Home Magazine The 13 women of Impressionism: what makes them wonderful?

The jury of Salon - the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris since 1700 - used to categorize the Impressionists women artists with such epitomes: feminine “technicians" and harmonious “seductresses", opposed to Impressionists painters characterized by "masculine vigor”. This group of 13 Impressionist female painters - from “the three great ladies” to the independent spirit: Early Canadian and European women artists - challenge the way female painters were viewed and separated from the art scene in Paris and in the Western world. Sometimes left out of the history books or mainstream art history, other times reputed not as magistral as their male colleagues, Impressionists female painters have overcome all gender and social obstacles, choosing private tutoring and persevering in their relentless pursuit of beauty and perfection.

In the late 19th century, the domestic arts, including drawing and playing the piano, were admirable attributes for young bourgeois ladies. Pursuing a career - especially in the art field - was not contemplated and often prohibited. Each and every one of these female Impressionists have studied for a certain time in Paris - the cradle of Impressionism and the spectacular museum city in which to encounter the Old Masters’ painting thoroughly - seriously intentioned to pursue their dreams and they made it big!

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"Les trois grandes dames" of Impressionism

Berthe Morisot
After Lunch, 1881

One of “the three great ladies” of Impressionism, Berthe Morisot (1841 - 1895) was a French painter and a member of the Parisian circle of Impressionists. She grew up in a bourgeois family and she received, as befitted her role, art education. At that time, it was forbidden for women to copy paintings at the museums without supervision and to have formal training, but her private teacher, monsieur Joseph Guichard was able to introduce her to the Louvre Gallery. Under the impulse of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s - the most famous “Barbizon School” landscape painter who she had befriended - she started to paint en plein air using watercolors and pastels. Due to the specific of the medium, her paintings appeared graceful, lightness and translucent. After some time, she became confident in using oil paint, moving so rapidly that she could paint "a mouth, eyes, and a nose with a single brushstroke”. Then, Morisot continued to experiment with charcoals and color pencils, clear lines and forms with a graphic approach. Influenced by photography and Japanese Art, drawing prevailed over other media. Her late works represent an original synthesis of the Impressionist touch and complicated compositions. Light, gentle and elegant brushstrokes brought her to the “feminism charm” much criticized by male artists. Being a female artist was an everyday struggle: that’s why her subjects always addresses women’s life including stenographic domestic scenes, personal friends, and flowers - to celebrate womanhood. From contemporary femininity scenes and nudes to outdoor settings and the theme of boredom: Morisot was judged among the best Impressionists.

In 1864, at the age of twenty-three, Morisot exhibited for the first time in the Salon de Paris. In 1874, she joined the "rejected" Impressionists in the first of their own exhibitions, which included Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. With a perfect union between private life and artistic practice, Morisot became the spouse of Eugène Manet, the brother of her friend and colleague Édouard Manet. Besides her only child, Julie, who posed frequently for her mother and other Impressionist artists, including Renoir, Morisot often posed for Manet. In almost always small scale works, Morisot was skillfully creating a sense of space and depth through the virtuous, extensive use of colors, especially white. After Lunch (1881), a portrait of a charming red-haired young lady in a straw hat and purple dress, sold for $10.9 million at a Christie's auction in 2013, made Morisot - in addition to the highest-priced female artist - the first, purest female Impressionist!

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Berthe Morisot, After Lunch, 1881, oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm, Private collection, Larry Ellison


Marie Bracquemond
Afternoon Tea, 1880

Despite the appellation of “great lady” of Impressionism, the french painter Marie Bracquemond (1840 - 1916) was a somewhat obscure figure, who remained unknown until the 1980s. It was while copying Old Masters in the Louvre that she had met her future husband Félix Bracquemond - a well-known art director at the Haviland Porcelain Shop - who, overshadowing her, was primarily responsible for Bracquemond’s omission from Art History books because he didn’t approve her chosen medium. Her painting is fully Impressionist: en Plein air like most of her Impressionist colleagues, but, over time, with a more vibrant and brighter palette like Paul Gaugain’s - the great master of Post-Impressionism who was introduced to her in 1886. She was trained as an academic painter with a realistic, polished style by the principal proponent of the French neoclassical painting, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Considered a prodigious talent, she was very skilled at drawing and even etching, although she preferred working with colors.

As a recluse female artist who hadn’t left her home garden in the southwestern Parisian suburb of Sèvres for years, Bracquemond’s paintings reveal a hidden genius. Her early portrait Woman in the Garden (1877) - the “woman in white” dress became a popular theme for the impressionists - is both academic and innovative, as the gracious distortions of the human figure reveal. In the 19th Century, upper-class women impressionist - as Marie Bracquemond - could only reproduce simple and intimate subjects matter: domestic scenes, landscapes, still life and portraits, in contrast to their male peers who took advantage of gender and class’ privilege to concentrate on animated scenes at bars and dances. Afternoon Tea, circa 1800, reminds the stylistic impressionist's approach of Monet and Degas: the palette imbued with light, the untied brushstrokes and the melancholy, faded atmosphere. Once again, Bracquemond has represented her sister, Louise - dressed in whitish ribbons, lace and embroideries - here intent on reading a book, accompanied by a cup of steaming tea and a plate of grapes. This painting - which marks the departure from academic classical forms to a complete Impressionist rendering - is one of the rare ones conserved in a public collection.

Many of Bracquemond’s paintings, like the radical and evocative Three Women with Umbrellas (1880), have cropped lower parts - unusual cropping that resembles a photographic frame. A sense of urgency and spontaneity of something that is happening right now, taking us totally by surprise. It often seems to share some of that vital space represented in Bracquemond’s genre scenes, for example being situated a few centimetres from Pierre, her only child, while he’s painting creamy white Camellia (Pierre Painting a Bouquet, 1887). 

Marie Bracquemond, Afternnon Tea, 1880, oil on canvas, 81.5 x 61.5 cm, © Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, France


Mary Cassatt
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was originally a Pennsylvanian painter and printmaker who moved to France to find artistic and financial independence and free herself from cultural and social expectations for being a woman in the 19th Century. Member of the “The three great ladies” circle, Cassatt was compared to her mentor and beloved friend Edgar Degas because she forged a male attitude in depicting light, movement and composition. Cassatt often created intimate images of the inner lives of women, particularly mothers, children and ballerinas. Since women artists weren’t allowed to attend any art school, she was forced to take private lessons with masters from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and spent great days at Louvre - together with Morisot and Bracquemond - copying masterpieces. In 1868, she was one of the two American women to first exhibit at the world-renowned Paris Salon and with the Impressionists in Paris - who were considered radical and innovators - and then in their first show in the US. According to the portraiture tradition of the time, Cassatt frequently posed for Degas, and Degas - who taught Cassatt to use pastels and engraving - places her in two of his prints: at the Louvre admiring artworks.

As for Berthe Morisot, she was so much inspired by the clear, weightless and moony lines and color blocking of Japanese Masters to try to emulate their style with a show, in 1891, of colored drypoint and Aquatint prints - a very rare thing for an artist at the time. Cassatt’s most popular painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) is a great example of her signature style: it shows a radically new image of childhood, a child being a real child instead of a living doll, through vivid colors and brushstrokes. She once wrote, "I love to paint children. They are so natural and truthful. This little girl, softly lying on a blue armchair with a bright flash in her eyes, is looking elsewhere, to infant games and adventurous tales, while a puppy sleeps by her side. Apparently, there’s also Degas’ hand in the painting - today’s infrared scanning revealed that Degas painted a corner in the room in the place of a flat wall. By 1914, Cassatt decided to begin her early retirement because she was almost completely blind, but she found her way to make a significant change and support the women’s suffrage movement regardless.

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Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, 89.5 x 129.8 cm, © National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The Morisot’s family tree: growing up with the Impressionists

Edma Morisot
Portrait of Berthe Morisot, ca. 1865

Edma Morisot (1839-1921) was the older sister of the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. She represents the forgotten Impressionist, the crucial figure behind Berthe. Edma took lessons under the painter Joseph Guichard, an intrepid follower of the  Neoclassical master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Her apprenticeship began at Louvre Museum copying Old Masters, followed by a period of intense study alongside the Barbizon School, a movement towards realism in art. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot had a huge influence on the older Morisot: Edma’s landscape paintings, and later portraiture, demonstrate a deep connection with the Barbizon Style. The two sisters were inseparable: they travel and exhibit together at the annual Paris Salon and very often painted side by side. At least until Edma married Adolphe Pontillon, a naval officer and long-time friend of Édouard Manet. Edma’s artistic production has come to an end with her entry into a proper domestic life, but her posed portraits for Berthe remain effective traces of Impressionist esprit. 


Edma Morisot, Portrait of Berthe Morisot, ca. 1865, oil on canvas, Private Collection


Julie Manet
Daydreaming, 1984 by Berthe Morisot

Julie Manet (1878-1966) was the beautiful daughter and only child of the highly valued artist Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet. Art has flown into Julie’s veins throughout all her life, from birth to the marriage - which once sanctioned the beginning of adult life - with the painter and engraver Ernest Rouart. Painter, model, diarist and art collector - she inherited some of her mother’s paintings - she became an orphan at the age of 16. Her teenage diary “Growing up with the Impressionists” is a fascinating first-hand insight, with twists and turns, into the world of Impressionists and of France. Julie Manet received support from the Symbolist poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé and from the leader of Impressionism Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for which she frequently posed. 


Berthe Morisot, Julie Daydreaming, 1894, oil on canvas, Private Collection.


The Academic Impressionist

Eva Gonzalés
A Box at the Theatre des Italiens, 1974

Eva Gonzalès (1849-1883) was a French Impressionist painter, daughter of Emmanuel Gonzalès, sophisticated novelist and president of the "Society of People of Letters of France”. For this reason, the painter became acquainted with the Parisian cultural elite, starting out as a pupil of the artist Manet. Strongly influenced by him, later she developed her own, personal style. Her work holds charm and seduction with a sober and light palette and it’s supported by great technical skills, even though may not be regarded as innovative. Despite this, some art critics considered Gonzalès a champion in the radical changing of the perspective of feminine Impressionism.


Eva Gonzalès, Une loge aux Théâtre Italiens (A Box at the Theatre des Italiens), 1874, oil on canvas, 98 x 130 cm
© Musée d’Orsay dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt


The American Impressionists 

Lilla Cabot Perry
Child in Window, 1891

Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) was an American artist devoted to the French Impressionist style which she contributed to convey in the United States. Cabot Perry was an independent spirit and highly educated woman, born in a prominent family in Boston, thus she was soon exposed to the Boston School of artists and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophical movement. Following her mentor Claude Monet and friend Camille Pissarro, she renders elegant portraits of women and landscapes in a free form, inspired by her frequent travels to Europe and Japan. Perry greatly responded to "liberal theories" in the creation of realist art that capture the impression of light and color, concentrating - throughout her career -  on her favorite subjects: her children. The portrait of Perry’s daughter Edith, “lost in her reveries”, was accepted by the Paris Salon and that was the start of the artists’ career in France. 


Lilla Cabot Perry, Child in Window, 1891, oil on canvas, United States public domain, private collection


Cecilia Beaux
Mrs Theodore Roosevelt and daughter Ethel, 1902

The American painter from Philadelphia Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) is considered one of the greatest woman painter and the finest portraitist of the late 19th century. A series of important commissions have marked her life: Mrs Theodore Roosevelt and her daughter, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie and the educator Mary Adelaide Nutting. She received education at home under the guidance of her cousin, Catharine Drinker Janvier - an artist and writer of some repute - rapidly developing magistral painter’s skills and a strong technique. Her first major work Last Days of Infancy, a portrait of her sister and nephew, and several other portraits, were exhibited, since 1886, at the Paris Salon. On the strength of her international reputation, she almost overcame her male rival, John Singer Sargent, in the art of fashionable portraiture. Beaux’s paintings received a great boost from Impressionism, but she has always tried not to imitate any master and to maintain high standards. She constantly struggled for perfection, as she confessed, in 1930, in her autobiography entitled Background with Figures.


Cecilia Beaux, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and daughter Ethel, 1902, oil on canvas, 113 x 80 cm, United States public domain, Private Collection


The Canadian Impressionists

Laura Muntz Lyall
Interesting Story, 1898

Laura Muntz Lyall (1860-1930) grew up on a farm in Ontario, developing an interest in art that led her to take classes with the genre painter George Agnew Reid. From 1891 till 1898, she had the privilege to study in Paris at the prestigious Académie Colarossi, discovering the works of both Michelangelo and Impressionists. Her work received medals and recognition both in Canada and Europe. in 1895, Muntz Lyall was the only eighth woman to receive the honour of being elected as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She imbued her interior paintings of women and children engaged in daily activities with an energetic and reddish light. A rich sense of tonality, at times dark, and layering in a large number of oil paintings, watercolours, pastels and drawings that share an empathic feeling and Muntz Lyall’s sophistication. 


Laura Muntz Lyall, Interesting Story, 1898, oil on canvas, United States public domain, © Art Gallery of Ontario


Helen McNicoll
On the Cliffs, 1913

Helen McNicoll (1879-1915) was one of the most profoundly original female artists in Canada who, as a cosmopolitan painter, played an important role in spreading Impressionism in a country where the new movement was little known. As a result of her deafness due to scarlet fever during childhood, McNicoll concentrated all her energies to piano lessons and painting en plein air, being privately tutored at home. Her work was exhibited at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts from 1906 to 1914  and, over a number of years, at the Ontario Society of Artists. McNicoll approached art in a quiet and detached way, finding a distance between herself and the preferred subjects: modern female figures or little children in a field of bright yellow wildflowers. Her fresh and vivid style is marked by french Impressionism and her advanced technique, rich, mellow and full of fire. 


Helen McNicoll, On the Cliffs, 1913, oil on canvas, 50.9 x 61 cm, private collection


The Impressionists with a European feel

Louise Catherine Breslau
La toilette, 1898

Louise Catherine Breslau (1856-1927) was a German-born Swiss painter, printmaker, and pastel artist active in France. It was rumoured that she was a creative genius. Breslau took drawing lessons from a local swiss artist and straight after she enrolled in the private Académie Julian in Paris. In 1879, with everyone’s eyes on her, she debuts at the Paris Salon, having great success. Breslau did not associate with the impressionists, but she was influenced by them: over the years, she has gained the same legendary status as some of the most popular male Impressionists, including Edgar Degas. Her glowing palette quickly turns from darker to brighter colors, from brown to candy pink, from almost transparent blue to bottle green and yellow drop of lemon. A triumph of colors, hues, soft lines and airy consistency.


Louise Catherine Breslau, La toilette, 1898, oil on canvas, 62.9 x 65.4 cm, Private estate, Los Angeles, California


Anna Ancher
Harvesters, 1905

Anna Ancher (1859-1935) is considered one of the greatest Danish artists associated with the Skagen Painters, a lively community in the northernmost part of Denmark which emulated the French Impressionists and the Barbizon school. Skagen was the perfect bucolic destination to paint en plein air and to observe the interference between colors and natural light: a scenic countryside, local fishermen, long beaches. The talented Ancher broke away from the Academy’s rigid traditions and developed impressive abilities as a character painter and colorist of the Skagen art colony’s reality. Interiors, everyday activities, women and children touched by the crispy light were her favorite themes, but the painting for which she is praised is Sørg (“to make sure”) - a rare depiction of a female nude with a funerary cross that symbolizes Ancher’s life hovering between piousness and bohemian lifestyle.


Anna Ancher, Harvesters, 1905, oil on canvas, 56.2 x 43.4 cm, © Skagens Museum


Nadežda Petrović
The Serbian philosopher Ksenija Atanasijević, 1912

Nadežda Petrović (1873-1915) was Serbia’s most famous impressionist painter, a war photography pioneer and a nurse during the Balkan Wars. In 1893, she became an art teacher at the women's school of higher education. In Munich, where she was studying, Petrović encountered modern art pioneers such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Breaking the rampant conservatism in Serbia’s cultural environment, Petrović sought a more modern approach in painting: a vortex of bright colors - red, purple, blue and black were distinguished - strong brushstrokes and thick layers dynamise her people and landscapes of Serbia. Her Boldness and dramatic technique definitely trespass into the emotional side of Expressionism and Fauvism’s wild nature. Petrović represents an indubitable breakthrough in European art at the turn of the 19th century.


Nadežda Petrović, The Serbian philosopher Ksenija Atanasijević, 1912, oil on cardboard, © The Pavle Beljansky Memorial Collection


Cover image: Helen McNicoll, On the Cliffs, 1913, oil on canvas, 50.9 x 61 cm, private collection.

Written by Petra Chiodi
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