The Impressionist movement coincided with tremendous social, political, and economic changes. Likewise, the movement initiated change by planting the seeds for small but significant cultural revolutions. One of the seeds planted was feminism: the "radical notion that women are people," (Shear, cited by Lord, 2012, p. 173). Nineteenth century France was no different from anywhere else in the world at the time; women were not considered equal. Women lacked the power to vote, and were likewise excluded from positions of power in the worlds of business or education. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there were whispers of change especially among the bourgeoisie. Change was slow, though. Unmarried women in upper class Parisian society were severely constrained by patriarchy in their daily lives. They could not venture out alone without a chaperone, without serious risk to reputation ("Robbins & Wander, 2008). Writing and the arts became legitimate means by which upper class women could apply their skills and creativity in spite of the yoke of patriarchy. It was in the burgeoning bourgeoisie milieu of late nineteenth century Paris that a handful of women started to participate in the subversive act of painting.
Berthe Morisot was among the foremost artists of the Impressionist era regardless of gender. Her friend and later, her brother-in-law, Eduard Manet was also a singular painter whose work defined a generation of artists. Taken together, the art of Morisot and Manet reveals the feminist undercurrents sweeping through Paris in the late nineteenth century.
It would be several decades before universal suffrage, and women would yet to receive respect in the art world even by the time Morisot died. In fact, Morisot and several other female artists working in Paris at the time like Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales, and Marie Braxquemond were systematically banned or tacitly excluded from formal salon openings, and summarily dismissed by critics. Morisot was the only one among them who would be regularly included in salon exhibitions. She alone enjoyed the privilege of exhibiting alongside her male counterparts at the first Impressionist exhibition. Therefore, the feminist themes in Manet's and Morisot's work must be appreciated within their social, cultural, and historical contexts.
Manet's "Olympia" exemplifies feminism in ways few paintings have done: by featuring a nude in total control of her destiny. The nude female figure features prominently in the arts of Europe and even in Asia. Yet the nude had not been rendered in such a way as "Olympia" before Manet in 1863. Olympia looks directly and provocatively at the viewer as if beckoning a patron. Yet she is no working girl; Olympia is a high society woman with a servant depicted by her side. The black servant woman approaches Olympia with a bouquet of flowers, likely from a potential suitor. The expression on the servant's face suggests that Olympia is too lost in thought to have noticed the bouquet. She has more important things on her mind than men. Her wealth is likely to be inherited rather than received from a husband, too. Olympia is an unmarried woman in full control of her body, her sexuality, and therefore, her life. She wears slippers in bed, because she can. She has a bow tied around her neck in an erotic fashion, and her left hand rests suggestively on her upper thigh. A black cat stands at the foot of the bed, symbolizing the mystery of Olympia's mind. The color scheme mainly consists of black and red. One color represents dark mysteries, and possibly death; the other represents life blood.
In a stunningly similar composition, Manet painted his friend Berthe Morisot. Also relying on a red and black color scheme as he did with "Olympia," Manet renders his subject here fully clothed. Berthe wears a lovely black lace dress as she reclines. Like Olympia, Berthe wears a black bow tie around her neck, and looks directly and deeply at the viewer. Unlike Olympia, Berthe is not sexualized and her gaze is more about self-confidence than it is about allure. She shows no overt signs of her social class, although the viewer might be aware that Morisot came from a privileged background. In Manet's portrait of her, Berthe's power derives from her internal sense of self. Her confidence oozes from the canvas and the creativity that informs her work. This is most certainly the foremost female impressionist.
Morisot was a self-taught artist who occasionally hired private tutors, as women were banned from studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Moreover, a "new form of gender segregation" was taking place apart from the formal institutions, in the informal artistic social scenes that were gathering in the Parisian cafes ("Paris, Impressionism, and the Rise of the Female Artist," n.d.). Manet, Degas, and other male Impressionists would sit and talk for hours at night in the cafes, a social arena that actively discouraged the participation of women.
In response to their exclusion from male domains, women started to work harder independently and some formed their own female-only study groups ("Paris, Impressionism, and the Rise of the Female Artist," n.d.). Robbins & Wander (2008) state that bourgeoisie women were actually "encouraged to develop interest in the decorative arts, music, or painting" because they were domesticated pursuits that could be "practiced in the company of other women," (p. 1). Eventually, women were able to enter fine arts academies, but long after Morisot made her mark in the Parisian art world as best a woman could in the late nineteenth century. Art historians did not treat Morisot with as much respect as she deserves until fairly recently, and even now, Morisot is more often lauded in books about women impressionists than about Impressionism in general. Books like Women Impressionists feature female artists and therefore fill the gap in the literature. Emerging art histories allow the work of women impressionists to be viewed and appreciated independently of the big names that too often usurped their talent and ability.
Feminist themes in Impressionist art occur regardless of the gender of the artist. Degas was "notoriously misogynistic," claims Pfeiffer & Nochlin (2011, p. 1). Manet, however, was not. He actively engaged with Berthe Morisot as well as Mary Cassatt to help include them, however loosely, in the Impressionist circles. The subjects that Impressionists tended to gravitate towards invited women. Leisure time became a primary subject of interest, and Impressionists rendered public and private gardens with aplomb. The daily lives of women was also subject of Impressionist art. Morisot's work is especially rich with references to women's daily lives. She did not confine herself to depicting bourgeois life, either. "Peasant Hanging Out the Washing," finished in 1881, depicts a peasant woman hanging her laundry on the line. Morisot's color palate is vibrant and much more akin to Renoir than to Manet. The purple and violet hues on the woman's dress find their way into specs of light in the bushes behind the subject. Although she works hard, the woman seems peaceful. She is unaware the viewer is gazing at her, and it feels as if the viewer is peeking in on her life. Perhaps Morisot makes commentary about social class as well as about gender. The woman is fulfilling her typical duties as a domestic servant for her family, and because she is described as a "peasant," she also does not have the leisure time to devote to activities like sitting in a rowboat on a lake in the middle of the afternoon.
Berthe Morisot's canon of work is diverse. She did paint a lot of upper class women as well as the peasant woman. In "Marine," Morisot shows a wealthy woman sitting at the edge of the harbor at Lorient. The woman wears a pristine white dress, and carries a parasol to keep her delicate face shaded. The viewer is not, however, privy to the details of the woman's face. She wears a small black hat, and gazes softly into the water. She is alone, but appears self-conscious as if she knows she is being watched or is posing. One boat in creates the absolute midpoint of the painting, anchoring the viewer's eye. The marina curves toward the subject, drawing the eye toward her. It is hard to keep the eye off the woman, even though she occupies the absolute right space of the canvas. Morisot's skillful composition includes a soft blue sky mirrored in the harbor waters. Her loose and long brushstrokes create a textured canvas that exemplifies Impressionist sensibilities.
"Marine" represents the Impressionist circle interest in the lives of upper class Parisians. The "cult of domesticity" also became increasingly in vogue during the Impressionist era (Pinkston, 2000). An extension of the Madonna and Child obsession, the cult of domesticity a provided a unique counterpoint to feminism. Mary Cassatt's painting "The Boating Party" critiques the cult of domesticity by depicting an idealized mother with baby. The mother and baby are in a rowboat on a lake, and the oarsman is the only other companion. Without a chaperone, the woman seems…