensively with watercolor, pastel, charcoal drawing, and even sculpture. Below is one of her watercolors; the medium appears to suit her light touch and use of color.
- She passed away at the age of 54 in Paris, 1895 as a result of pneumonia. During her lifetime, she got to experience moderate success, but most of her success and recognition came many years after her death (an unfortunate tale that runs true for many of history's artists).
Soft Brushwork, Pastel Colors, and Accurate Drawing
"My ambition is limited to the desire to capture something transient, and yet, this ambition is excessive". Berthe Morisot
Her work suggests she had no interest in perfectly rendering the world as it is. Rather, she seems to have focused on the fleeting and "transient" nature of life.
She typically used soft and fleeting brushwork, as if she painted without a care in the world. This is combined with her accurate drawing and solid fundamentals, resulting in a pleasing harmony between effortless beauty and technical strength.
She was a master of using brushwork to merge one distinct area into the next, creating a sense of cohesion and unity throughout her work. The Dining Room below is a great example.
The white-blue apron merges into the kitchen cloth and the surrounding floor. The small dog in the bottom right-hand corner merges into the surrounding floor. The cabinet merges into the window, which merges into the table, which merges into the floor.
Then, with a few cleverly placed hard edges, she established a sense of form and structure.
The two figures almost become one with the surrounding nature in the painting below, particularly around the bottom. You can see the loose strokes of her brush that blur the edges between the clothing and the green leaves and grass.
You would usually need to take more care when softening and blurring the edges between two areas, but because Morisot painted in a high key (mostly light colors) she did not have to worry about the darks mixing with the lights.
Two other key benefits of painting in a high key are:
- It compresses the value range (most of the colors are kept around the light end of the value scale). This helps create a sense of unity across the painting, as most of the colors are around the same value range.
- It softens all the colors, making them cooler (color temperature) and weaker (saturation).
The Quay at Bougival is a great example of a high-key painting.
Here is the painting in grayscale. Notice how all the values are basically the same, apart from a few dark accents to command your attention.
Her skilled drawing is the foundation of her work. It adds a sense of realism and structure to the otherwise fleeting scenes.
Her work demonstrates that you can have a lot of flexibility with your brushwork and use of color if you put the right shapes and lines in the right places.
What I find most interesting about her work in terms of composition is how the subjects both stand out, yet blend in with the surroundings.
Just look at Lady at her Toilette. The lady commands your attention, with intricate drawing, increased light, and a prominent position. Yet, she also appears as one with the surroundings through the use of similar colors and soft edges.
On a separate point, notice the black accessory around her neck. A powerful accent amongst an otherwise soft and fleeting scene.
Her compositions tend to be natural and relaxed as if the subject is completely unaware they are being painted (refer to the painting below).
She was a master of simplification, using just enough detail to get the message across and leaving the rest up to your imagination. She would try to paint "a mouth, eyes, and a nose with a single brushstroke".
Here are some of the ways she used simplification in Reading (shown below):
- The subject's face is left vague and ambiguous, as if her identity is not important. You get the feeling this could be anyone, rather than a particular person.
- The background is made up of nothing more than simple color shapes. It provides context but does not distract from the subject.
- She did not try to paint every strand of grass! Just a few clever details to create the illusion of numbers.
- More detail is used for high contrast areas (whenever there is a sharp change in value, color, or some other element).
- Light areas are more detailed than areas in shadow (compare her top hand to her hand under the book).
A Closer Look at Some of Her Other Work
At the Cradle is a stunning composition. There are two major components to the painting: the dark shapes and the light, pastel shapes. Notice the interesting pattern as you jump from dark shape to light shape to dark shape, and so on. The light shapes are also particularly elegant, with all the subtle color changes.
The painting below appears to be unfinished; but it gives you an idea of how she went about a painting. It seems she worked fast, as if she was sketching the subject in color.
Below is one of her simple landscapes. There is a pleasant contrast between long, sweeping strokes and small, dark accents used for the bushes, people, and other details.
On the Veranda is one of her more colorful works, with rich oranges, yellows, greens, and blues. This is a great demonstration of painting the illusion of sunlight.
- Try not to let others dictate the direction of your life. If Morisot gave in to public expectation and discrimination, she would have never picked up a brush in the first place. But what a shame that would have been.
- Do not feel restricted to one medium. Different mediums will help you learn different aspects of painting.
- Talented and inspired teachers are worth their weight in gold. If you find one, stick to them! Much of Morisot's technical strength can be attributed to her training with many prominent artists and teachers.
- Accurate drawing allows you to be more flexible with the other elements, like brushwork and color.
- Painting in a high key (mostly light colors) has two main benefits: it compresses the value range, and it softens all the colors.
- Can you make your focal point both stand out and blend in with the surroundings?
(If you want to learn more about landscape painting, make sure to grab my free Landscape Painting Starter Kit).
Additional Readings and Sources
Thanks for Reading!
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