If she were alive today, painter Berthe Morisot would be celebrated and admired, but in the 19th century Paris, she was up against formidable obstacles. Women were not allowed to pursue paying occupations, the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts did not accept female students, the society treated “lady painters” as odd (if they were rich) or as little more than prostitutes (if they were not), and parents – if they allowed girls to take private painting lessons at all – did so only because it would boost their marriage prospects.
Paula Butterfield’s novel La Luministe paints a portrait of one of the pioneering female artists. How important and overdue this is was made clear to me when, reading the book, I realized that Berthe Morisot was not just a gifted artist. Her work was groundbreaking, putting her among the most influential Impressionists. Yet, she was never mentioned in the art history survey course I took in college. We have all heard of Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, and many other male Impressionists, but apparently one has to be enrolled in an advanced course to learn about Morisot.
And yet she had a vision that she pursued consistently for decades despite having to endure condescending and dismissive attitudes. She was one of the first painters to explore the idea of light and its effects on composition. It seems obvious to us now, but in the middle of the 19th century, that was a revolutionary idea. As the author explains, earlier painters – including the Masters like Titian and Goya – worked indoors. Bringing the easel out of the studio and to a seaside promenade or to a garden in full bloom was what enabled Berthe Morisot to capture the fleeting moments of the sun striking the water or a child’s smile as she played with her doll.
Paula Butterfield takes care to weave the personal with the artistic. Her expert knowledge of art helps us place Berthe’s style in a larger context the better to understand its innovative nature: she wanted to utilize brighter, metallic paints where the Masters had been limited to earthy ochres and umbers. And she wanted to capture the intimate and the everyday rather than imitating the classical heroic themes of which the Academy was so fond. Morisot chose modernity over antique inspirations, and none of it was helpful in launching her career and gaining the respect of fellow artists. But she persisted nonetheless.
The novel also highlights her artistically fruitful but personally complicated relationship with Edouard Manet. Their styles influenced each other. Inspired by her, Manet started painting outdoors, with a light palette and feathery strokes, and Morisot was emboldened by his rebelliousness and rule-breaking. She also modeled for Manet for several years, falling, like many other women, under the spell of the notoriously dissolute artist. The fact that she eventually became his sister-in-law adds another level of nuance to her story.
In Berthe Morisot’s social milieu, marriage was a woman’s ticket to respectability, financial security, and – irrespective of her age – adulthood. Fiercely dedicated to art and deeply independent, she resisted the attempts to marry her off for as long as she could, eventually settling for Edouard’s younger, more volatile, and less accomplished brother, Eugene Manet.
To give a sense of why she had to do it, consider that when Berthe was invited to join an independent artists’ cooperative by none other than Edgar Degas, she needed to secure her father’s permission (she was in her thirties by then). She failed to do so because Edme Morisot considered the idea unseemly; it was only after his death that she was able to join the group and exhibit with them, saying “I no longer felt compunction about breaking Papa’s rules. Letting go of limitations was becoming easier for me.” It was a move that helped propel her to a recognition few female painters had achieved before.
Marriage and the relationship with her parents were not the only bonds that were strained due to Berthe’s tireless pursuit of her vocation. Growing up, she was close to her older sister Edma, a gifted painter herself, but after Edma’s marriage and the birth of her children Berthe became disappointed with her sister giving up art. Berthe’s continuing closeness to Edouard Manet became another bone of contention between the sisters, and over time they drifted apart. Thus we get a glimpse of the joys and challenges of sisterhood, and how even that bond can become complicated in a society that represses women.
Berthe Morisot was lucky to live in Paris, Europe’s artistic capital; yet, despite being a woman of talent, passion, and an independent spirit she was never able to reap the same benefits and enjoy the same freedoms that her male peers did. La Luministe is a fitting tribute to the Painter of Light, and a testament to how far we have come since her times.
If you enjoy historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited, and available in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.