Women of Impressionism

Over the past few months while the exhibition Colours of Impressionism has been in town at the Art Gallery of South Australia, you’ve probably spied the merch; t-shirts and tote bags with the names ‘Monet & Morisot & Cézanne & Renoir’ in Helvetica. These names are recognisable: Monet is the waterlily dude, Renoir is the luncheon dude, Cézanne is some other dude. But you might be a bit stumped by the name ‘Morisot’, as Morisot was, in fact, not a dude.

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Hide and Seek by  Berthe Morisot, 1873 (image source: Trivium Art History)

Berthe Morisot was one of many woman painters who worked during the Impressionist movement in Paris in the 1870s and 80s. At this time, and for decades before it, art painted by women was constantly reduced to being ‘feminine’, ‘delicate’, and ‘sensitive’. For male art critics in the late 19th century, engaging with the works of woman painters in any real way was much less fun than speculating over which charming painter man had inevitably lent a hand to the canvas.

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Girl Arranging her hair by Mary Cassatt, 1886 (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

But the movement of Impressionism threw a spanner in the works. The things that Impressionism is now heralded for – moving away from the confines of grand historical subjects, painting en plein air (outdoors), depicting mothers with their children, capturing intimate portrayals of everyday life – these are all things that were meant to stay in the simple, domestic world of ‘feminine’ art. No wonder all the male critics were freaking out when the (mostly male) Impressionists put on their first show in Paris. But fast forward to now, and these iconic moves that Impressionism is celebrated for are credited to the Monets and not the Morisots, even though women had been painting these subjects for a long time before Renoir had a crack.

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Woman Awakening by Eva Gonzalès, 1876 (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

So, with the AGSA exhibition in its final days, let’s take a moment to recognise the female impressionist painters whose work doesn’t tend to be included in shows about ‘masterpieces’ of the genre. Women like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and Eva Gonzalès who painted intimate, everyday scenes of women’s lives precisely because they were unable to enter traditionally male art spaces, did so much for the movement of Impressionism – a movement which embraced the sensitive and the intimate. If you’re heading to ‘Colours of Impressionism’ in its final week, I encourage you to spend a moment thinking about the Women of Impressionism too. Let’s not forget Morisot & Cassatt & Gonzalès & Bracquemond.

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 The Cradle by Berthe Morisot, 1871 (image source: my daily art display)

Further reading: For a detailed and beautifully crafted book on women’s contributions to art movements including Impressionism, I recommend looking for a copy of Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 by Laurence Madeline and devouring it.

– Henrietta Byrne

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