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Works Of Berthe Morisot And Mary Cassatt English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2236 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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[Synopsis: This is an 8 page essay, written in MLA format, giving a comparison between the works of impressionist painters Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. The paper starts by giving a brief background of the two painters and then discusses influences of the two female artists to society; drawing from 3 pieces of their works. The paper relies on 6 sources.]

Comparison between the Works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt

Berthe Morisot was born in January 14, 1841 in France and began painting as a young girl, although French society did not allow women to join official art institutions (Bumpus 9). In late 1850s, Berthe and her sister travelled to Paris to study the works of art by the Old Masters at Louvre Museum under Joseph Guichard (Bumpus 9). During their study of art works in Paris, they learned how to paint outdoor scenes through a study that was guided by landscape painter Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (Bumpus 9). Berthe Morisot performed the first exhibition of her work in the prestigious state-run art show, namely, the Salon in 1864 (The Impressionists ). In her works, Berthe Morisot concentrated on subjects, such as still lives, landscapes, portraits and domestic scenes. She also experimented with several media that included oil drawings, pastels and watercolors (The Impressionists). Berthe and her sister Edna earned respect for their talent in art circles. She demonstrated the success and possibilities for women artists in advent grade art movements that marked the end of 19th century.

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Mary Cassatt lived between 1844 and 1926. She was born in Pennsylvania as a daughter of a well-up real estate and investment broker (The Impressionists ). Mary Cassatt was brought up in accordance with her family’s high social standing; whereby both the school and the family prepared her for her feminine roles as a wife and a mother (The Impressionists). Although women were only viewed as best suited for domestic duties and highly discouraged from pursuing careers during her time, Mary Cassatt enrolled in Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when she was 16 (The Impressionists). She however left the faculty due to curriculum’s slow pace and inadequate course offerings and went to Europe where she studied the works of Old Masters (The Impressionists). Unlike Berthe Morisot, who had enough support from her family to pursue art career, Mary faced opposition from her family members. However, her family’s resistance did not stop her; she left for Paris in 1866 to study privately in Louvre, where she would study and copy masterpieces (The Impressionists). She first featured in the prestigious Paris Salon, an annual exhibition run by the French government in 1868, when one of her portraits was selected. Her paintings were accepted by the Paris Salon for exhibitions in 1872, 1873 and 1874, which helped to secure her status as an established artist. Most of her work concentrated on private lives of women and children, with particular emphasis on strong bond between mothers and children (Buettner 14).

Comparison and Influences of the Works of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot

Both Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot waged personal rebellion against the restrictive nature of their societies. Their acts of defiance were manifested through their paintings in art work dedicated to the Mother and Child, such as Cassatt’s or Morisot’s Le Berceau. Both artists employed the place of women at home as their primary subject matter and instigation. This is clearly portrayed in their works that carry themes such as ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’, Vision and Difference: Femininity: Feminism and the Histories of Art (Pollock 122).

According to Pollock, the restrictions placed upon these two female artists influenced the subject matter of their works (123). During 19th century, women encountered harsh social restrictions which were accompanied by little respect from their work, ruthless criticism and emotional harassment; they were viewed as domestic servants and placed in homes as their domain for exercising authority. In addition, raising children and housekeeping were viewed as feminine responsibilities and fully left to women (Pollock 123). Furthermore, women were primarily defined by their maternal capabilities and motherhood within the parameters of patriarchal family was a virtuous norm for respectable woman (Pollock 123). During this impressionist era, education was advocated for all women and only justified as a tool that could better enable women to fulfill their duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers (Bumpus 10). Education of females was embraced as a method of domesticating women and helping them to succeed in their place at home. However, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot did not agree with these principles of the society; they strongly opposed them, through their commitment to succeed in their careers and through subjects portrayed in their works of art. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were highly educated and trained female artists, subjected to high standards of work.

Mary Cassatt became famous for her portraits, focusing on women in daily domestic settings, especially mothers with their children, although her portraits were unconventional in their direct and honest nature (Buettner 15). Her consistent objective was to achieve truth, not sentimentality or romance; force, not sweetness. Her painting style evolved from impressionism to more straight forward and simpler approach, with the 1886 exhibition being the last one for impressionists after which she subsequently stopped identifying herself with the particular movement in school (The Impressionists). Her experimentation with different techniques led her to drawing inspiration from Japanese master printmakers and she exhibited a series of colored prints, including women bathing and the Coiffure in 1891.

In Mary Cassatt’s Helene of Septeuil, 1890 (Buetter 18), the viewer observes a scene of a lackadaisical child and mother almost collapsing. The mother’s rosy cheeks reveal how exhausted she is (Buetter 18). In addition, the woman’s pursed lips portray the weary stress of daily life. This piece of work conveys the message that since many women had only recently taken up duties of raising up their own children from the nurses, they were not prepared for the tedious task . Mary Cassatt’s Helene of Septeuil depicts the typical daily grind for a woman in the 19th century. Although the woman in the portrait tries to put on a happy display for the public, her tense muscles betray her as the child feigns partial interest in his struggle to be free the mother’s clothes is plain and unflattering (Buetter 18). The slapdash appearance of her hair depicts the little time she has for dressing and styling her hair as she is occupied with many household chores besides taking care of her child and there is no one to assist her. In sharp contrast, the clothes of her child are pristine, they flawlessly match the straw hat on the child’s head; the close proximity of mother and child shows that although the two are physically connected, they are worlds apart psychologically. Furthermore, with the mother’s exhaustion she has no time to connect intimately or emotionally with her child, a child whose presence has only recently been acknowledged.

It can be observed that Cassatt valued the intimacy between mothers and children of the lower class. She preferred to use rural women in her portraits because they held their children with an ease and intimacy, unknown to upper class mothers (Buettner 16.) However, the overarching message of Cassatt’s work is an acerbic proclamation against the society in which she lived and it’s oppression against women. This piece of work shows how deeply the society has trampled the spirit of a woman. Using this portrait, Mary Cassatt attempts to open eyes of the society to see the injustices committed against women at this time, including the shackling women to their homes and families. The woman’s troubled heart needs to be comforted by easing the many household chores that the society has placed on her. This calls for a radical change; hence the emergence of many women’s movements that campaigned for women’s rights and social change within the society; towards the end of 19th century.

As a doctrine impressionist and a member of the haute bourgeoisie, Berthe Morisot painted what she experienced on daily basis (Bumpus 10). Just like the impressionist Mary Cassatt, her paintings reflect the cultural restrictions of gender and class in the 19th century. She focused on domestic life and concentrated on portraits in which she could apply experiences of personal friends, models and family; she avoided nudity in her works as well as urban and street scenes (Bumpus 10). Berthe Morisot took a conservative approach to her works of art, which are mainly characterized by an intimate atmosphere. Large free movement brush strokes gave her painting a transparent iridescent quality.

Picture Showing Mary Cassatt’s Helene of Septeuil

The Berthe Morisot’s In the Dining Room, 1886 (Pollock 125). A woman is seen trapped in a home setting, devoid of emotion. The woman is surrounded by pots and pans as she tries to perform her colloquial household duties (Pollock 125). The young woman’s is void of emotion as she absent-mindedly stirs a mixing bowl, oblivious of its contents (Pollock 125). The Berthe Morisot’s In the Dining Room portrays a perfect kitchen scene whereby the young woman appears to have been overwhelmed by kitchen duties. The scene in this portrait leaves viewers questioning themselves about the secrets that lie beyond the woman’s blank stare. The artistic settings and subject of this piece of work can be attributed to restrictions put on female artists during that time. the portrait shows how female artists of 19th century were constantly reminded that their place is in the kitchen, despite their ambition and desire to pursue careers; hence they had to be continually surrounded by pots and pans all their lives; a situation that leaves the woman in deep thought; perhaps pondering the next move or wondering if she would ever be free from the slavery imposed upon her by the society. These images foretell a greater political movement in future, where women would campaign for their rights and freedoms and attain a lasting change.

Picture Showing Berthe Morisot’s In the Dining Room

In Berthe Morisot’s Nursing, The painting the surface seems to depict the intimacy between the child and the mother. However, the truth is that the child is Morisot’s daughter Julie. Morisot has ironically used her daughter’s nursemaid as the mother model for the girl (White 220). Following the scene, one may conclude that In the 1800s, the cult of true womanhood started taking shape to reaffirm a woman’s place at home. Society started allowing upper class women to nurse their children, instead of hiring services of a child nurse (Buettner 15). Although this trend did not last long, it stirred a heated debate on propriety of practice raged during Morisot and Cassatt’s time. Change that followed concerning children’s upbringing may be attributed Rousseau’s Emile of 1762. Although medics of the time approved of children’s nursing for a period of time after birth in order to ensure a healthier childhood, Wet-nurses became surrogate mothers for children of lower and middle classes, making it possible for such mothers to have time to work (Buettner 18). Consequently, there were numerous nursing clinics in France during this time (Buettner 18). Morisot and Cassatt began to scrutinize the psychological relationship between mother and child (Buettner 15). This influenced their works; hence the portrait Nursing.

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The portrait depicts a society where mothers would be happier if they have someone to assist them in household chores; especially in bringing up the children. It also shows a fruitful relationship between the nurse and the child; with an environment of calmness. On one hand, the nurse is happy because by bringing up the child, she earns a living. On the other hand, the child’s mother; although physically and emotionally separated from the child, she enjoys her freedom from household chores.

A picture Showing Berthe Morisot’s Nursing


The art works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were not merely pieces depicting women and children as outlet for their maternal instincts toward children but there were deep rooted messages conveyed in the works; hidden in their depictions of the Mother and the Child. These messages related to perceptions of the artists about lives of women in 19th century. They used their works to address social injustices imposed upon women by society during that time. Their paintings gave a voice to the society and to a generation of women who have suffered oppression and affliction; physically, emotionally and psychologically. Movements of women rights activists and other political movements emerged to fight social injustices experienced and bring a just society.


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