Written for a survey art history course covering the Renaissance to the present day, this paper analyzes a painting entitled Woman at Her Toilette (circa 1875), which was created by Berthe Morisot, a French female Impressionist. The paper assignment required the object of study to be one that could be viewed in person, and this painting is displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago. While Morisot worked with the other major Impressionists, like Monet, Renoir, and Degas, she has been tragically overlooked in most discussions of Impressionism. In her time, though, she was the most renowned female Impressionist, and one of the only. Morisot was born into wealth, but she never relied on her comfortable status. Instead, she exhibited tremendous ambition and fierce independence in pursuing her painting career. Most of her paintings were of upper class subjects, especially women. Woman at Her Toilette combines her unique skill and beautiful style with a sensitive, insightful examination of femininity and women in society. The painting is intricately discussed to examine its technique, content, and meaning. Finally, broader connections are made between Morisot’s career and issues of femininity and feminism. Berthe Morisot was truly a pioneer and a feminist before her time.
Note: The painting never seems to look quite the same, depending on where it is found, whether it is in a book or on the internet or on a gift shop postcard. The colors and tones always vary, sometimes very slightly and other times more drastically. In person, it looks different still. Two images of the painting are presented to show examples of the discrepancies and various incarnations that appear in different sources. The first is taken directly from the Art Institute of Chicago's website (and this even looks different than it did years ago when the paper was first written), and the second is from a different website.
When the viewer is privileged enough to stand right in front of it at the museum, the actual painting is somewhere in between these two color extremes. The real hues do not look quite as white-gray as the first, nor do they appear as greenish as the second. Actually, the tone is more blue than green, and the painting is slightly closer to the first picture overall.
But, look at these two pictures together and imagine a middle ground in between them, color-wise, and that is what it really is. That is the authentic painting. It is unfortunate that the images out there fail to capture the real colors and tonalities, because the painting as intended is stunning, and a painting should always be viewed as it was meant to be. Regardless, these images still capture the remarkable beauty of Morisot's work. No matter what, Woman at Her Toilette is breathtakingly gorgeous.
“Berthe Morisot became a painter despite being a woman. She painted the way she did because she was a woman” (Higonnet, Images 1). Indeed, since artists first started signing their works in order to get recognition and even in the anonymous years before that, men have dominated the art world. Even if female artists received the slightest bit of appreciation, their accomplishments were waved off as silly feminine whims, and since men set the rules, women were certainly never worthy of the effusive title of “master.” Society, especially in the 1800s, expected women to behave in a certain way, with the utmost propriety, and any deviation was condemned. As a member of the Impressionist movement, Berthe Morisot transcended these obstacles and excelled as an artist, connecting in an unprecedented way with a feminine audience. “As she brought stylistic, iconographic, and conceptual aspects of feminine visual culture to painting, and as she concentrated on those aspects of painting that could accommodate what she brought, she changed painting” (Higonnet, Images 5). Throughout her life, Berthe Morisot challenged social conventions and enjoyed professional and personal success, produced one of her most intimate and significant works with Woman at Her Toilette, and addressed issues of femininity and feminism in a male-dominated culture.
At the beginning of 1874, Morisot received a devastating blow with the death of her father. Yet at the same time, his death encouraged her to continue along her “radical” artistic path. “Edme Tiburce Morisot’s death left his daughter freer to pursue her own interests. She could, for instance, worry less about adverse publicity surrounding the forthcoming exhibition” (Higonnet, Berthe 110-111). This show, the legendary first Impressionist exhibition, was launched in April of 1874 by a revolutionary group of all men, with the notable exception of Berthe Morisot (Higonnet, Berthe 111). Despite mixed reactions, Impressionism asserted its forceful presence, and the art world took notice. Morisot emerged as one of the group’s true leaders, receiving unparalleled attention and success for a woman of the time.
With no clear light source acting upon the painting, Woman at Her Toilette seems to radiate with an ethereal glow from within. But the most striking visual element of the painting is Morisot’s skillful use of color, used to heighten the calm tone. In a dazzling kaleidoscopic display, multiple shades of blue, pink, white, and silvery-gray combine to produce a beautiful and feathery pastel feast. The woman’s dress sparkles in a brilliant shade of angelic white, her blonde hair blazes, the otherwise empty right side is filled with flecks of color, and the pink and yellow flowers jump out. Overall, Woman at Her Toilette evokes a peaceful mood and plays on the emotions with its subtle, breathtaking beauty. But the reflection of the objects in the mirror and not the woman poses a different interpretation, perhaps a comment on material excess, superficial preoccupations, and life’s fleeting nature, a mild critique of the very society of which Morisot herself was a part.
Despite being in the right place at the right time, when European society showed the slightest sign of cracking that would allow a woman to excel, Morisot’s tremendous success was by no means the result of luck. Her ambition pushed her to take risks. Even though Morisot did not paint the more scandalous subjects of her male contemporaries, she understood the limitations of her status. “By choosing safely feminine themes, Morisot made it possible to cling tenaciously to an extremely daring unfeminine career while making minimal personal sacrifices” (Higonnet, Berthe 102). Instead of more blatant social commentary, Morisot subtly subverted the system with her fierce persistence. And she managed to make her own statements about femininity that bordered on feminist, especially in Woman at Her Toilette. While acknowledging the required standards of beauty in her society, Morisot also challenged them. “Since the woman is turned away from us, since her mirror reflects only the cosmetics and the flower, and since those objects are so much more literally prominent than anything else in the painting, we are given to understand that feminine beauty resides materially in the objects…” (Higonnet, Images 155). In her own quiet way, Morisot expressed a powerful message about the conflict between the desire to conform to ideals of feminine beauty and the need to break free of its shackles.
Along with the questions of femininity posed by Woman at Her Toilette, the painting also alludes to issues of domesticity and motherhood, both considered to be women’s duties at the time. Actually, while much progress has been made as far as women’s rights since Morisot’s time, this prejudice still exists in today’s society. Berthe Morisot had to reconcile concerns about social expectations with professional aspirations, but she certainly embraced the concepts of domesticity and motherhood. As a woman and an artist, the birth of her daughter Julie presented her with her greatest joy and challenge. “From her birth Julie became the centre of her mother’s passionate attention” (Shennan 196). But she soon realized that her identity as a mother was inextricably linked with her identity as an artist, and she rose to the occasion enthusiastically. “Maternity changed Morisot’s art profoundly, altering her subject matter and encouraging her to experiment both stylistically and intellectually…” (Higonnet, Images 3). During her life and career, Berthe Morisot proved it was possible to find a symbiotic balance between being feminine and being a feminist, to meet social expectations while also confronting them on her own terms, and her revolutionary example paved the way for future women artists.