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Berthe Morisot: The Pensive Gaze

Updated: May 7, 2021

Beautiful young French woman with fan
Portrait of Berthe Morisot from The Balcony by Edouard Manet, 1868.

Edouard Manet captured it - that gaze, eyes a bit unfocused, looking but not seeing, with the mind lost in thought. She was beautiful, refined, and pensive, in an age when women were not supposed to think or even have the ability to do so. Manet's portrait gives a lie to that idea, for Morisot's eyes are deep in consideration of some mystery we can only guess at.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) not only thought, she also painted, joining in a movement that revolutionized the art world - Impressionism. She, along with her sister Edma, had their own studio, built by their father, architect, Edme Tiburce Morisot, so that his daughters might become great painters. The mother, Cornélie, encouraged Berthe to take art seriously as a profession, an attitude not usual for her social class or sex. Despite the attitudes from olden days about women's capabilities, in France feminism began to form itself around 1880, with the word itself being used around 1882. Morisot began showing with the Impressionists in the 1870s, so clearly something was stirring. It is hard to think of anyone from the 19th century as representing the "modern woman." Yet, they were there - Mary Cassatt, Nelié Jacquemart, Marie Bracquemond, and ultimately Manet's most famous model, Victorine Meurent (Olympia) - all showing their art. The question for me, as I look at the face that Manet captured, is what did it take for a woman in the upper bourgeoisie to contravene the strictures of society and persist in developing a career, even still painting after her marriage and always in her own birth name, Berthe Morisot?

Yes, she was encouraged by her parents. Yes, she knew other artists, especially Impressionists like Renoir, a close friend. She encountered Edouard Manet while painting at the Louvre. He and artist Edgar Degas frequented the weekly dinner parties at the Morisot residence. The association with Manet was very close and influential, and of course much speculated on in later years. However, it took quite a bit of determination, quiet and steely, for this upper class woman, whose beauty and refinement made others feel self-conscious, to persist and become known as a painter of talent. That quiet determination brings me to the thing that fascinates me about many of her paintings of women. It is a gaze that shows them reflecting on something, turning a thought over in their minds, as they are all the while held in proper place by their outer demeanor.

Beautiful young French woman with a fan.
At the Ball by Berthe Morisot, 1876.

Here is an example of a perfect young woman at a dance, a ball in fact. She holds her fan demurely, perhaps, depending on the viewer's angle, even hiding her face. Her eyes seem unfocused in the way one has of taking a few moments to one's self while in a very public setting. The lack of a distinct expression on her face would fit well with the dreaminess of contemplation. I am sure she hears the music and is aware of activity in the general area, but for this moment, she is far away and thinking of something else. The distance in her gaze is not troubling, as it is surrounded by her lovely gloved hand, the fan, and her flower-decorated coiffure. However, anyone catching a glimpse of her behind that fan would see someone not fully engaged in her immediate environment but rather with her own private world.

In the painting below, we see two sisters, appropriately dressed in matching dresses and matching hairstyles, one holding a fan and the other with a fan shaped painting just behind her. Their knees are pointed in the direction of one another, yet they are each in their own place on the sofa with their eyes gazing into some external space rather than looking at or engaging each other. Perhaps this was just the polite way to have some privacy in a world in which there were always people around. Whatever, the overall feeling is one of restraint and inner reflection.

Two young 19th century upper class women on a sofa.
Two Sisters on a Sofa by Berthe Morisot, 1869

Woman with a Fan by Berthe Morisot, 1876

In this piece we see the head of a young woman, again holding a fan, which from a certain angle would have obscured the view of her face. And behind the fan, that same distant pensive gaze. Morisot was one of the first to show women in private moments carved out of public spaces. Others painted women in their boudoirs, perhaps having a moment of nostalgic regret, as in Memories and Regrets by Alfred Stevens, 1874. Stevens sets the stage for what she is thinking. Morisot does not. Her lady's thoughts are her own.

Memories and Regrets by Alfred Stevens, 1874.

Morisot, of course, painted many things, including landscapes, interiors, women in the intimacy of their bedrooms, women with their children, and some women who look directly at the viewer. However, it is the portraits of silent restraint that fascinate most. And what might have been on Berthe's mind? While she showed early works (1860s) at the Paris Salon, they were thought to be charming and feminine. She chafed when Manet did retouches to a painting of hers. She wrote to her sister in anger saying that she felt her painting had been stolen. In the early 1870s, the Paris Salon constantly gave her the cold shoulder, as they kept the Salon closed to what they called the "New Painting." Finally Renoir talked her into showing with those new painters, Monet, Pissaro, and Renoir, himself. From that time forward she eschewed the Salon and its rules, all the while wondering how artists manage to live by selling their paintings. This issue became prominent when her father passed away, limiting the family income. At that point the subject of marriage came up.

Berthe's mother was all for that, but Berthe was warned both by her married sister, Edma and by her brother, Tiburce, about marrying. Edma, who married in 1870 and stopped painting, wrote "The further I get into marriage, the more I am convinced you should not arrange your life in the same way" (Mathieu p. 64) Her brother was more direct. He pointed out that she actually had enough money to live well if outside of Paris and warned her of making a marriage of convenience. When she decided to marry Eugéne Manet, yes the brother of Edouard, her brother, Tiburce, told her to only do so "counting for the future not on him, he'll never do anything! but on your own luck...I don't believe in the future of 36-37 year olds who haven't found their path yet" (Mathieu, p. 72) Ouch! Yet she did marry Eugéne in 1874, both of them listed on the marriage certificate as being "without profession." However, she did continue to paint and always under her own name, Morisot. She continued to paint women and children, families, etc. but in garden scenes. There were

also interesting interiors with views to the outside, like this one of Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight. 1975.

Eugéne Manet on the Isle of Wight by Berthe Morisot, 1875.

Her painting took on the quality of a life surrounded not by balls and boudoirs but by nature, children playing in the grass, people picking cherries, a child carrying a milk jug in a verdant setting. Yet there is one picture from this time that once again shows the pensive gaze. It is this one of her daughter, Julie. Like mother, like daughter, perhaps? Julie surely learned a lot about being her own person. She seems to have followed her mother's advice, "You have beauty and money; make good use of them" (Scott, p. 180).

Julie Dreaming by Berthe Morisot, 1894

Morisot died in 1895 of influenza after tending to Julie who had been ill with it. Morisot's

death certificate states she was "without profession." She was buried in the Manet family crypt between Eugéne and Edouard Manet. Julie, who was by that time an orphan and only 16, worked with Monet, Renoir and Degas to mount a retrospective of her mother's work at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1896 The posthumous exhibition displayed 390 of Morisot's oil paintings, drawings, pastels and watercolors. As noted Julie followed her mother's advice. With the wise aid of Edgar Degas, who found a young man of good family with a promising future, she married happily and lived until 1966, keeping alive in a fashion the spirit of the times when the Impressionists lived.

You will have noticed that I did not take on what may or may not have been the story of Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot. He painted 14 portraits of her, but stopped when she married his brother. Oddly absent in their story is any correspondence and that in an age when everyone wrote to everyone. For more on what is known and what is supposed about that relationship, I refer you to "Manet and Morisot: The Tale of Love and Sadness in Portraits" by Julie Schauer.

And I leave you with my favorite portrait by Manet of Berthe Morisot. The fan over the face and the pink slippers say it all.

Berthe Morisot with a Fan by Edouard Manet, 1872.

So do you consider Berthe Morisot to be a "modern woman"? What do you find alluring about the painting above? Log in and tell us about it.

Reference information on Morisot's life and work from Berthe Morisot Woman Impressionist

with essays by Cindy Kang, Marianne Mathieu, Nicole Myers, Sylvie Patry, and Bill Scott. Published by Rizzoli, 2018.

Paintings are in public domain.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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I used fans when I lived in southern France because it is hot hot hot in the summer. Women in Italy and Spain use them, too. And yes, I think these women used them to hide and create privacy in plain sight.


I imagine fans were popular for practical purposes, or were they also for fashion? Seems there is a third use, hiding?

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