Berthe Morisot
Click Image to Enlarge
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
A Horse and Carriage on a Woodland Road, ca. 1889
Blue, green, and brown watercolor with touches of red and yellow on white wove paper
28.4 x 20.4 cm
Bequeathed by Mrs. H.H. Turner, 1959
WA 1959.4.5

It is nearly impossible to look at or write objectively about the biography and art of Berthe Morisot without discussing her role as a woman. After all, she was theoretically and socially embedded in the French impressionist group which was otherwise, all male. Even so, Morisot is often singled out not as an artist, but as a woman artist. Imbued with this epithet, her works claim modern impressionist ideas from her unique female perspective. She painted the realm of domesticity, the bond between a father and child, and mother and daughter with the innovation and feminine perspective only a woman in 19th century France could fully articulate. But it is most curious that even Morisot’s most gender-neutral paintings – landscapes – are nevertheless interpreted with the same feminized terminology appropriated from her other works.

Berthe Morisot maintained a very solid friendship and artistic reciprocation with Edouard Manet and Auguste Renoir, among other male painters in the Parisian impressionist circle. Her marriage to Edouard Manet’s brother, Eugêne, further cemented her place, but it also reinforced her status as a conventional bourgeois woman. Even after she and Eugêne Manet married, she never moved away from Passy, a suburb of Paris, where she had lived all of her life. Passy had acquired its name in the 13th century and had, by the 18th century, developed into a fashionable Parisian outpost.[i]

The Morisot family moved to Passy in the 1850’s and Berthe lived in a number of residences there, but in 1883, Manet and Berthe Morsiot moved into their newly built home in Passy’s Rue de Villejust, close to the Arc de Triomphe, but much closer to the Bois de Boulogne than she had ever lived.[ii]

Yet Passy was not exactly a leisurely suburban escape from the demands of the city Paris.  It was a village, but it was also Parisian, and with that association, it was a place where the rituals of social behavior were rigorously observed. The exception to this observation, where relaxation was publicly unguarded, was in the Bois de Boulogne at the town’s northern boundary.  Otherwise, Passy was a woman’s place, a contrast to the city where she would need no chaperone; the neighborhood carried with it little danger that a bourgeois woman in Paris center might encounter. Morisot had her male circle, but she also had a suburban bourgeois feminine circle, later termed “les dames de Passy.”

Morisot used the salon in her new home along the Bois de Boulogne as her studio and the Bois became an extension of her private garden.[iii] Instead of the fast modern life of the city, she painted the tranquility of small-scale daily rituals, in what Kathleen Adler describes as “in the realm of women’s lived experience.”[iv]

Her landscapes reinforce the polarities often asserted in art; of city versus country, culture versus nature, public versus private and above all, male versus female. In the correlative debate of culture being associated with the male and nature associated with the female, was it “natural” for Morisot, as a woman, to paint this view in A Horse and Carriage on a Woodland Road? Was this sphere, separate from the city, a deliberately gendered subject? Her characteristic loose and freely worked brushstroke was critically commented on at the time, reflecting the perception that drawing was “masculine” while the use of color was decidedly “feminine.”[v]

In A Horse and Carriage on a Woodland Road, Morisot scatters bright strokes of blue, green and brown watercolor, with touches of red and yellow, across white wove paper.[vi] The painting is undated, but probably dates from around 1889 when a similar  watercolor, L’Allée des poteaux au Bois de Bolougne, was painted.[vii] What could be dismissed as sketchy, is instead a confident and spontaneous application of watercolor. Moriost uses a full range of watercolor technique, with some areas of the paper under a translucent wash, while some strokes bearing the slight resistance of dark, dry paint on dry paper. With an economy of form and evocation of activity through color, Morisot realizes the fleeting moment of the carriage and horse passing by,[viii] through her subjective position from the other side of the riverbank. The carriage and passengers are merely hinted at as a loose composition of varying tonalities, recessing deep into the forest. A solitary woman with a red parasol stands in the back right of the painting, identified only as a quick brushstroke, romantically dwarfed by the forest around her. 

Comfortable in her woman’s sphere of Passy, Morisot used the modern Parisian suburb to paint in a man’s world, while maintaining a female perspective.

[i] Kathleen Adler and Tamar Garb. Berthe Morisot. Oxford. Phaidon. 1987. 

[ii] Adler and Garb  p. 121.

[iii] Ibid. 121.

[iv] Kathleen Adler.  Perspectives on Morisot. New York. Hudson Hills Press. 1990. p 38.

[v] Ibid. p 39.

[vi] Jon Whiteley. Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum Volume VII. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2000. p 404.

[vii] M.L. Bataille and G. Wildenstein. Berthe Morisot. Catalogue Raisonné. Paris. Les Beaux-Arts. 1961.

[viii] Christopher Lloyd and Richard Thompson. Impressionist Drawings from British and Private Collections. Oxford. Phaidon Press and the Arts Council. 1986.

Rochelle Behrens

Home | Bibliography