Hidden Gems: Female Impressionists

Recently I saw the BBC series "The Impressionists" (2012) and end up feeling deceived. The series presumed to represent the lives of the artists who were to transform the art world. In the introduction it is explained that the serie is based on archive letters, records and interviews from the time. I was very surprised when I find out that there was no mention, whatsoever, about the women painters who were actively involved in the development of this movement.

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These four women (three French artists and one American artist living in Paris) exhibited works that were as innovative as those of their male counterparts. While they have diverse biographies, each of these artists overcame many difficulties and obstacles to contribute to the development of Impressionism.  As they shaped their unique careers and artistic styles, Morisot, Cassatt, Bracquemond and Gonzalès, negotiated not only personal challenges but also those posed by the conventional ideas of acceptable behavior for women of their time.

With its emphasis on contemporary life, Impressionism was accessible to artists of all artistic backgrounds and Morisot and Cassatt became two of the movement's core members. Although belonging to a very avant-garde, did not look the same issues as men. Limited by a society still very masculine, some cafes, theaters and daily distractions were mostly men-only and out of their reach. Only they had their immediate environment : the private. Hence, a feature common to all is to represent the domestic space.

You will find out in their short biographies below, that all these women were in direct relatioship with the male components. It is a shame, the BBC serie could have been more interesting and rich including this extraordinary women, but for some reason all have been treated as if they never existed. To this day, I wonder why the female members of the nineteenth-century Impressionist movement are usually painted out of official art history.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)


She was the only woman who exhibited at the first Impressionist Exhibition along with Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. Her parents encouraged and supported in her artistic vocation. She studied at the School of Barbizon with Camille Corot, who introduced her to other artists and teachers, and where she learned the method of painting outdoors. In 1864 when she was only 23 years old she first exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon and was selected to exhibit 6 consecutive years, until in 1874 were she joined the Impressionists.

Morisot practiced painting outdoors where small paintings and sketches ended in the study. Usually the themes of her paintings revolves around everyday life scenes and portraits. She used her family and friends as models. Her artworks include landscapes, gardens and scenes with boats. In 1868, she met Édouard Manet, for which she posed in 'The Balcony. Manet's work appeared in "The Hall" the following year. Thereafter Manet and Morisot maintained close artistic relationship (also with Renoir) for the rest of their lives, which intensified with the marriage of Eugène Manet in 1874, the brother of the painter.
She was the one who convinced Manet to paint outdoors and pulled the group of painters who would later be known as the Impressionists. (Manet however, never considered himself as an Impressionist, nor agreed to exhibit with the group).
With her light palette, feathery brushstrokes, and quiet scenes of female domesticity, she was considered by many critics of the time as the purest and most successful of the Impressionists. Currently, Morisot's paintings can achieve figures of over $ 4 million.

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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

American by birth and French by adoption, she was another female components of the Impressionist group. Born in Pennsylvania and despite not having the approval of their parents, at the age of fifteen she began studying painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Pennsylvania. Impatient with the pace of instruction and the patronizing attitude of the male students and teachers, she decided to study on her own the old masters and she moved to Paris (with her mother and family) in 1873 where she spent the rest of her life. Study in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme, Charles Chaplin, Thomas Couture.

In 1870, due to the Franco-Prussian war, she had to leave France and return to Pennsylvania. Her father, always against her vocation, only gave her money for her support, money that did not covered materials or travel expenses. Desperate to return to Paris, she tried to find a job or sell some paintings. During that time she was very close to give up and quit painting ,but thanks to a fluke sold several works and she went back to Paris.

Contrary to the custom of the time, she decided not to marry. Mary Cassat, considered that painting and marriage were not compatible. Her ultimate dream was to live from her paintings. She was admitted to the Hall of Paris, but received harsh criticism for her bright colors and unattractive portraits. They were considered too faithful and therefore not conducive to the model. In 1975 saw a work by Edgar Degas in an art gallery and knew she was not alone in her rebellion. Mary said in a letter to a friend " I used to flatten my nose against the windows to absorb all I could from his art ... It changed my life, ever since I saw the art as I always wanted to see. "

At the lowest point of her career, rejected by the Paris Salon, she was invited by Degas himself to exhibit with the Impressionists. Mary accepted enthusiastically. They already had Berthe Morisot, and after the meeting both became friends.
Cassatt admired Degas, he had a considerable influence on her life and art. She learned to paint with pastels and engraving techniques. Both used to work together and were almost inseparable, but little is known about the nature of his relationship. Mary burned all correspondence with Degas before she died. Their relationship was sometimes turbulent, but lasted over forty years and ended with the death of Degas in 1917.

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Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916)

Marie studied first with M. Wasser and later with Ingress, where she soon began to take orders. She later left Ingres' studio and began receiving commissions for her work, including one from the court of Empress Eugenie for a painting of Cervantes in prison. She fell in love with Felix Branquemond, marrying two years later. Between 1887 and 1890 her style began to change under the influence of Impressionism. She moved out of doors, and to her husband's disgust, Monet and Degas became her mentors. Marie participated in several exhibitions of the Impressionists. But the strong opposition from her husband to continue with the Impressionist style, was the main impediment to develop as an artist. Eventually she abandoned painting.

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Eva Gonzalès (1849-1883)

Eva studied under Charles Chaplin and later became the only student and sometimes model from Édouard Manet (1869). Like Manet never exhibited with the Impressionists, but she is considered part of the group for their pictorial style. Her career was brief as she died in childbirth at the age of 34 years. Six days after her teacher Manet.

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