French Connection: Learn about French and American Impressionists at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
By Rebecca Smith
On October 30 and 31, The Nelson-Atkins will host Mary Morton, curator and head of the French paintings department at the National Gallery of Art.
Morton will present her lecture, “Mary Cassatt: Radical Impressionist”, on Wednesday evening and follow it on Thursday with a special graduate seminar “Cassatt and Morisot Now”.
Anyone interested in French painting, art history, gender studies, or European history will want to participate.
Cassatt and Morisot are recognized to be among the top 10 most famous female artists. Both were of the French Impressionist movement. Both worked in the mid 19th century in Paris. Each was aligned with a well-known male artist and each had a single child, a daughter.
Most significantly, both had to break the rules to make their way. Both represent, therefore, feminist, as well as art legends.
Mary Cassatt was a native of Pennsylvania who began her formal training in 1861. Blocked from art sessions involving nude models, she moved to Paris in 1874, seeking greater opportunities. She formed a close relationship with Edgar Degas (some have even postulated that she was his mistress) and, under his influence and that of other painters, her own style developed and matured. Unlike many of them, who often painted landscapes and street scenes, she focused on portraits, highlighting women in everyday activities, especially mothers and children. She would be the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists and did so four times.
She was awarded the Legion d’honneur in 1904. She died in 1926 in Le Mesnil-Théribus.
Berthe Morisot was born in 1841. Following early art training, she became a copyist at the Louvre, where she met and was guided by Corot. He and Édouard Manet encouraged her to work en plein air and she began extensive studies. She and Manet established a very close bond, possibly romantic. Manet painted her 12 times but never formalized their relationship, as he was already married. In 1874, perhaps as consolation, she married his younger brother, Eugene, who gave up his own art ambitions to support her.
Despite being barred from bars, café and theaters, where male artists gathered, she persevered and perfected her art. She painted landscapes, still lifes, portraits and domestic scenes in a fluid, abstract style, working in oils, pastels, watercolors and drawings.
Morisot was included in 7 of the 8 Impressionist exhibitions in Paris – more than any other woman painter – and reportedly frequently outsold Degas, Monet and Sisley.
She died of pneumonia in 1895.
Until the Impressionist movement, women’s route to art was hampered, as they were considered too delicate for the understanding of human anatomy. The Impressionists’ less formal, less monumental choice of subject matter and more flexible painting techniques allowed them to enter the French art world. Taking advantage of the opportunity, they prospered.
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