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 Mode.vi 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.