The sisterhood of Impressionism

It is said that Impressionism is an instinctive and visual art. ‘Une nouvelle manière de peindre en fonction d’une nouvelle manière de voir.’ 

In 1863, Édouard Manet’s portrait of a nude woman was rejected by the emperor of l’Académie des Beaux-Arts for transgressing ‘le style d’art officiel,’ and subsequently placed in the Salon des Refusées. There is an element of irony in that it was the female form that sparked this scandal and founded the Impressionist movement as a result, as to this day the artwork of women Impressionists is largely overshadowed by their male counterparts. 

At the start of the movement, women artists were seldom found in the public eye, though within the Impressionist circle, Marie Cassat and Eva Gonzalès formed a minor trio with Berthe Morisot. In 1894, Gustave Geffroy described Morisot as one of the eminent ‘trois grandes dames.’ It can be added that Marie Bracquemond was also considered an honorary ‘grande dame’ — her most acclaimed painting being the Sur la terrasse à Sèvres (1890), though fitting to her predicament, the Three Women with Umbrellas or The Three Graces (1880) captured ‘l’air des trois grandes dames’ the most.

Morisot, Gonzalès, Cassat and Bracquemond all focused on women in the foreground of their paintings as a mother, a daughter, a friend, a lover

Despite the grandeur of the artists’ epithet, they were certainly not exempt from varying degrees of misogynistic critique. Albert Wolff, in 1876, claimed that within Berthe Morisot’s art, ‘la grace feminine se maintient au milieu des débordements d’un esprit en délire.’ In this, Wolff essentially condemns Morisot’s style as fragile and delirious, as characterised by her gender. However, this outlook when placed against the contextual backdrop of the Napoleonic code and the Institution of the Church — both of which facilitated imposed restrictions on female sovereignty — can rather be a means for us to understand the societal reasons behind the sexist critique of women Impressionists. 

While, the ‘trois grandes dames’ had distinctive styles respectively, the subject matter of their art largely centred around the feminine form. Morisot, Gonzalès, Cassat and Bracquemond all focused on women in the foreground of their paintings as a mother, a daughter, a friend, a lover; expressing the gender as versatile, but artistically fitting within the Impressionist movement. Perhaps in today’s artistic scene, I would compare Venetia Berry’s abstract style to the principles of the Impressionists — her characteristic ‘pure line’ appreciation of the female form departing from both the commercialised and sexualised attitudes towards women’s bodies, and illustrating rather the individual beauty of female bodies as distinct from one another.

In 1869, Eva Gonzalès received a portrait from Manet featuring Gonzalès sat painting a bouquet of flowers, though instead of responding with a portrait of Manet, she began painting a series of self-portraits. In doing so, she spotlighted her status as an Impressionist painter, and established the way in which she wanted to be perceived by her (predominantly male) contemporaries. Nonetheless, amongst male and female artists alike, there remained a fine line between celebrating the female form in Impressionism and simply opting for this subject matter as more compatible with the movement viz. ‘delicate’ and broadly aesthetic. 

Anna Arsher from Denmark and Serbia’s Nadežda Petrović also spearheaded Impressionism by aiding the transition from religious, mythical and historical artwork to their impressionist paintings en plain air

However, ‘les trois grandes dames’ were not the only women artists to allow the Impressionist movement to flourish; on a global scale we saw Laura Muntz — a Canadian artist who studied in Paris and later returned to Montreal to continue her artistic career. Muntz’s art captured the glowing essence of youthful innocence, with many of her paintings concentrating on young girls. We saw Lilla Cabot Perry, an American artist, greatly influenced by ‘l’art d’Extrême-Orient’ as seen with her painting In a Japanese Garden (1989-1901), featuring a geisha girl kneeling next to a stream. Combining both Japan’s cultural influence and her subject matter of a young girl, Perry’s Portrait of a Young Girl with an Orange (1901) showcased further the beauty of female youth as broader than the dominant Eurocentric aesthetics of the time.

Anna Arsher from Denmark and Serbia’s Nadežda Petrović also spearheaded Impressionism by aiding the transition from religious, mythical and historical artwork to their impressionist paintings en plain air. Both artists similarly chose to study the multifaceted nature of the female form in their work. Taking Anna Arsher’s A Young Girl Plaiting Her Hair (1901) showcasing a girl maintaining her prestige and bourgeois appearance, and pitting it against her A Young Girl Plucking a Swan (1900), illustrating a working class girl de-feathering a Swan without hesitation — the divergent impressions of women emerge. 

Above all, I believe Courbet’s ‘formula’ for Impressionism, ‘fais ce que tu vois, que tu veux, ce que tu sens,’ can be applied to the art of women artists from the movement; allowing a mélange of unrestrained artistic flair, self-expression and female empowerment to characterise the style of Impressionist art that we recognise today. 

By Sophie Farmer

Illustration: by Hannah Imafidon, (the ‘trois grandes dames’ as The Three Graces, 1880)

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