Like many female artists, the life of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was punctuated by a series of “firsts” and breaks from convention en route to creating her legendary, famous paintings.

Berthe Morisot was the first female artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists, and was one of the few female artists (from any period in art history) who participated in a pictorial movement from its onset.

Not bad for an artist whose 1895 death certificate claims she had “no profession”!

Born into an upper middle class family in Bourges, Berthe Morisot and her sister, Edma, were trained by Joseph Benoit-Guichard, who was scandalized when the Morisot women asked to paint en plein air (outside), a novel practice at the time. Benoit-Guichard introduced the Morisot sisters to Camille Corot (1796-1875), with whom they painted in the summer of 1861.

Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy, 1865.  Oil on canvas, 18.1 by 21.7″.  Private Collection.

Four years later, Berthe Morisot painted one of the first Impressionist paintings ever made, Refuge in Normandy.  This 1865 work portends some of the movement’s defining traits like direct application of paint and rapid, short brushstrokes.

Landscapes typical of the time showed broad swaths of sky or countryside, but Morisot opts instead for a small rectangular section of sky that spreads diffuse light into the forest.  Her balancing of deep, shadowy greens with ochres provides depth and atmosphere in the forest, while the low view point renders the woods present and immediate.

When Berthe Morisot was in the Louvre in 1868, her fellow artist, Henri Fantin-Latour, introduced her to Edouard Manet, who asked her to model for him.

She quickly became his favorite, first appearing in the left foreground in Le Balcon or The Balcony, considered controversial because Manet painted an immediate “moment” rather than a history painting and used vivid, saturated hues.

Edouard Manet.  The Balcony, 1868.  Oil on canvas, 67″ by 49″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

In an 1873 portrait of Berthe Morisot titled Le Repos, Manet inaccurately predicted Morisot wouldn’t be recognizable in his finished work — but she was, and Berthe Morisot shared in the scorn heaped upon another Manet painting. One critic went so far as to call Morisot the “queen of slovenliness” for the manner in which she sat (I frankly think she looks divinely comfortable!).

The friendship between Morisot and Manet endured.  Morisot entered the Manet family when she married Eugene, Edouard’s brother, in 1874; he supported her career, and Morisot continued to paint.  Through the Manets she was introduced to numerous French Impressionist painters including Pisarro, Sisley, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne and Monet, who joined her in showing in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874.

Edouard Manet.  Le Repos (Repose), ca. 1870.  Oil on canvas, 59 1/8 by 44 7/8″.  Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.

Up next: Berthe Morisot exhibited nine paintings in the 1874 Salon — more than nearly all of her peers.

And for the art history buffs among us, a question: What painting and  famous painter was Manet directly referencing in his The Balcony?