Guest post by Paula Butterfield
It was the middle of another fall quarter, and I was again teaching my course on Women in the Arts. I’d already introduced my students to the floral still lifes of 16th c. Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch, and Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s portraits of the 18th c. French court. Each student had found at least one artist who spoke to her. Now we had reached the 19th century, and we were looking at paintings by the women of Impressionism.
Most students recognized Mary Cassatt’s work from cards, calendars, or dorm room posters, but when Berthe Morisot’s work came up on the screen, a hush fell over the class. The artist’s deft, shimmering brush strokes, her pastel hues, and the way the subjects of her light-saturated paintings, grounded only by their expressions of reverie and rumination, seemed to float in cocoons of fluttering marks captivated my students.
This was also the artist who spoke to me. Why did I relate to a member of the 19th century Parisian upper-class and a ground-breaking artist, when I was a lowly college instructor who lived on ramen the last week of every month?
I did deeper research about Berthe and found that we had more in common than I would have guessed. Berthe and her sister, Edma, both had a passion for art. While they shared the same training and showed their work in the same exhibitions, when Edma turned thirty, she shifted her focus to marriage and family. Berthe postponed both as long as she could, in order to pursue her passion.
Similarly, my sister met her life partner when she was still in college, and they created an off-the-grid life in the forests of southern Oregon. As for me, I married late, after many years of working in a world that my sister despised.
Did I connect to Berthe because we both had mothers with conflicted feelings about their daughters’ success? Berthe’s mother, Cornelie, provided her daughters with teachers, a studio, and even painting trips. But at the same time, she was fearful about the life they would have if they turned their backs on convention to become professional artists.
Like Berthe, I was raised by a woman who encouraged her daughters to reach for the stars, although she had no idea about how to help us do so. It’s frustrating to think that, one hundred years after Berthe’s lifetime, my mother’s own experience as a woman had failed to give her the tools to help me achieve my dreams.
Maybe I related to Berthe because we had both fallen in love with bad boys, a real risk for good girls who don’t dare act out on their own. Brilliant, artistic, or beautiful—irresistible men provided second-hand rebellion for us. Edouard Manet was always elegantly attired in his top hat and leather gloves, tapping his silver-tipped cane, and he was arguably the greatest artist in Paris during Berthe’s life. But he was also a well-known womanizer, and Berthe’s association with him almost destroyed her reputation. My rogue was a handsome artist, too. And a genius, I swear!
All of these similarities combined to make Berthe Morisot feel like my contemporary, more my sister than my own sister. She was a woman I knew and understood. Historical fiction authors write about people who are distinctive and historically memorable, but isn’t it also our goal to make them relatable? And relating to Berthe made it an absolute delight to write about her.
Paula Butterfield taught courses about women artists for twenty years before turning to writing about them. La Luministe, her debut novel, earned the Best Historical Fiction Chanticleer Award. Paula lives with her husband and daughter in Portland and on the Oregon coast. You can contact Paul via her website at http://www.paula-butterfield.com. She is also on Twitter @pbutterwriter, Instagram, and Pinterest, where she posts illustrations for La Luministe.
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.