Although now considered famous paintings, works by Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet, and Berthe Morisot were rejected by juries of the Paris Salon (indeed, each rejected submission had a huge “R” painted on its reverse, spawning creation of the Salon des Refuses, an exhibition of rejected artwork.
As the world’s largest art exhibition founded in 1748, the Paris Salon was organized by the Academy of Beaux-Arts, proponents of classical painting and traditional subject matter like history paintings.
Claude Monet. Impression:Sunrise, 1872. Oil on canvas, approx. 19″ by 25″. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Undeterred, these “refuses” painters agreed to convene their own art exhibition in 1874 in the studio of photographer Nadar. The art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary (1830-1888) reviewed the show and may have coined the enduring description of its painters when he observed (Le Siecle, April 29, 1874):
The common view that brings these artists together in a group and makes of them a collective force within our disintegrating age is their determination not to aim for perfection, but to be satisfied with a certain general aspect. Once the impression is captured, they declare their role finished…
If one wishes to characterize and explain them with a single word, then one would have to coin the word “impressionists”. They are impressionists in that they do not render a landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape.
Other art historians, however, contend that the label “Impressionist” came from the title of Monet’s painting, Impression: Sunrise. Regardless of its etymology, the label became the permanent description of Impressionist paintings and painters.
In the seminal 1874 art exhibition, Morisot exhibited nine paintings, including one of her best known paintings, The Cradle. While art critics panned and scorned most of the Impressionist paintings, Morisot received positive reviews from Castagnary, who commented:
You cannot find more graceful images handled more deliberately than The Cradle… the execution is in complete accord with the idea to be expressed.
This Morisot painting is about looking. The young mother, the artist’s sister, Edma, gazes lovingly at her newborn against a background with a draped window; the gauzy tulle netting rendered in soft blues, ochres and pinks invites the viewer’s regard.
Berthe Morisot. The Cradle (Le berceau), 1873. Oil on canvas, 22 1/2″ by 18 1/2″. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
While the pink ribbon delineates the separate worlds of mother and newborn, Morisot uses curves and diagonals to emphasize their connectedness. Edma’s head and left arm, for instance, are aligned with the infant’s crooked arm to reinforce the gaze of mother to baby, reinterated by the drapery fold behind Edma’s head that points to the infant. The feathery, loose brushwork in the tulle epitomizes the style of painting that defined Impressionism and enraged art critics.
Morisot continued to paint and exhibit, showing in a 1876 London art exhibition with Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Alfred Sisley, and in five of the seven other Impressionist art exhibitions. Frustrated that social mores prevented her from meeting fellow Impressionist painters in cafes, Morisot and her husband began hosting Thursday meals at their home; these attracted writers like Mallarme and fellow artists including Monet, Renoir and Degas.
Morisot died in 1895. Although her death certificate stated she had “no profession”, she is now regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism and one of the leading female painters in art history.