The Art and Opinions of Heidi Celeghin, Aesthete

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Fashion in Morisot’s On The Balcony, Part III

Read PART I.



Though numerous aspects of Morisot’s work are revolutionary in their rejection of earlier artistic traditions, her paintings still conform to the social norms set on women as illustrated through her appropriation of the settings used in fashion plates.  By incorporating compositional and thematic elements of fashion plates into her paintings, Morisot’s paintings adopt the same attitude as fashion illustrations where women are associated with a suburban, upper-class lifestyle.i  Morisot situates On the Balcony in Passy, where women adhered to strict rules regarding social conduct,ii and positions her figures within the domestic bourgeois role of mother and child in a promenade.iii  On the Balcony and fashion illustrations, by focusing on women in domestic settings, construct a world where Parisian social life centered on the home.iv  Morisot’s placement of her figures within the confines of Passy’s social rules emphasizes the extent to which she was informed by the socio-cultural setting that created fashion plates.v

Morisot’s adherence to society’s expectations of women extends beyond her inspiration from fashion plates’ settings to the positioning of the woman in On the Balcony in relation to the picture plane.  Although nineteenth-century French society relegated upper-class women to the suburbs and the activities that Anne Higonnet terms the “feminine ritual”,vi women that worked within this system rose to positions of power, which is why Morisot did not need to join the budding feminist movement of the 1870s.vii  Therefore, Morisot’s paintings do not criticize the situation of women at the time.  Griselda Pollock argues that the women in Mary Cassatt’s Lydia at the Theatre and The Loge are at an angle with the picture plane and are not contained within the edges of the canvas, consequently not being made part of a framed spectacle for the viewer.viii  Conversely, the woman in On the Balcony, reminiscent of the women in fashion plates, remains within the confines of the canvas and does not challenge her role as an object of the gaze.  Like the women in fashion plates, Morisot’s woman and child are not active but immersed in observation, ignoring the spectators yet allowing themselves to become the visual spectacle.ix

In addition to the compositional placement of the woman in On the Balcony, Morisot does not deviate from societal norms and the dictates of fashion plates in terms of the clothing worn by the woman in her painting.  Morisot paints “ladies”, who are beautiful yet introverted and reputable, not the sensual “fallen women” of the Paris nightlife.x  The proper woman, according to both men and women in nineteenth-century France, was conservatively dressed and in a domestic location.xi  The woman in On the Balcony, following this societal model often illustrated in fashion plates, is attractive and fashionable though respectably and modestly clothed, ultimately not highlighting her sexual attractiveness.xii  Through this painting, Morisot conforms to her social sphere in Passy and perpetuates the image of the “proper woman” as respectable and maternal.

Morisot’s paintings, exemplified by On the Balcony, are informed by both fashion illustrations of nineteenth-century France and the society that created them.  Morisot appropriates the composition, setting, and attitude of the fashion plate intoOn the Balcony to create a painting imbued with the fleeting nature of modernity.  Her careful attention to the clothes of the mother and child in the painting emphasize Baudelaire’s equation of fashion to la vie moderne.  Fashion plates often displayed beautiful, serene backgrounds of the Paris cityscape similar to the background in On the Balcony where Morisot erases the scars left byParis’ violent revolution and provides a socio-political model for peace.  Morisot rebels against past artistic tradition through her adoption of the flat-patterned surface and arrangement of figures from fashion illustrations, combined with her fragmented brushstroke.  Her brushstroke, the detailed background, and the balcony’s fence highlight the flatness of the canvas.  Although Morisot challenged artistic traditions, she remained well within the bounds of her social setting and expectations as an upper-class woman in the nineteenth century.  Much like those in fashion plates, the figures in her painting are respectably dressed and in a domestic setting, upholding the commonly held views regarding the “proper lady” at the time.


i.  Higonnet, 106.

ii.  Adler, 37.

iii.  Schirrmeister, 108.

iv.  Schirrmeister, 104.

v.  Higonnet, 106.

vi.  Higonnet, 108.

vii.  Adler, 38.

viii.  Pollock, 79.

ix.  Higonnet, 111-112.

x.  Pollock, 79.

xi.  Higonnet, 65.

xii.  Schirrmeister, 104.


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Fashion in Morisot’s On The Balcony, Part II

Read PART I.


Morisot’s incorporation of fashion into her paintings goes beyond that of Monet and other Impressionists; fashion plates informed Morisot’s work as can be seen through her choice of On the Balcony’s background and setting.  Baudelaire wrote about the importance of the fashion plate as a record of changing fashions and as a snapshot in time.i  Fashion provided illustrated examples of the good qualities of modernity and a world where all was ii which is a possible reason for Morisot’s affinity to them.  France had recently emerged from a very chaotic period of violence and upheaval.  During the events caused by the Commune in 1871, the suburb of Passy became a place surrounded by pandemonium.  By mimicking fashion plates, Morisot eliminates images of the scarred Paris of the Commune from the background of On the Balcony, instead painting organized peace and ignoring a traumatic past.iii  Furthermore, in both the fashion illustrations and Morisot’s On the Balcony, the erasing of Paris’ violent past provides a social and political model where the violence of revolution is frowned upon and idyllic peace and order are upheld.iv  In terms of setting, balconies are often used in fashion illustrations, principally to highlight the magazines’ modern upper-class audience.  The new apartments being built in the Parisian boulevards by Baron Haussmann boasted balconies.  Consequently, the balcony, in both fashion plates and Morisot’sOn the Balcony, becomes a symbol for the modern and bourgeois.v

Not only does Morisot integrate common fashion illustration backgrounds and settings into her paintings, but also compositionally arranges her figures in On the Balcony according to those in nineteenth-century fashion plates.  The overall orientation of the woman and child are similar to a fashion illustration published in an 1871 edition of the Moniteur de la Mode where a woman and girl, viewed from behind, stand side by side.  Some of the details, however, such as the inclusion of a balcony and the woman’s face in profile are similar to an 1870 edition of theMoniteur de la  Fashion plates of the nineteenth century tended to emphasize the back or silhouette of dresses because of the emergence of the bustle.vii  The woman in On the Balcony, though not donning a colorful dress with a pattern, still has an ornate and fashionable layered dress.  The child’s clothes are also fashionable and modern, the typical clothing worn by children outdoors.viii  This composition, in the manner of fashion plates, also delineates three separate spheres: items, figures, and backgrounds.  Morisot’s use of this compositional technique makes the figures very distant, characterizing the modern woman as having a mask obfuscating her private life.ix

Morisot rejects past artistic traditions through both her fragmented brushstrokes and her inspiration from fashion plates’ emphasis on the flat picture plane.  As a group, the Impressionists rebuffed traditional academic training and did not paint large history paintings, instead opting for smaller images usually displayed in upper-class homes.  Morisot, who as a woman was barred from l’École des Beaux Arts, could easily align herself with her male counterparts in terms of technique and subject matter.x  Her brushstroke is comprised of taches of unblended colors that were, in the opinion of the Salon, unfinished and unrefined.  Salon jury members sought rich, clear, blended colors used to depict realistic figures in a pseudo-three-dimensional image.  Her active brushstrokes emphasize the rift between the two-dimensional canvas and the three-dimensional scene in On the Balcony.xi  The pattern-like balcony railing and the buildings in the cityscape make the painting appear very flat.  For example, the silhouette of buildings in the background, especially the golden dome of the Panthéon, call attention to the cityscape, pushing it forward, and ultimately highlighting the flatness of the canvas.  This emphasis of a flat surface is very common in fashion plates, where the figures are significantly more important than the background.

The figures in Morisot’s paintings, similar to those of fashion illustrations, coupled with her fragmented brushstroke also serve to reject past artistic traditions.  Morisot’s women, just like those in fashion plates, are centered, very large in the picture plane, and offer an excellent view of their clothing.xii  The broken brushstroke Morisot applies to create her figures in On the Balcony makes them devoid of distinguishable, clear features and consequently, they become the “generic women” depicted in fashion plates.  The conflict between the illusion of three-dimensional space and the flatness of the canvas becomes even more apparent because Morisot has emphasized the volume of the figures through careful shading and modeling.xiii  By painting the child from the back, Morisot challenged the traditions of portraiture where artists painted figures from the front.  Morisot wanted to produce innocent, child-like paintings with a daring, yet delicate style justified by her inclusion of the distracted girl.xiv


i.  Schirrmeister, 104.

ii.  Schirrmeister, 105.

iii.  Adler, 40.

iv.  Morisot extends the social and political model of her painting through the figures.  Both the idealistic Paris landscape and the figures serve to highlight the romantic ideals of the revolution (liberté, égalité, et fraternité).  The figures in her painting have an ambiguous relationship stemming from the puzzling emotional distance between the woman and child.  Anne Higonnet in Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women briefly discusses that Morisot uses fashion to democratize her figures, therefore emulating the ideals of the revolution.

v.  Schirrmeister, 106.

vi.  Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 117-118.

vii.  Schirrmeister, 105.

viii.  Schirrmeister, 107-108.

ix.  Higonnet, 110.

x.  Therese Dolan, review of Berthe Morisot, by Anne Higonnet, Woman’s Art Journal 15.2 (1994-1995), 42.

xi.  Edelstein, 34.

xii.  Higonnet, 111.

xiii.  Higonnet, 110.

xiv.  Charles F. Stuckey, Berthe Morisot, Impressionist (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1987), 45.

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Work at AAF Hong Kong!

If you happen to be in Hong Kong, please go check out some of my paintings and the other great work at the Affordable Art Fair it is on from March 15 to March 17. I am being represented by Forest Rain Gallery and there are several other galleries at the fair. The fair opens at noon on Friday and Saturday and at 11 AM on Sunday.

Red Panda


Fashion in Morisot’s On The Balcony

Note: This is the first of a few posts on Berthe Morisot’s painting On the Balcony. I believe that art history is just as important as the creation of art and would like my blog to include the occasional art history post. This was originally posted on my official blog.


 As a woman, Berthe Morisot was denied the possibilities of painting every facet of Parisian social life and consequently, painted the sheltered world of the upper-class lady.i  Morisot’s paintings of women and children in French suburbs illustrate her conformity to the social expectations of women at the time in that they propagate the image of respectable women, a haute bourgeois lifestyle, and women’s primary role as mothers.  These domestic subjects seem to veer away from modernity and therefore, Morisot capitalizes on Baudelaire’s equation of la vie moderne with fashion by employing women’s fashion to evoke modernity.  Morisot’s work shares many similarities with fashion illustrations of the nineteenth century including composition, background, the interplay of patterns on a flat surface, and the focus on upper-class, suburban domestic life.  The 1871-72 oil painting On the Balconywhich illustrates a haute bourgeois woman with a child, stands as an example of Morisot’s extensive appropriation of the aforementioned aspects of the fashion plate as a symbol for modern life, a rebuff of past artistic traditions, and a conformity to the social norms set on nineteenth-century women.


Morisot’s paintings of women in suburbs, as seen in On the Balcony, exemplify modernity’s fleeting and ephemeral nature.  Morisot lived and painted in the suburb of Passy which was removed from Paris, the city that was to be considered the center of modern life in nineteenth-century France.ii  On the Balcony depicts Passy, for Morisot painted it in her home in the Rue Franklin.iii  Baudelaire wrote that the artist had to portray modern life and Morisot chose primarily to portray modernity through fashion.  Morisot’s paintings represent the “ebb and flow”, as described by Baudelaire, of the lives of women and children in the suburbs.iv

Not only does Morisot illustrate the transience of modernity through the setting ofOn the Balcony, but also through the clothing of the figures.  The woman’s dress inOn the Balcony is fashionable and upper class, but is also suitable for domestic life.  With industrialization and the mass production of clothing, social divisions began to blur because poorer people were able to purchase fashionable dresses made of less expensive materials.  This situation in fashion, known as the “trickle-down” theory,v was an integral part of modern life and was explored by several Impressionists including Claude Monet in his painting Women in the Garden.  Both Monet and Morisot paint fashion in order to convey an impression of change and flux because fashion, like modernity, changes constantly.  By painting his companion and model Camille Doncieux wearing fashionable dresses in Women in the Garden, Monet underlines the new role of industrialization in the fashion industry.  He paints a poorer social stratum but, referencing the trickle-down theory, still illustrates fashionable dresses.  Though Morisot tended to paint fairly wealthy women, the woman in On the Balcony is socially unidentifiable.  Her clothes appear to be sumptuous but, due to Morisot’s indistinct brushstrokes, they could easily be clothes made for lower class women.


i.  Griselda Pollock, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 1998), 79-81.

ii.  Teri J. Edelstein, “Introduction,” in Perspectives on Morisot, ed. Teri J. Edelstein (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), 33.

iii.  Kathleen Adler, “The Spaces of Everyday Life: Berthe Morisot and Passy,” inPerspectives on Morisot, ed. Teri J. Edelstein (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), 40.

iv.  Adler, 38.

v.  Anne Schirrmeister, “La Dernière Mode: Berthe Morisot and Costume,” in Perspectives on Morisot, ed. Teri J. Edelstein (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), 104.