Berthe Morisot – Key Facts, Fleeting Brushwork, and Strong Fundamentals

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“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. I cover:

Berthe Morisot, Summer's Day, 1879
Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day, 1879

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

  • There are some interesting connections between Morisot and renowned artist, Édouard Manet. They were perhaps lovers, at least until she married his brother Eugène in 1874. This post has some interesting commentary on the matter.
Édouard Manet, The Balcony (Berthe Morisot on Left), 1868
Édouard Manet, The Balcony (Berthe Morisot on Left), 1868
  • 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.
Berthe Morisot, Reading in the Garden, 1863
Berthe Morisot, Reading in the Garden, 1863
  • Despite her success in the Salon, she joined the Impressionists in 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.
Berthe Morisot, Lady With a Parasol Sitting in a Park, 1885
Berthe Morisot, Lady With a Parasol Sitting in a Park, 1885
  • She passed away at the age of 54 in Paris in 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.

Berthe Morisot, The Dining Room, c.1875
Berthe Morisot, The Dining Room, c.1875

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.

Berthe Morisot, In the Bois De Boulogne, 1880
Berthe Morisot, In the Bois De Boulogne, 1880

Two other key benefits of painting in a high key are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Berthe Morisot, The Quay at Bougival, 1883
Berthe Morisot, The Quay at Bougival, 1883

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.

Berthe Morisot, The Quay at Bougival, 1883 (Grayscale)

Her skilled drawing is the foundation of her work. It adds a sense of realism and structure to the otherwise fleeting scenes.

Berthe Morisot, Dining Room Family Ruar, Street Eylau, 1880
Berthe Morisot, Dining Room Family Ruar, Street Eylau, 1880

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.

Composition

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.

Berthe Morisot, Lady at her Toilette, 1875
Berthe Morisot, Lady at her Toilette, 1875

Her compositions tend to be natural and relaxed as if the subject is completely unaware they are being painted (refer to the painting below).

Berthe Morisot, Tale, 1883
Berthe Morisot, Tale, 1883

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).
Berthe Morisot, Reading, 1873
Berthe Morisot, Reading, 1873

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.

Berthe Morisot, At the Cradle, 1872
Berthe Morisot, At the Cradle, 1872

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.

Berthe Morisot, The Little Girl in the Garden, 1884
Berthe Morisot, The Little Girl in the Garden, 1884

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.

Berthe Morisot, The Little Windmill at Gennevilliers, 1875
Berthe Morisot, The Little Windmill at Gennevilliers, 1875

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.

Berthe Morisot, On the Veranda, 1884
Berthe Morisot, On the Veranda, 1884

Key Takeaways

  • 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?

Additional Readings and Sources

Artist Spotlight – Édouard Manet

Impressionist Art Movement – Masters Of Light And Color

Wikipedia – Berthe Morisot

France Today – Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet: Painters in Paris

Berthe Morisot, Little Maid, 1886
Berthe Morisot, Little Maid, 1886

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

40 comments on “Berthe Morisot – Key Facts, Fleeting Brushwork, and Strong Fundamentals”

  1. Beautifully written and informative! I learned a lot about an artist I wasn’t familiar with and am totally captivated by her now. Thank you so much for this enlightning post!

    Reply
    • I have always been curious about her. You made her come alive for me. You are the amazing teacher I hang on to. I endeavor to follow your lead.
      I can’t believe you get so much accomplished! Your generous willingness to share is a gift to all who follow you.

      Reply
    • Thank you for providing a most informative selection of Morisot. I am quite familiar with Mary Cassat’s work, but somehow never followed the life and works of Morisot. This is a great service to we budding artists.

      Reply
  2. Dan…thank you so much for this post. I had heard of Morisot but never seen any of her work. What a revelation!!! The light and the brushstrokes are just amazing. What an impression (pun intended!) she makes!

    Reply
  3. I have never heard of this painter, but has been inspired to take this into my arts and crafts class and let my students experiment likewise. Thank you for awaken my interest and motivation!

    Reply
  4. Dan
    Thank your for your analysis of Berthe Morisot’s art
    We do not her much about her these days
    I have always liked her unique style and had the Book by Jean Dominique Rey for 30 years
    I have tried to copy ‘Woman and Child in the Garden
    Colours all subtle and merging into each other.

    Reply
  5. The little girl in the garden is delightful. I had been unaware of this painter and very much now admire her style. Thank you for expanding our art universe!

    Reply
  6. Fascinating. Thank you Particularly for these observations on structure and technical skill. as foundational, composition, brush strokes, and painting in high key. I appreciated the encouragement to paint in various mediums, too.

    Reply
  7. Thankyou for this very interesting article. I have not heard of this artist. Your comments on light brush strokes and painting in high key will give me a new way of painting

    Reply
  8. I spent many hours at the Art Institute of Chicago when I was young and was always drawn to the paintings of female artists.
    Thank you for this article and images.

    Reply
  9. Wonderful article and so inspiring. I just ordered one of her books. Since I have transitioned to oils this is an inspiration.

    Reply
  10. Thanks Dan. Your comments on value and blending are very helpful and I look forward to reading about the other female abstract painters. I really appreciate your blogs and insights. You open doors for me into the art world and valuable tips which improve my own work .

    Reply
  11. Thanks for this, Dan. I can see that Morisot’s pastel work could have influenced her work with oils and vice versa. A great lesson on the effectiveness of simplicity!

    Reply
  12. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post Dan. I had not heard of her and I find her work to be very inspiring. Also I appreciate your Key Takeaway comments very much.

    Reply
  13. Really enjoyed learning about and viewing the work of an artist whom I hadnt heard of. Thankyou. I havent painted for ages and find your website so exciting and inspiring
    Such a blessing to draw on your insights which illuminate working principals to make a painting “sing”.
    Thankyou again

    Reply
  14. Thank you, Dan for this extensive and interesting article about Berthe Morisot. It makes me reflect on my own work and how important it is for me to push myself and to try new mediums (I paint with acrylics), new subject matters, and new techniques.
    I appreciate how in depth you wrote about this Impressionist painter. I learned a lot!

    Reply
  15. I saw an exhibit of her work at the Orsay in Paris last summer. I wish I had read your wonderful piece first–I would have understood much more.

    Reply
  16. So informative. I am a docent in Naples FL and we have a traveling show now. It includes “A Peasant girl with Tulips,” by Berthe Morisot.
    Your discussion of high key and compressed color value will enhance my tours. Thank you

    Reply
  17. Dan, thanks for this post. Had never heard of Berthe but very impressed with her work. I’ve been kind of hoping you’d have a post about a woman artist, so thanks for that. To the docent in Naples, I’m going to that exhibit soon and live nearby.

    Reply
  18. Thank you for sharing Berthe’s paintings. I learned at a display of her paintings along with other female artists that the scenes are domestic because that is all they were allowed to paint. Women were not allowed to go out in public and create works.

    Reply
  19. I really like impressionism. I shared the article on Berthe Morisot with the group Creative Energy live Art and Inspiration which i moderate via Creative Energy Live. My website is CreativeEnergy.live
    I will be sharing more of your knowledge if that is alright with you.
    Deborah J Thomas

    Reply
  20. Really enjoyed this article! Love hearing about our earlier Female artists, they had such barriers to breach it seems. Thanks for paving the way ladies!

    Reply
  21. I so enjoyed seeing her work and reading your comments that accompanied them. I did not think I knew her, yet her name seemed familiar, and then I recognized her work and was surprised that I was familiar with it. I love Morisot’s paintings, and your comments leave me much to consider and to learn from.

    Reply
  22. Thank you for this article. I learned a lot about painting and about the struggle of women artists. I hope to see more of your articles.

    Reply
  23. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis, not only for helping me understand Morisot, but for showing how to look at a painting.

    Reply
  24. I am presently working on recreating her famous 1885 self-portrait with easel and brush. As I’d like to be as accurate as possible, is there any informed opinion as to the palette used in that painting?

    Reply

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