The Women of Impressionism: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and Other Pioneering Figures Who Shaped the Movement

Tessa Solomon


July 27, 2020 4:47pm

Berthe Morisot, The Garden at Maurecourt, ca. 1884COURTESY TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART

When the Impressionists debuted their work as a group in 1874, critics were quick to label their art “feminine.” Their canvases were small, their pastel palettes were too gauzy, their brushstrokes were too loose. Slices of everyday life—seascapes and English gardens, mothers and daughters—appeared in the place of moralizing historical scenes. “Only a woman has the right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system,” critic Téodor de Wyzewa wrote in 1891. “She alone can limit her effort to the translation of impressions.” Male artists, de Wyzewa and others seemed to imply, would have opted for something entirely different.

In 19th-century France, women were largely unable to obtain a formal art education, as studying the nude form was considered scandalous. But the constraints placed on women did not end within the studio. Unmarried women were barred from leaving the home without a chaperone, and they were expected instead to tend the household or pass time with decorative arts in the company of other women. Female Impressionists—many of whom have been undervalued or outright ignored by the historical canon—exploited these confines, producing introspective works that dealt with their makers’ societal conditions. In 1894, critic Henri Focillon singled out three of them as the “Les Trois Grandes Dames,” or “The Three Great Ladies,” of the movement: Berthe MorisotMary Cassatt, and Marie Bracquemond. The trio acted as peers and friends to the movement’s top members. Édouard Manet, for example, was a great admirer of Morisot’s audacious brushwork—so much so, in fact, that he reportedly displayed a small collection of her paintings in his bedroom.

These women’s revolutionary sensibilities allowed them to channel interior states that were often unknowable to their male counterparts; only recently have they begun to get their due. Below is a guide to some of the pioneering female members of Impressionism, as well as a few notable artists who followed their lead. 

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Berthe Morisot, The Garden at Maurecourt, ca. 1884.COURTESY TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART

Berthe Morisot (1841–95)

Berthe Morisot is the best-known of the female Impressionists, having been given a solo retrospective that traveled Europe and North America starting in 2018. Born in 1841, Morisot first showed at the age of 25 at the 1864 Paris Salon. Morisot was the only woman invited to show in the first Impressionist exhibition (formerly called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers) in 1874, and she went on to participate in all but one of the eight exhibitions between from 1874 to 1886. She was close with Manet, even marrying his brother, and the two influenced each other, in a way that ultimately moved her work in bolder, more abstract directions. She painted with loose, bold brushstrokes that emphasized expressivity over naturalism. A critic wrote at the time, “Her painting has all the frankness of improvisation; it truly is the impression caught by a sincere eye and accurately rendered by a hand that does not cheat.” In the The Garden at Maurecourt (ca. 1884), she depicts a mother gazing at her child with little sentimentally, perhaps even boredom or exhaustion. With its probing depiction of its sitter’s mental state, the painting exemplifies Morisot’s sensibility. Morisot died of pneumonia in 1895, at the age of 54, leaving behind an oeuvre that hints at the further breakthroughs she was poised to make. 

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Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Mary Cassatt was the only American among the founding Impressionists. She came from a well-off family in Pittsburgh that supported a formal arts education first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then in Europe, after the vaunted Philadelphia school rebuffed her requests to study nude models. During her travels throughout the continent she learned under academic mentors such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Édouard Frère and studied classical masterpieces by Correggio, Velázquez, Rubens. She settled in Paris in 1874, where she began regularly showing her portraits in the Salon. In 1877 Degas invited her to begin showing with the Impressionists, and she participated in four of the eight exhibitions. “No woman has the right to draw like that,” Degas reportedly said upon viewing Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit (1891). She took the thinly veiled insult in stride, and the two maintained a close friendship based on a shared respect for asymmetrical composition and classical Japanese prints. Cassatt supported herself as a successful portrait artist and printmaker, having declared herself unfit for marriage or motherhood. In spite of this, her subject was often. the relationship between mothers and their children. In contrast to Morisot’s bold, expressive brushwork, Cassatt often depicted her the facial features and figure of her friends and family with great precision. In The Boating Party, the man’s expression is obscured, placing the focus on a deftly rendered woman and child. Cassatt once said her goal was to depict women as “subjects, not objects.” 

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Eva Gonzalès, A Box at the Theatre des Italiens, 1874.© MUSÉE D’ORSAY

Eva Gonzalès (1849–83)

Gonzalès never exhibited with the Impressionists, but she was close with some of the movement’s top artists—including Morisot—and her art is stylistically similar to their work. Like other aspiring female artists in 19th-century France, Gonzalès was barred from attending the École des Beaux-Arts, though like Morisot and Cassatt, her affluent upbringing afforded her the opportunity to attend private lessons. In 1869, she met Manet in Paris, and she became his only formal student. His influence on her work is evident in A Box at the Theatre des Italien‘s flat perspective at the subject’s direct gaze. The year they met, Manet created a portrait of Gonzalès, and in response she produced her own series of self-portraits, asserting her identity as professional peer—something far more than a museu. She died in 1883 at age 34 from an embolism after the birth of her son, having achieved her goal of exhibiting in the prestigious Paris Salon. In 1885, a 90-piece retrospective of her work was held at the Salons de la Vie Moderne in Paris.

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Marie Bracquemond, On the Terrace at Sèvres, 1880.COURTESY MUSÉE DU PETIT PALAIS

Marie Bracquemond (1840–1916)

Marie Bracquemond did not enjoy the same financial support which allowed her peers to flourish creatively and commercially. She was largely self-taught, with her one major instance of official art education having come via the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, with whom she was invited to study. Despite Ingres’s prestige, Bracquemond eventually left his studio, writing that the older painter “doubted the courage and perseverance of a woman in the field of painting.… He would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes.” In Paris, her vivid, large-scale plein air scenes garnered the attention of the Impressionists, who invited her to exhibit with them. Bracquemond showed three times with the group, but amid pressure from her husband, the French painter and engraver Félix Bracquemond, she was forced to abandon her promising painting career. 

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Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman. Portrait of Mrs. Jedidiah H. Richards, 1895.COURTESY PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS

Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942)

Philadelphian-born Cecilia Beaux rose to become one of the preeminent portrait painters of her generation. She traveled to Paris in the late 1880s, absorbing the light play and soft focus of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. She imbued their styles elements into her portraits, resulting in a distinct synthesis of finely defined figures layered over boldly colored backgrounds in the style of John Singer Sargent.

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Lilla Cabot Perry, La Petite Angèle, II, 1889.COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Lilla Cabot Perry(1848–1933)

Lilla Cabot Perry was born and raised in Boston; her family’s wealth allowed her to relocate to Paris, where she became enamored of the way that the Impressionists, in particular Claude Monet, experimented with lighting effects. She collected Monet’s work, and eventually she even became his informal student after a chance meeting during her annual trips to the French town of Giverny, where he created his iconic water lily paintings. In emulating the style of the French Impressionists, she helped bring the movement’s style back home to the United States.


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