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3 Women Who Shaped Impressionism

Impressionism, renowned for its innovative techniques that pushed modern art into a new realm with its vivid depictions of industrialized life, was largely led by male artists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne.

Although the male Impressionists received ample amounts of recognition in their time for their works, it is important to note the pivotal role women artists played in the movement. Despite the male-dominated art world, female artists like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt left an indelible mark on the movement.

Their contributions not only rightly enriched the artistic landscape but also exposed prevailing gender norms, offering unique perspectives left uncovered by their male counterparts. Morisot, with her delicate brushwork and intimate interiors, and Cassatt’s tender portraits of motherhood and the domestic sphere, showcased the breadth of the female experience not often noticed in the art world. Join us as well explore the magical word of the female impressionists who altered the course of art history.

Flâneur vs Flâneuse

Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte. 1877. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago.
  Paris Street, Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte. 1877. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago.

Central to understanding the Impressionists’ impact is the concept of the “flâneur,” a term used to describe the passionate observer of industrialized urban life who roamed the streets, capturing the novel essence of modernity. Degas embodied the flâneur when he said, “We were created to observe one another.” Paintings relied on the artist’s identity as the observer and placed the viewer in the role of flanêur, such as in Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day (1877).

However, the idea of the “flâneuse”— the female counterpart— is equally crucial. Unlike the flâneur, the flâneuse navigated the city with different constraints, social pressures, and limited access to public spaces, which shaped the modern woman's perspective. Thus, female Impressionist scenes were inherently different, imbued with a sense of the personal and intimate, reflecting an equally important perspective on the female vantage point of the urban milieu.

Berthe Morisot: A Trailblazing French Impressionist

Berthe Morisot is a pioneering figure in the genesis of Impressionism. She exhibited with the Impressionists at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and continued to exhibit with them for another decade. Renowned for her light brushwork that allowed the canvas to show through, she painted everyday scenes of girls and women with palpable raw emotion.

Morisot was born on January 14, 1841, in Bruges, France, and grew up in an affluent and cultured family. Her grandfather was the highly influential Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. She was exposed to art early through private painting lessons with her sister, Edma, as it was deemed appropriate for young women of her social standing to pursue an artistic hobby.

Study, the Water’s Edge by Berthe Morisot. 1864. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
  Study, the Water’s Edge by Berthe Morisot. 1864. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

In the late 1850s, she and her sister studied under French painter Jean-Baptise Camille Corot, who taught her how to paint outdoor scenes. Corot heavily influenced her approach to plein-air painting and instilled in her a deep appreciation for nature’s ephemerality, a hallmark of her later work. Under the direction of Corot, Morisot exhibited for her first time in the prestigious Salon in 1864. From then on, her art career in Paris flourished, and she regularly exhibited at the Salon for a decade.

In 1868, a fellow artist introduced Morisot to Édouard Manet. The two forged a strong friendship and working relationship. Manet painted her portrait many times and encouraged her participation in the 1874 Impressionist exhibition. Her entry into the Parisian art scene also brought her into contact with Edgar Degas, with whom she had a close friendship. Her association with these artists, among others, facilitated her acceptance into the Impressionist group and allowed her to transcend gender biases, at least as much as an elegant 19th-century woman could.

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets by Édouard Manet. 1872. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets by Édouard Manet. 1872. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

In 1874, Morisot married Manet’s young brother, Eugène, who was also a painter. Eugène was extremely supportive of Berthe’s career and provided her with financial and social stability that allowed her to continue pursuing her professional career as an artist.

Given her position as a female in a strictly gendered society, Morisot’s subject matter often revolved around the private lives of women, children and intimate scenes. Unlike her male counterparts, who frequently displayed bustling urban landscapes, Morisot’s work revolved around the unseen world of women. In this way, her paintings reflect her subjects' quiet dignity and complex emotions, challenging the contemporary notions of femininity as submissive. She also frequently painted her husband, Eugène, and their daughter, Julie Manet, in various domestic settings and outdoor landscapes.

Les Aloès, Cimiez by Berthe Morisot.
 Les Aloès, Cimiez by Berthe Morisot. Painted in 1889. M.S. Rau (sold). 

While her most notable medium was oil on canvas, Morisot experimented with watercolors, pastels and drawings. While Morisot’s early career is marked with spontaneity and closer alignment with the ephemerality of Impressionism, her later works were more studied and carefully executed as though to exemplify her maturity through painting.

After contracting pneumonia, Berthe Morisot died suddenly on March 2, 1895, at age 54, only three years after the death of her husband. To honor her legacy and rich contributions to the Parisian art scene, Edgar Degas organized a retrospective exhibition of her work in 1896.

Berthe Morisot’s legacy as a trailblazing Impressionist was firmly established in her lifetime as a successful artist in her lifetime. Despite the challenges of being a female artist in her era, Morisot’s contributions were celebrated by her contemporaries and continue to be appreciated well into the future.

Today, her work is featured in the collections of most major art museums worldwide, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Morisot's pioneering spirit and dedication to her vision paved the way for future generations of female artists, ensuring her enduring influence in the art world.

Mary Cassatt: An American Impressionist in Paris

Mary Cassatt, an American artist who became a prominent figure in the French Impressionist movement, is also celebrated for her poignantly intimate depictions of mothers and children. Her journey from the United States to Paris as an expatriate and subsequent artistic achievements highlight her pioneering force in bridging American and French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Self-Portrait by Mary Stevenson Cassatt. 1880. Gouache and watercolor over graphite on paper. National Portrait Gallery.
  Self-Portrait by Mary Stevenson Cassatt. 1880. Gouache and watercolor over graphite on paper. National Portrait Gallery.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, on May 22, 1844. Like Morisot, Cassatt grew up in a well-to-do family, where her schooling focused on becoming the best upper-class wife and mother, including classes such as homemaking, embroidery, piano and painting. Because her family valued travel, she was exposed early on to the European culture that ignited her passion for art.

Although women of her time were taught to eschew careers, Cassatt was determined to become an artist and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at age 15. However, frustrated by the patronizing manner of her male teachers and peers and the curriculum’s slow pace, Cassatt decided to move to Europe and study independently from the Old Masters. Despite her family’s serious objections, including her father declaring he would rather see his daughter dead than become a “bohemian,” Cassatt moved to Paris in 1866.

The Mandolin Player by Cassatt. 1872. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
  The Mandolin Player by Cassatt. 1872. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

At the beginning of her time in Paris, Cassatt studied by copying masterpieces in the Louvre. Practicing in relative obscurity, Cassatt had her first big break when her artwork was accepted to the 1868 Paris Salon, though under the moniker of Mary Stevenson to protect her identity. Unfortunately, the Franco-Prussian War of 1860 sent Cassatt back to Pennsylvania, and it was not until 1872 that she could resume her career in Europe. Between 1872 and 1874, Cassatt exhibited at the Paris Salon and solidified her status as an artist.

Although she achieved success, Cassatt was troubled by the constraints set by the traditional values of paintings beloved by the commercial audience. Thus, Cassatt began to experiment artistically with new methods and colors of painting. She became heavily influenced by Degas, once saying that his artwork “changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” Cassatt and Degas’ friendship blossomed in the late 1870s, and he introduced her to the techniques and philosophies of the Impressionists. Cassatt’s use of pastel, a medium Degas favored, became a significant aspect of her repertoire.

Degas’ support for her led to Cassatt’s inclusion in the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, where she showed 11 works. The show was a massive success, and her relationship with the Impressionists became established; she exhibited with them multiple times in the 1880s.

Cassatt’s involvement with the Impressionists eventually fostered a friendship with Morisot. When Cassatt first exhibited with the Impressionists, Morisot was initially uncertain about the American artist who spoke little French and feared the inevitable comparisons by critics. However, as time passed, the two formed a close bond as the only female members of the Impressionist circle. For the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, the two worked together to secure funding for the costs of the exhibition.

Maternal Caress by Cassatt. 1896. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
 Maternal Caress by Cassatt. 1896. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Cassatt is best known for her intimate portrayals of mothers and children, capturing the subtleties of domestic life with sensitivity and insight. Her paintings, such as Maternal Caress, depict everyday moments that convey women's deep emotional connections and nurturing roles. Cassatt’s focus on women reading, drinking tea, or tending to children stemmed from her experiences in private spaces as a woman. While her portraits may appear today as demure, her paintings elevated scenes of women's work and pastimes to high art.

Woman Bathing by Cassatt. 1890-91. Color aquatint with drypoint. Art Institute of Chicago.
 Woman Bathing by Cassatt. 1890-91. Color aquatint with drypoint. Art Institute of Chicago. 

By 1886, Cassatt once again felt constrained by the limits of identifying with a specific artistic movement. From then on, her style became simpler and more straightforward. She began experimenting with new media, such as a series of prints in 1891 inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e.

Cassatt was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage in America, including participating in a 1915 exhibition of her work in conversation with Degas’ to raise money for suffragette movements. Although her family were harsh anti-suffragist activists and refused to lend her early works to the exhibition, the show was wildly successful and established her prominence as a female artist in America.

In 1915, Cassatt had to give up painting due to blindness as a result of diabetes. Later in life, Cassatt advocated for young American artists and advised wealthy collectors and institutions to acquire works by her fellow Impressionists. Cassatt died on June 14, 1926, in Le-Mesnil Théribus, France. Cassatt's impact on the art world extended beyond France, influencing the art scene back home. Her efforts significantly shaped the development of American art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Cassatt's legacy is honored in major art institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where her works are celebrated for their technical excellence and emotional depth.

Cecilia Beaux: Bridging French and American Impressionism

The third artist, Cecilia Beaux, was a distinguished portraitist who toed the line between realism and Impressionism for French and American audiences. Her career is marked by a profound connection to both art scenes, reflecting her unique position as a successful female artist who navigated and integrated diverse influences to create a distinctive body of work.

Self-Portrait by Cecilia Beaux. 1894. Oil on canvas. National Academy of Design, New York.
  Self-Portrait by Cecilia Beaux. 1894. Oil on canvas. National Academy of Design, New York.

Born on May 1, 1855, Cecilia Beaux was raised in an environment that nurtured her artistic talents, though her life was marked with tragedy. Her mother died 12 days after her birth, and her father abandoned his children to return to his French homeland. Her grandmother and aunt raised her and encouraged her early passion for art. She once said of her guardians, “They understood perfectly the spirit and necessities of an artist’s life.”

In 1876, Beaux began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), where she studied for four years and worked as a commercial artist, making lithographs and porcelain paintings. Unlike Mary Cassatt, who attended PAFA before 1868, Beaux benefited from a significant policy change that allowed women to participate in life-drawing classes, including the study of nude male figures, in 1874. This policy change followed considerable debate about the appropriateness of women viewing the nude male form. By the time Beaux attended, these opportunities were available, providing her with a much more comprehensive education than Cassatt.

Her early works revealed a large influence by James McNeill Whistler, such as in the widely popular painting Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance (1884). Whistler’s emphasis on tonal harmony and subtle gradations of color resonated with Beaux, as seen in the painting’s contemplative mood and delicacy. This painting was awarded a prize at the Academy for best painting by a female artist and was her first work exhibited abroad at the 1888 Paris Salon.

Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance by Beaux. 1883-85. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance by Beaux. 1883-85. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

At age 32, Beaux left America to study in Paris at the Académie Julian, where she immersed herself in the vibrant art community, studying under William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, two masters of academic painting. Gérôme’s rigorous training instilled in her a strong foundation in drawing and composition. However, Beaux also found inspiration in the works of Impressionists and emerging post-Impressionists, whose techniques challenged those of her training at the Académie. Her blend of academic precision and modern experimentation became a hallmark of her style, which she took back to America in 1889.

Painting grand portraits of family members and elite members of society alike, Beaux was celebrated for her work’s psychological depth and technical excellence. Beaux's contributions to the art world extend beyond her remarkable portraits. Beaux was the first woman to hold a full-time faculty position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she taught from 1895 to 1915. Her role as an educator and mentor helped shape the next generation of American artists. Beaux's legacy is further cemented by her numerous awards and honors, including election to the National Academy of Design.

Beaux died at age 87 in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1942. Only nine years prior, Eleanor Roosevelt honored her as “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world.” Today, Cecilia Beaux is remembered as one of America's foremost portraitists, and her paintings are held in prestigious collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of Women in Art in Washington, D.C.

Challenges and Triumphs of Female Impressionists

Woman with a Sunflower by Cassatt. 1905. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art.
  Woman with a Sunflower by Cassatt. 1905. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art.

While the 19th and 20th centuries were a profound, transformative time for both urban life and the art world, female artists like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux faced significant societal and professional barriers. Here is a short breakdown of the professional climate these women endured:

  • Limited Training Opportunities: Academies, the primary source of artistic education, were often closed to women, or offered restricted courses. Morisot and Beaux relied on private instruction, while Cassatt received some training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but faced limitations.
  • Preconceived Notions of Subject Matter: Women were expected to paint domestic scenes and portraits, particularly those featuring children and motherhood. Morisot, while known for works depicting women and children, pushed boundaries with outdoor scenes. Cassatt, however, embraced the "acceptable" themes, finding innovation within them. Beaux, known for portraits, challenged expectations by painting prominent men.
  • Difficulties Exhibiting: The official Salon de Paris, the most prestigious platform, was a jury-based system. Although Morisot exhibited there before joining the Impressionists, all three faced rejections or biases. The Impressionist exhibitions, while more open, were initially met with ridicule.
  • Market Recognition and Patronage: The art market heavily favored male artists. Women often had to rely on personal connections or family support to sell their work. Morisot benefited from her association with Édouard Manet (her brother-in-law), while Cassatt found success with American collectors. Beaux, through her portraits of prominent figures, gradually gained recognition.
  • Balancing Career and Family: The societal expectation for women to be homemakers made it difficult to pursue a demanding artistic career. Morisot, after marrying, continued to paint with the support of her husband. Cassatt remained unmarried and childless, focusing on her art. Beaux, though married, prioritized her career and navigated the challenges of balancing work and personal life.

Legacy of the Female Impressionists

After the Meeting by Beaux. 1914. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.
  After the Meeting by Beaux. 1914. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

Scholarship and exhibitions dedicated to female Impressionists have proliferated greatly in recent years, reflecting the growing recognition of their contributions to art history. A recent exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mary Cassatt at Work, is the first major showing of the artist’s oeuvre since 1998-99. Spanning 130 works over the course of her career, the exhibition can be seen until September 8, 2024, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco from October 5, 2024, to January 26, 2025.

Their works are held in the collections of major art institutions around the world. Beyond the PMA’s Cassatt exhibition, The Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Cherét de Nice is currently showing Berthe Morisot in Nice: an Impressionist Stopover, whereas the Dulwich Picture Gallery in England recently exhibited a widely popular Berthe Morisot: Shaping Impressionism.

Cassatt, Morisot, and Beaux would likely be delighted to know that female artists are currently among the most coveted in the modern market—particularly younger female artists. While women artists still represent a minority of sales overall, collector interest is growing. In 2023, a quarter of inquiries on the Artsy platform were for works by female artists. The total value of art by women sold at auction has exceeded $1 billion for the past three years, an unprecedented milestone. Additionally, there has been a significant increase in high-value sales for female artists. In 2023, the number of works by women reaching seven-figure sums at auction was over 150% higher than in 2013. Cassatt, Morisot, and Beaux would likely be delighted to know that female artists are currently among the most coveted in the modern market—particularly younger female artists.


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