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.