Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872) by Edouard Manet
Interpretation of Impressionist Painting

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Portrait of Berthe Morisot
By Manet.
Regarded as one of the
greatest portrait paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872)
With a Bouquet of Violets


Analysis of Portrait of Berthe Morisot
Berthe Morisot
Explanation of Other Impressionist Portraits


Name: Portrait of Berthe Morisot (1872)
French: French: Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes
Artist: Edouard Manet (1832-83)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Portrait Art
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


In his relatively short but eventful career as an artist, Edouard Manet sought to reconcile his respect for the Old Masters - in particular, the school of Spanish painting - with Baudelaire's call for an art reflecting modern life. Amazingly, by combining the best of academic art with some of the characteristics of Impressionism, he managed to introduce a highly innovative form, of modern art that influenced a wide circle of his contemporaries. This felicitous fusion of old and new is exemplified by his Portrait of Berthe Morisot, one of the finest Impressionist portraits of the French school, which ranks alongside Valentin Serov's sublime Portrait of Isaac Levitan (1893, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Other masterpieces by Manet include: Dejeuner sur L'Herbe (1863), Olympia (1863), Portrait of Emile Zola (1868), Road-Menders in the Rue de Berne (1878) and A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882).

NOTE: For the full story behind Impressionism and the group of young Parisian painters who created it, see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Analysis of Portrait of Berthe Morisot by Edouard Manet

This painting (sometimes known as Berthe Morisot in a black hat or Young woman in a black hat) shows Berthe Morisot dressed in black mourning dress, holding a barely perceptible bouquet of violets. (Note: Manet also included violets in his Woman with a Parrot, 1866). Morisot - whom he had met through Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) - was one of his favourite models, whom he had known since 1868 and with whom he shared a close friendship. Two years after sitting for this portrait she would marry one of his brothers. This picture was one of four portraits that Manet painted of Morisot, whom he also included in his genre painting The Balcony (1868). See also his portrayal of Morisot in Repose (1869-70, Rhode Island Museum of Art).

Manet was especially influenced by Spanish Old Masters such as Velazquez (1599-1660) and Goya (1746-1828) - whose works he copied in the Louvre and also saw in person during a study trip to Spain in 1865 - both of whom were virtuoso handlers of the black colours and tones. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, he depicts Morisot in black hat, black dress and with black eyes (they were in fact green), to highlight her "Spanish" beauty - an attribute mentioned several times since her first appearance in Manet's work in 1869.



Berthe Morisot's black costume and elaborate hat perched high on her head give her something of the look of a Goya figure, while the flattening of forms by the use of black to produce a two-dimensional pattern-like effect on either side of her face is a Japanese convention. But transcending all such references is the face of Berthe herself, looking directly at the viewer, candidly and with a hint of amusement. Her head emerges from the flatness of the black surrounding areas, which in their turn contrast with the light, undifferentiated background.

Unusually for one of Manet's portraits, which are mostly characterized by an even light, Morisot is lit from one side. However, it makes little difference to the overall balance. The dominating element in the composition are her powerful eyes. Not only do they give character to her face, but also they draw the viewer into the composition.

Manet admired Berthe Morisot's painting, and enjoyed a close, if sometimes stormy, friendship with her. Berthe's marriage to Manet's brother Eugene was being discussed at about this time. Madame Morisot was not enthusiastic about the proposed match, considering Eugene to be 'three-quarters mad', but believing that 'It's better to marry and make some sacrifices than remain in a position that is really not one thing or the other.' Berthe was won over and married Eugene Manet in December 1874.

This hypnotic portrait was received with enormous admiration. The writer and art critic Paul Valery (1871-1945) claimed that no work of Manet's was better.

The painting was acquired by the art collector and critic Theodore Duret (1838-1927), before Morisot bought it in 1894, for 5,100 francs. On her death in 1895 she left it to her daughter Julie, who kept it until her own death in 1966, after which it was acquired for the Nation, thanks to funding from the Fonds du Patrimoine, the Meyer Foundation, the China Times Group and the Japanese Nikkei newspaper.

Berthe Morisot

Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (1841-95) - the grand-niece of the celebrated 18th century Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) - was a painter and an artist's model who, along with Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) and Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916), became one of the top women Impressionists. A six-time exhibitor at the official Paris Salon (1864-73), she participated along with Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Claude Monet (1840-1926), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Renoir (1841-1919), and Alfred Sisley (1839-99), at the first of the Impressionist Exhibitions in 1874. Although Edouard Manet is acknowledged to have been the more talented of the two, he also incorporated some of her ideas into his own work, and accepted her advice to take up plein air painting. Furthermore, it was Morisot who drew Manet into the Impressionist circle. In 1874, she married Manet's brother, Eugene (1833-92), with whom she had one daughter, Julie (1878-1966).

Explanation of Other Impressionist Portraits

The Bellelli Family (1858-67) by Degas.
Musee d'Orsay.

Family Reunion (1867) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portraits at the Bourse (1879) by Degas.
Musee d'Orsay.

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) by John Singer Sargent.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Boy in the Red Vest (1889-90) by Cezanne.
EG Buhrle Collection, Zurich

Man Smoking a Pipe (1890-2) by Cezanne.
Hermitage, St Petersburg.


• For analysis of other Impressionist portraits, see: Homepage.

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