The Impressionist Movement began in France during the 1870s. It was started by a group of artists when they rejected the institution of art and it’s traditions, and set out questioning how to appropriately paint modern life. They began to paint everyday things that were right in front of them, without models or in a studio. Most of their works were of the city, landscapes, and middle class people engaged in regular activities. Impressionistic paintings were usually done in quick strokes with little detail, evoking the sense of a passing, normal moment in time. This style mixed with everyday scenes, makes the impressionistic paintings appear as a simple, regular moment seen in a person’s life.
Included in this well-known group was Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Berthe Morisot. Berthe Morisot was the only female in this close knit group and was highly regarded for her technique and way she portrayed light in her paintings. Her works were mostly of middle and upper class women engaged in activities from daily life. These were all things that she, as a women in that time, had the most access to; reflecting the goals of impressionism from her own perspective. Many art critics praised her work and noted that as a woman, she brought a unique and different style than her male colleagues. Morisot also challenged the way women were traditionally portrayed through art history and by her male colleagues as well. Though these differences are very subtle, and were not necessarily done on purpose, there are slight differences in their rendering of women, that gives a small window into how women were viewed during the late 19th century.
Young Woman Knitting, Berthe Morisot, 1883, oil on canvas, 67.187.89
Berthe Morisot is considered one of the significant founders of the Impressionism Movement and worked along side as friends with several well-known artists from the movement. This painting is a wonderful example of the types of impressionist paintings Berthe Morisot did and the way she portrayed modern life as she saw it. She painted middle and upper class women engaged in a normal activity, such as knitting, which is depicted in this painting. Through her work, she challenged the way women were depicted and often sexualized in art. In this work she counters past views by depicting a woman, sitting outside, knitting, not in a subtly seductive or suggestive way. It simply is just a woman who is knitting; a normal life scene to see in that time.
Summer’s Day, Berthe Morisot, 1879, oil on canvas, National Gallery
Summer’s Day is another example of Berthe Morisot’s style and how she portrays modern life. In this oil painting, she subtly challenges the typical way women were portrayed in that both figures depicted are women. Often in similar paintings, it is a man with a woman, instead of a pair of female friends engaged in a normal leisure activity. The woman are also not being sensual in the least or portrayed as existing solely for men. Rather in Morisot’s painting, two women sit outside enjoying the water, unconstrained by the company of a man.
Boating, Edouard Manet, 1874, oil on canvas, 29.100.115
Edouard Manet’s oil painting is a great example of an impressionist piece, depicting the leisure of boating in modern life. This painting was displayed in the Salon of 1879 and also depicts how women were viewed and treated by men in the late 1800s. The woman in this painting is pushed off to the side of the canvas and her blue dress blends in with the water background. The man, dressed in all white, is more distinct, drawing the viewer's eye directly to him first. His stance is very manly and controlling as he steers the boat. The woman with him is depicted simply as a passenger in his boat, reflecting the view of women as merely passengers in a man’s world for their enjoyment and needs.
The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage”, Edgar Degas, 1874, mixed media, 29.160.26
Edgar Degas is known for his paintings of the lower class working women. He mostly featured dancers, washerwoman, and prostitutes; all considered at the time apart of the lower class. In this painting, he depicts a scene from modern life of ballet dancers rehearsing. Although, probably unintentional, Degas similarly depicts how women were viewed and treated by men in that time. To the very middle right of the painting, two men sit, watching the dancers rehearse. The reclining, slouchy position of the man with the hands in his pockets, has the sense that they, the men, are in control over women, and that women exist solely for their own personal enjoyment and satisfaction. Degas probably wasn’t purposely trying to depict these things, but they come out in the painting subtlety, reflecting the common views of women in the late 19th century.
Young Girl Bathing, Auguste Renoir, 1892, oil on canvas, 1975.1.199
Renoir did several paintings of women bathing outside. In this painting especially, the viewer seems to feel as if we just caught a glimpse of something we shouldn’t have seen, making her more naked than nude. The girl’s arm is covering her private parts, while also calling attention to it. This painting has been described as “innocent yet sensual”, as she innocently covers herself and wasn’t suppose to be seen while she was bathing. While at the same time, in covering herself, she draws attention to herself; making her very sensual. However, this wasn’t uncommon and unique to Renoir. This idea is seen throughout art history, and was simply a normal part of painting women, such as the recurring theme of Venus. Though, subtle and perhaps unintentional, Renoir’s depiction of a woman is in the light of her as a sexual and sensual being.