Mary Cassatt, American (1844-1926) Woman Reading, 1878-1879. Oil on canvas mounted on balsa and Masonite panel. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.

Berthe Morisot, Intérieur de Cottage ou un Intérieur a Jersey, 1886, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, Musée d’Ixelles, Bruxelles.

Berthe Morisot, French (1841-1895) Interior, 1872. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Four Women Impressionists in the Midst of a 19th Century Movement

Marie Bracquemond, French (1840-1916)  On the Terrace at Sèvres, 1880.  Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Berthe Morisot, French (1841-1895) Girl with a Dog, 1887. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Foundation.

Mary Cassatt, American (1844-1926) Young Lady in a Loge Gazing to Right, 1880. Pastel and gouache. Private collection.

Mary Cassatt, American (1844-1926) Visitor in Hat and Coat Holding a Maltese Dog, ca. 1879. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Berthe Morisot,  French, (1841-1895) Girl on a Divan, ca. 1885. Oil on canvas. Tate, Bequeathed by the Hon. Mrs. A.E. Pleydell-Bouverie through the Friends of the Tate Gallery, 1968.

Marie Bracquemond, French (1840-1916) Afternoon Tea, 1880. Oil on canvas. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.

Eva Gonzalès, French (1849-1883) Portrait of Madame Emmanuel Gonzalès, the Artist's Mother, 1869-1870. Pastel on Paper. Private Collection.


Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park
34th Avenue& Clement Street
San Francisco
Women Impressionists:
Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt,
Eva Gonzalès, Marie Bracquemond

June 21-September 21, 2008

For many decades, the four artists celebrated in Women Impressionists: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, Marie Bracquemond were treated with critical ambivalence and lacked major public exhibitions.

An upper class woman living in Paris in the late 19th century was subject to a strict code of social rules.  An unmarried woman, for example, could not leave her home without a chaperone, nor could she frequent a café or the theater by herself without risk to her reputation.  As a result, women were encouraged to develop interests in the decorative arts, music, or painting, pursuits that could be practiced in the company of other women.  These endeavors were seen as ways to refine one’s self versus avenues for a career.

In 1874 the Impressionists, whose painting style featured quick, visible brush strokes, bold colors, and an emphasis on the play of natural light, mounted the first of eight privately organized exhibitions to show their modern work directly to the public.  Compared to previous movements of painting with large canvases and heroic themes, historical or religious, the Impressionist style was suited to women painters.  The smaller format size made it easier to transport and paint en plein air (outdoors). Less formal subject matter — “snapshots” of everyday life, portraits of family, children, or friends and landscapes of the garden or countryside — was easily captured within their daily domain.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Eva Gonzalès (1849-1883), and Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916) were all members of the Impressionist circle.  These four women—three French artists and one American artist living in Paris — exhibited works that were as innovative as those of their male counterparts.  While they have diverse biographies, each of these artists overcame daunting obstacles to contribute to the development of Impressionism.  As they shaped their unique careers and artistic styles, Morisot, Cassatt, Gonzalès, and Bracquemond negotiated not only personal challenges but also those posed by the conventional ideas of acceptable behavior for women of their time.

One of the best-known women Impressionists, Berthe Morisot devoted herself to painting modern life.  As one critic noted 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.”  Morisot was the only woman to exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition, and continued to show in the next seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. Married to the brother of Manet and close friends with Renoir, Morisot became one of the most prolific members of the Impressionist circle.  Her love for painting outdoors continued throughout her career, and her daughter Julie remained her favorite model. Women Impressionists presents over 60 examples of Morisot’s works, including drawings, pastels, and oil paintings.

Born in Bourges in 1841, Berthe Morisot moved permanently to Paris with her family ten years later. She was well educated and brought up in a cultured and refined atmosphere. At 16, she began taking painting and drawing lessons. She became a student of the landscape painter Camille Corot, and benefited greatly from his six years of guidance. During this time, she found her true vocation in painting en plein air (outdoors), often incorporating figures.

While copying masterpieces at the Louvre in 1868, Morisot met Edouard Manet, for whom she developed great admiration and fondness. The feelings were mutual, and the two artists became close colleagues. Manet helped Morisot acquire a self-assured and relaxed brushstroke, while she persuaded him to paint en plein air. On a number of occasions Morisot posed for Manet, who celebrated her as a talented associate as well as his muse. She struggled with her independent spirit and resisted the social convention of marriage for many years until finally marrying Manet’s brother, Eugène, in 1874. Morisot adapted her art as she adjusted to married life and motherhood, having moved to the country and given birth to her daughter, Julie, who became her true muse.

Although Morisot successfully submitted work to the Salon in the 1860s, she became a member of the Impressionist circle, having associated with its key members for years. She was the only woman to show in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. From that point she ceased submitting work to the Salon, subsequently participating in the independent Impressionist exhibitions of 1876, 1877, 1880, 1881, 1882, and 1886. Ambitious and accomplished, Morisot became one of the most prolific Impressionists. Through her broad, free brushstrokes, she evoked a sense of freedom in her works. Her subjects were often posed outdoors, enveloped by sunlight. From child, to wet-nurse, to sister, to husband, figures in Morisot’s works seem to radiate with light from the brushstrokes that sparingly define their forms.

Born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1844, Mary Cassatt stands out as the only American member of the Impressionist circle.  After studying painting both at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and throughout Europe, she settled permanently in Paris in 1875, where she became close friends with Degas and exhibited in four of the Impressionist exhibitions. Cassatt rejected the idea of becoming a wife and mother and embraced her independence as she forged a profitable and successful career painting women as “Subjects, not objects.”  Best known for portraits of mother and child, her work first focused on an intimate world of social interactions and later turned to the close relationships between adults and children. Women Impressionists features more than 35 works by Cassatt, including examples of her oil paintings, pastels, and prints.

Mary Cassatt spent four years of her youth living in Europe before beginning her art studies in 1861 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1866 she traveled extensively in Europe to study the old masters and studied briefly with the Parisian painter Charles Chaplin. She settled permanently in Paris in 1874, where she developed her most significant professional relationship with Edgar Degas. Cassatt, the devoted daughter, rejected the norms of marriage and motherhood, instead embracing her independence and forging a successful career.

In 1877, Cassatt was joined in Paris by her parents and her sister, Lydia, who was chronically ill with Bright’s disease. Increasingly fragile, Lydia was Cassatt’s closest companion and her favorite model. Her early death in 1882 deeply saddened Cassatt, who devoted herself even more intensely to her work. Although she was formally trained and had her work accepted into the Salon, her independent spirit led her to take an immediate interest in the Impressionists. Cassatt became their only American member of the Impressionist circle, and she exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886.

Cassatt focused her work primarily on portraiture within domestic scenes. She provided a sense of intimacy with her subjects by using a shallow space for her compositions. Cassatt is perhaps best known for depictions of mother and child, in which she downplays the theme’s sentimentality to focus on formal aspects of the composition.

Cassatt was ambitious and stood out among her circle in Paris, as well as in the U.S., where she helped bring the work of the Impressionists to the attention of wealthy collectors. Of the four artists in Women Impressionists, Morisot and Cassatt enjoyed the closest friendship and artistic exchange. Around 1893, Cassatt wrote to Morisot, “Women should be someone and not something.” In 1914 Cassatt was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes. Losing most of her sight over the next years, she ceased to pursue her art.

Although Eva Gonzalès’ career was cut short by her sudden death at the age of 34, she became known for her characteristic style for portraiture. She included subtle emotion and richness of detail in her works, such as A Loge in the Théàtre des Italiens (1874), described as one of the most provocative paintings of its day and featured in this exhibition. Manet chose Gonzalès as his only formal pupil.  Like her teacher, she never exhibited with the Impressionists but was considered a member of their circle. Approximately 15 works by Gonzalès, including the finest examples of her oil paintings and pastels, are included in Women Impressionists.

Born in Paris in 1849, Eva Gonzalès benefited from a cultured and sophisticated upbringing among the intellectual elite. Her father was a popular French novelist of Spanish origin, and her Belgian mother was an accomplished musician. She was enrolled in Charles Chaplin’s studio in 1866, the same year as Cassatt’s brief period of study there. By the age of 20, Gonzalès had begun studying with Manet, who famously did not take on students. She became his sentimental favorite and, like Morisot, often served as his model. In 1870 Gonzalès exhibited her work at the Paris Salon, winning the acclaim of many critics.

Although she was greatly influenced by Manet’s technique, Gonzalès developed her own style for portraiture. She combined her formal training with the influences of Impressionism to create works that display subtle emotion and rich detail. Like Manet, she never exhibited with the Impressionists but was considered part of their circle. She preferred to exhibit her work in the official Salons, even though her work often incorporated Impressionist techniques, such as broad and broken painterly brushstrokes. Gonzalès’ A Loge in the Théâtre des Italiens (1874), described as one of the most provocative paintings of its day and featured in this exhibition, was rejected by the Salon in 1874. In this work she combined a richness of detail with the absence of a definitive background to create an arresting composition.

Gonzalès’ mature style was just coming to fruition when her life was cut short at the age of 34. She died from an embolism in 1883, three weeks after giving birth to a son, Jean Raimon, and ironically just five days after the death of Manet. Her sister Jeanne, who frequently served as her model, married her husband following her death.

The greatest challenge in Marie Bracquemond’s career proved to be the discouragement of her husband, the artist Felix Bracquemond.  Unlike the other women, Bracquemond did not enjoy the opportunities of privilege, and she was largely self-taught. She became acquainted with members of the Impressionist circle, including Degas, Renoir, and Monet, after her designs for porcelain attracted Degas’ attention.  Bracquemond exhibited in three of the Impressionist exhibitions. Felix Bracquemond's disapproval of Impressionism and his discouragement of his wife’s career led her to stop painting by 1890. Women Impressionists marks the most comprehensive exhibition of Marie Bracquemond’s work since a 1919 retrospective organized by her son Pierre at a Paris gallery. The exhibition at the Legion of Honor features approximately 40 works by Bracquemond, including watercolors, drawings, oil paintings, and porcelain.

Born in Brittany in 1840, Marie Bracquemond had an unstable and nomadic childhood. Her father died shortly after her birth and her mother soon remarried. Unlike the other three women in Women Impressionists, Bracquemond did not enjoy the opportunities of privilege and was largely self-taught as an artist. As she liked to tell the story, her first work of art was a birthday present for her mother, in which she used the pigments of crushed wildflower petals as paints. Impressed with her ingenuity, a family friend presented her with a box of watercolors, and she persevered.

Bracquemond’s career would be formed through interaction with fellow artists. She received constructive criticism and advice early on from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and later from Paul Gauguin and Alfred Sisley. Beginning in 1857, she showed work in the Salon, and she was commissioned to make copies of paintings in the Louvre. It was there that she met established printmaker Félix Bracquemond, whom she married in 1869. Their son, Pierre, was born a year later, and the following year they moved from Paris to Sèvres where Félix designed decorative objects, particularly Limoges porcelain. They collaborated on design projects and she produced her own hand-painted porcelain. He was well connected in the art world and friendly with some of the Impressionists, but he opposed their aesthetics. She, on the other hand, was drawn to them and most admired the work of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Always experimental in her works, Bracquemond was encouraged by her fellow artists to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1879, 1880, and 1886.

Bracquemond has remained the least known of the women associated with the Impressionists, fundamentally because her husband was highly critical of her work. Her rejection of the aesthetic that her husband had publicly adopted, along with his very difficult character, created major obstacles to her career as an artist. Bracquemond’s portrait subjects included her sister, Félix, her son, and friends such as Alfred Sisley and his wife, who were often dinner guests at the Bracquemonds’ home in Sèvres. Of her struggle to paint in spite of her husband’s discouragement, the artist wrote that she “had decided to overcome any obstacle; instead of painting flowers I want to work on painting and express whatever feelings the work would inspire in me.” Unfortunately, Félix ultimately won, and she stopped painting after 1890. In 1894, the critic Gustave Geffroy described Bracquemond in History of Impressionism as one of the “grand dames of Impressionism” along with Cassatt and Morisot. In 1919, several years after her death, Pierre organized a retrospective of 90 of his mother’s paintings, 34 watercolors, and nine engravings at a gallery in Paris. The current exhibition includes the largest group of Bracquemond’s works assembled since that exhibition and affords a rare opportunity to study the work of this little-known Impressionist.

The curator of the exhibition is Dr. Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator of the Schirn Kunsthalle.  For the San Francisco presentation, Krista Brugnara, director of exhibitions, and John Buchanan, director of FAMSF, serve as coordinating curators. An Antenna Audio guide and a fully illustrated catalogue including essays by nine authors accompany Women Impressionists.

Mary Cassatt, American (1844-1926) Summertime, ca. 1894. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Foundation.

Eva Gonzales, The Dream, detail, 1877-78, Oil on canvas, 81.5 x 100 cm, Kunsthalle Bremen.

Eva Gonzalès, French (1849-1883) A Loge in the Théâtre des Italiens, 1874. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.