Analysis of Édouard Manet’s Repose and Berthe Morisot’s Self-Portrait

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Perspectives on the Feminine: An Analysis of Édouard Manet’s Repose and Berthe Morisot’s Self-Portrait

The French Avant-Garde from Realism to Impressionism

 Prior to the inception of the Impressionist Movement in the 1870s in Paris, women were not permitted to receive artistic training at the French Academy. With the emergence of Impressionism, haut bourgeois women, including Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, were able to start careers as artists because this style of painting did not require traditional academic training. Although these women were acknowledged as painters, they did not receive the widespread recognition that their male counterparts did, and struggled as artist because of their gender. An interesting approach to understanding the position of women during this period, is through a comparison of Édouard Manet’s 1870 Repose (fig.1) and Berthe Morisot’s 1885 Self-Portrait (fig.2).  The few female artists painting during this period were restricted in terms of the subject matter available to them, whereas their male contemporaries were free to paint scenes and characters that spanned the entire range of Parisian society. Manet presents Morisot, his model in Repose, as a haut-bourgeois woman lounging in a somewhat mysterious, provocative pose. Morisot, however, in Self-Portrait, paints herself as an artist with her palette at hand. Morisot and Manet created paintings with particular visions of femininity, which reflect the ambivalent position of women in French society. The paintings Repose and Self-Portraitpresentrevealing perspectives on femininity in 19th Century Paris and also provide a commentary on the artistic achievement and budding revolutionary spirit of female painters, who still lived as constrained women, but were emerging as innovative artists.

Édouard Manet was born into a French bourgeoisie family on January 23rd 1832. His parents were well-connected in Parisian society, and encouraged him to pursue a traditional career in the naval academy, which he left after six months to pursue a career as an artist.[1] This independent spirit also characterized Manet’s art, as he refused traditional academic training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and chose to study under Thomas Couture. After six years Manet moved into his own studio in Batignolles, a neighborhood affected by Haussmannization.[2] This new urban style impacted Parisian city life, and consequently influenced Manet, whose painting took on a distinct modernity in both style and subject. In 1867, at the Louvre, Manet first met Morisot and they quickly developed a close friendship;  soon after, Manet asked Morisot to pose for his painting The Balcony (fig.3), and actually painted her twelve times over the course of his career.[3]Clearly, Morisot captured Manet’s attention and continued to intrigue him as a model for his paintings. Theodore Duret noted at the time that Manet “endeavoured systematically to introduce into his pictures people of a distinctive character… In Berthe Morisot he found a characteristic type of a well-bred woman. He used her, therefore, as a model.”[4] He was inspired by Morisot’s interesting mix of haut bourgeois elegance and tradition and Duret’s notion of a “distinctive character,” which she certainly had. This allowed Manet to create paintings of somewhat ambiguous, but insightful vision into the female psyche.

In assessing Manet, it is important to note how Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life impacted him and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Baudelaire perceived the male artist as the flaneur, and emphasized the masculine dominance of the modern Parisian scene:

“Woman” for him, and for so many of his contemporaries, fluctuates between being “a divinity, a star… a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching” and  “perfect image of the savagery that lurks in the midst of civilization”, and it was this creature which the male artist was to “observe” and depict.[5]

This critical perception of women is useful in interpreting Repose, in which Manet is the flaneur and Morisot is projected as the luxuriating, mysterious female object to be gazed upon. In Repose, Morisot is situated in a confined private setting.  Here again, Baudelaire’s critical impact is felt as he assumed that bourgeois women were to be “heavily chaperoned, corseted, and formally dressed, she could not become the unobtrusive observer/participator of the pageant of modern life as played out in the café-concerts, dance halls and street life of the growing city.”[6] These boundaries and expectations of bourgeois women are represented in Manet’s portrait of Morisot, where she is found formally dressed in a private domestic interior. Her mother was actually in the room supervising the sitting; and, the fact that Morisot was the social equal and family friend of Manet, is what allowed her to model for him at all.[7] In some ways it could be deemed improper for Morisot, who was not married at the time, to even model for the artist, and the painting seems to suggest this subtle indiscretion. It seems as though Manet purposely wanted to create this intimate scene and even fabricate the suspicion that the two, artist and model, were possibly in the room alone. 

Most models at the time were courtesans who were paid to pose. Nancy Locke notes that using such models, including Victorine Meurent, gave Manet “license to ask her to pose in the nude, in male costume, and in whatever else he fancied… by contrast, by not being able to treat Berthe Morisot as a paid model, he would have been limited to the poses, costumes and accessories deemed acceptable for a proper woman of her social standing.”[8] Manet’s  painting of Morisot suggests some ambiguities. While she was not a paid model and he was constrained by her social status, Manet still took certain liberties in this portrait that crossed lines of social respectability. In spite of the fact that Morisot is fashionably, yet modestly, dressed and chaperoned by her mother, there is a subtle sensuality that emerges in this painting. Unlike the theatrical roles that Manet imposed on Meurent, he never disguised Morisot’s identity and bourgeois femininity. Manet does, however, gently contradict her well-bred identity by sexualizing her through playing with dark colors. Manet’s realist style was influenced by the Spanish Masters, including Francisco Goya.[9] The connection between Goya’s She Prays For Her (fig. 4) and Repose is apparent, as Manet cites Goya’s sharp contrast of dark and light. This reflects the concept of the “dark woman” as a representation of the duality of femininity. Grisleda Pollock notes “Berthe Morisot appears in Manet’s oeuvre as both the white lady and the dark lady.”[10] In Repose, Morisot is the “white lady,” in her white, bourgeois attire; but, also the “dark lady,” lounging in a provocative pose and shadowed by  dark tones. The painting expresses Manet’s perceptions of female duality.

Repose is also associated with the reclining odalisque figure, but here Manet portrayed the reclining woman as experiencing the anxiety of a woman trapped in the inconsistencies of the modern world. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines repose as “a state of resting after exertion or strain” as well as “a lack of activity.”[11] Manet has Morisot reclining, but in an unnatural pose and with melancholy eyes to suggest an inner struggle. Pollock cites Francoise Cachin’s 1983 assessment of the painting, in which she notes that Manet is showing the viewer “‘a pensive troubled young woman, subject to doubts and depression.’”[12]It is possible then that Manet was actually documenting an emotional struggle of Morisot’s that he was aware of, which could include a depression caused by the constraints put upon her as both a woman and an artist. In addition to the discomfort and melancholy, however, Manet also suggests a free spirit that lies beneath the formal trappings of Morisot’s social identity. He liberates her by adding subtle provocative elements including a spark of mystery in her eyes, a sexualized pose and facial angle suggesting the right to be free. In a way this painting serves as a metaphor for her artistic liberation.  

In this 1869 painting Manet began to present a commentary on the spirit of women in his social class and hinted at the freedom that Morisot needed to be a painter. Repose chronicles the fact that this character, embodied by Morisot, lived as a constrained woman in her attire and domestic circumstances, but was struggling to move beyond her domestic restrictions. Manet originally submitted Repose to the Salon in 1871, but it was rejected, and was finally exhibited two years later in the Salon of 1873.[13]  This typical delay in acceptance, of even an artist as well-known as Manet, hinted at prior controversial responses to the artist’s subject matter. The reactions to Repose were not positive: critics blasted Manet, calling the portrait ‘dirty’ and ‘in bad taste.’[14] Most of the negative criticism had to do with the fact that Manet portrayed a women of the haut bourgeoisin a dark and sexualized manner. In addition to the bad reviews, several caricatures mocked the image, such as the one published in Cham’s Le Salon Pour Rire (fig.5)in 1873.[15] This caricature showed public response to the  provocative image of a refined woman by implying that she belonged to another race that had behaviors foreign to Parisian society. It is interesting to note here that Manet was able to paint Morisotin a manner that she could not do herself because of gender inequality prohibited her from having the artistic license to create an image, such as the one in Repose.

Berthe Morisot, born on January 14th 1841, was the youngest of three daughters and grew up in a haut bourgeois family. She and her sisters were given private classical art lessons by Joseph Guichard.[16]  Morisot’s background was similar to that of Manet because her family also did not initially assume that she would make a career as a painter. She studied with Camille Corot; and in 1864, two of Morisot landscapes were debuted at the state-run Salon.[17] Morisot, prioritized her profession as an painter, which resulted in this huge achievement, especially for a female artist. Morisot continued on this path even after she met Édouard Manet and married his brother Eugéne, at the age of 33.[18] This was indicative of her dedication to her art; and, in fact, meeting Manet only increased her creative commitment. Duret notes: “In all her subsequent production, the scale of tones and the qualities of clarity and light will be seen derived from Manet, but the fundamental elements of her work- her feminine individuality and her personal way of feeling – remained unchanged.”[19] Duret’s assessment is important because as a critic at the time he recognized Morisot’s individuality and unique accomplishments as an Impressionist painter.  In 1874, Morisot exhibited her work at the first independent show of Impressionist; but, as a female painter, she could only paint subjects that were deemed appropriate such as the bedroom, drawing room, garden, and parks.[20] Regardless of the restrictions, Morisot persevered and accepted the exhibition options made available to her, while continuing to function as a professional artist and ultimately breaking new ground in paintings such as her Self-Portrait.

In her Self-Portrait Morisot constructs an image that reflects her identity as an artist and depicts a woman who is, in many senses a prisoner of her society and vocation. “Women could enter and represent selected locations in the public sphere – those of entertainment and display. But a line demarcates not the end of the public/private divide but the frontier of the spaces of femininity.”[21] Pollock notes that Morisot was confined to “spaces of femininity,” an ideological construct that suggests female limitation to conventional, mostly domestic spaces. In this self-portrait, Morisot challenges this notion. In fact, Manet pays more attention to the details of Morisot’s bourgeois femininity then she does in her own painting. Whereas Morisot is holding a fan as a fashion accessory in Repose, she paints herself holding a palette. Nearly 15 years after Repose, Morisot controls her own image. Morisot does not present a full figure of herself, but rather crops the self-portrait from the waist down. She is trying to present herself as a serious artist, not an object to be gazed upon. Duret notes: “The position which Berthe Morisot held in society continually obscured her reputation as an artist. The critics who talked about the exhibitions of the Impressionists usually ignored her…”[22] Duret suggests that critics could not separate Morisot, the painter, from Morisot the haut bourgeois woman. Perhaps, they were influenced by Morisot as projected in Repose, and the negative critiques of that painting could have transferred to the way critics viewed her professionally. The only thing Morisot was guilty of was being a woman. At 49 years old, she wrote in a letter: “I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal and that’s all I would have asked for – I know I am worth as much as they.” [23] Critics did not value Morisot’s contribution to the Impressionist Movement, and her letter makes it clear that the unequal treatment she received was because she was a female and that a male artist would never would have received the same neglect.

Morisot represents how in a female painter’s art the feminine is a construct in the same way that it is a construct when represented by Manet in Repose. Manet’s vision of the female is presented through his own masculine lens that interprets a woman and sexualizes her based on his own perspectives. In comparison to Repose, Morisot refrains from presenting this sexualized vision of the female and does not allow her feminine features to distract the viewer. In Self-Portrait, Morisot stands tall with her shoulders back in a strong, dominant pose. In a sense, it seems as if Morisot is gently masculinizing this version of herself. The cropped figure and tightly pulled back hair suggest that she does not want to be gazed at like a female commodity on display. Morisot’s self-portrait, clearly a female artist perspective of the female artist, is reminiscent of Jacques-Louis David’s 1794 Self Portrait (fig. 6)and Eugene Delacroix’s 1837 Self-Portrait (fig.7), which were both displayed at the Louvre Museum.[24] There is an uncanny similarity in the way both Morisot and David hold their palettes and brushes. She is attired in blazer and scarf that resembles the attire that Delacroix presents in his self-portrait. These connections are important because she is citing past art and establishing her self-worth as a female artist, who deserves the same recognition as prominent Old Masters. The presence of the violets in the self-portrait add an interesting component, and according to critics this particular use of colour gave an inherently “feminine” qualities to the painting.[25] The attempts to attribute gender specific aspects to Morisot’s painting presents an interesting commentary on the age because she was actually painting in the same Impressionist style as her male contemporaries.  Her talent as a unique painter, goes beyond being simply defined as masculine or feminine, and is evident in the looseness of her brushwork, her use of colour and signature unfinished style of presentation. Perhaps this unfinished quality is meant to represent aspects of her life that are incomplete and, as yet, unfulfilled.

Out of the eleven portraits of Morisot that Manet painted, he never portrayed her in the context of her profession as an artist. it suggests a great irony that existed at the time: Manet’s male privilege enabled him to create and display portraits of Morisot that represent her through a male gaze, and display them, while her own identity as an professional artist remained obscured. Viewers at the time could only judge Morisot based on Manet’s portrayals; and Repose, in particular, the negative public and critical response it received impacted her reputation as a respectable woman and as a professional painter. When comparing Repose and Self-Portrait, it is interesting to note that Manet presented a more sexualized female representation of Morisot, while she tried to capture a more liberated, truthful representation of herself as a woman and an artist. The nature of the masculine and the feminine is at the center of any discussion of these two paintings, and it is difficult to determine, in retrospect, what it meant to these two artists. Clearly as a man and a male artist, Manet had greater freedom. He was able to portray his models, which included Morisot, in any context he chose; however, Morisot was restricted, even when painting a self-portrait, to limited spaces and contexts. Manet’s portrait was always destined for public display, and had a natural appeal to a male public audience, in spite of the fact it created controversy in Parisian society. It clearly portrayed a feminine vision of Morisot and perspective on gender that resonated for Manet. Morisot’s Self-Portrait resonates with her vision of her identity as both a painter and woman. Her perspectives on the feminine in this painting are characterized by the exceptional individuality and innovation of her artistic talent and imagination.

Illustrations

Figure 1 Edouard Manet, Repose, Providence, RISD Museum, oil on canvas, 1870, 150.2 x 114 cm

Figure 2 Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait, Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet, 1885, oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm

Figure 3 Edouard Manet, The Balcony, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, 1868-9, oil on canvas, 170 x 124.5 cm

Figure 4 Francisco de Goya, “She Prays for Her,” from Los Caprichos, 1799, etching and drypoint, 20.3 x 15 cm

Figure 5 Cham, “Le Salon pour rire,” Charivari, 23 May 1873,

Figure 6 Jacques-Louis David, Self-Portrait, Paris, Louvre Museum, 1794, oil on canvas, 81 x 64 cm

Figure 7 Eugene Delacroix, Self-Portrait,Paris, Louvre Museum, 1837, oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm


[1]Cachin, Françoise, and Emily Read. Manet (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990), 12-13.  

[2] AH4221 Week 4

[3] Adler, Kathleen, and Tamar Garb. Berthe Morisot. (London: Phaidon Press, 2010), 84.

[4] Duret, Theodore. Manet and the French Impressionists. Translated by J.E. Crawford Flitch. (London: Grant Richards, 1910), 179.

[5] Adler and Garb, Berthe Morisot, 84.

[6] Ibid., 83.

[7] Locke, Nancy. Manet and The Family Romance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 153.

[8] Ibid., 154.

[9]AH4221 Week 5

[10] Pollock, Griselda. Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Arts Histories. (London: Routledge, 2006), 258-9.

[11] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Repose,” accessed November 27,2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repose.

[12] Pollock, Differencing the Canon, 259.

[13] Nichols, Lawrence, Leah Luhmbeck, and Mayanee Stevens. Manet: Portraying Life. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013), 35-37.

[14] Pollock, Differencing the Canon, 259.

[15] Stuckley, Charles F., and William P. Scott. Berthe Morisot: Impressionist. (Washington, D.C: Hudson Hill Press, 1987), 37.

[16] Adler and Garb, Berthe Morisot, 9.

[17] Ibid., 17-18.

[18] Higonnet, Anne. Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 117.

[19] Duret, Manet and the French Impressionists, 49.

[20] Pollock, Griselda. Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art. (London: Routledge, 1988), 56.

[21] Ibid., 79.

[22] Duret, Manet and the French Impressionists, 175.

[23] Pfeiffer, Ingrid, and Max Hollein. Women Impressionists. (Frankfurt: Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2008), 23.

[24] Mathieu, Marianne. Berthe Morisot. Edited by Editions Hazan (Paris: Musee Marmottan Monet, 2012) Exhibition catalogue. 15-16.

[25] Garb, Tamar. “Berthe Morisot and The Feminizing of Impressionism”. In Perspectives On Morisot (Berthe Morisot and The Feminizing of Impressionism), Kathleen Adler, T.J. Edelstein and Tamar Garb. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), 57-66.

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