A Window into Berthe Morisot’s World

In 1894, Berthe Morisot used her paintbrush to produce a frequent sight, a young girl practicing the violin. In Violin (Julie Manet Playing the Violin in a White Dress), the Impressionist chose to depict her daughter (Julie) plucking the strings of an instrument in their family home. On the surface, this scene illustrates two artists refining their skills, but the painting also speaks to familial ties that are not visible to the naked eye. The choice of oil paint enhances this memory from Morisot’s life, as opposed to capturing this moment with the instantaneous click of a camera. Violin enables the viewer to take a closer look at Julie Manet in two of her roles; as a sitter for a portrait and as a daughter. Additionally, Berthe Morisot places herself in two categories, that of the artist and as a maternal figure, watching her daughter blossom before her very eyes. Julie is the subject of her mother’s portrait and her mother’s affection. 

Violin (Julie Manet Playing the Violin in a White Dress), 1894. 
Photograph by Mary Manfredi from Berthe Morisot:Woman Impressionist Exhibition at Barnes Foundation, 2019.

Berthe Morisot is one of three noteworthy women who dominated the French Impressionist movement in the nineteenth century. Similar to her peers, Morisot fashioned landscapes, portraits, and still lifes with lively brush stokes, bright hues of color, and models posed in unconventional stances. Morisot had one thing male Impressionists did not, however, a woman’s touch. What some may perceive as an unfair gender division became an advantage for this artist. Morisot embraced her maternal instincts to produce evocative scenes involving parents and their children as well as a multitude of female portraits. It is through portraits of her daughter, Julie Manet, that we can really see Morisot’s contribution to Impressionism manifest itself. A close examination of Violin illuminates Morisot’s distinctive style and distinguishes her body of work.

In addition to posing for her mother, Julie sat for family-friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir and her uncle, Édouard Manet. Here, we can see stylistic differences in the portrayal of Julie that ultimately attest to the fact that portraiture is in large part morphed by the artist themselves. In both Renoir and Manet’s portraits of Julie, she appears immobile, sitting for hours on end while the two men capture her image and likeness. The two use props to add to the aesthetic value of the painting, but Julie still appears frozen in time, cognizant of the artist and the easel before her. In Violin, Julie appears comfortable and relaxed, seemingly tuning out her mother’s presence as she practices the violin. This calm composure reverberates itself in other portraits of Julie comprised by Morisot. As Julie got older, her posture in her mother’s paintings appears more relaxed. Violin shows a mature, young woman refining her musical talents. Behind the easel, her mother simultaneously perfects her own artform.

Image on Left: Julie Manet Sitting on a Watering Can (1882) by Edouard Manet. PubHist.
Image on Right: Julie Manet also known as L’enfant au chat (1887) by Pierre Auguste Renoir. Musee d’Orsay.                                                   

The animated state of Violin enhances its discursive nature. With her left hand, Julie balances the violin under her chin. She brings the bow up to meet the instrument with the other. Julie appears serene, devoting her concentration on the whimsical notes situated before her. Her lips, pressed together tightly, further allude to her unwavering absorption into the task at hand. Morisot’s vivid brushstrokes bring this scene to life. She intentionally blurs the space surrounding the subject, so the viewer gravitates towards the bright white dress, and by extension, Julie. The brushstrokes surrounding Julie ripple like water disturbed in a pond. This intimate moment, now becomes filled with movement. The viewer can visualize Julie picking up the instrument and brushing back her hair as she raises the violin to her left shoulder. It is possible that the young musician shuffled through the papers lying before her, because they are in a rumpled state on the music stand. Morisot and Julie may have exchanged words as to what song the artist wanted to hear as she painted her favorite model. In this scene, Morisot produces another artistic rendition of her daughter that also enables the viewer to learn more about the sitter. 

The background surrounding Julie also attests to the familial nature of the painting. Morisot chose to include a painting on the wall that Julie’s music sheets partially obstruct from view. Art historians have identified this work as Portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier (1879) by Édouard Manet, Morisot’s brother-in-law and Julie’s uncle. There is no question that Julie grew up in a world surrounded by art, but to visualize her uncle’s paintings hanging on the wall in her family home speaks to the deep relationship between Morisot and Manet, her colleague and friend.

Portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier (1879) by Édouard Manet. Christies.

Morisot chose to paint Julie in the home, which further blankets this particular piece in another layer of meaning, the theme of domesticity. To Julie’s right, we see another room come into view, but Morisot chose not to paint this room in detail. Instead, she blurred its appearance with her brushstrokes. Morisot followed the stylistic choices employed by the Impressionist Movement by capturing a fleeting moment. Their compositions showed no clear outlines nor unnatural colors. The domestic setting aides the viewer’s imagination by helping them conceptualize Morisot’s home. 

With Violin, Morisot conveyed a private moment to a public audience. The mundane act of her daughter practicing an instrument takes on a whole new meaning through its illustration in oil paint. This medium adds a layer of animacy to the work that makes Julie appear livelier, and full of energy. I chose to include a photograph of the painting, because I think that speaks to the familial nature of the painting. Parents often have pictures of their children scattered around their homes in frames (like the one that encases Violin). With a bit of imagination, we can picture this snapshot of Julie hanging in her mother’s home, or placed on a coffee table. It captures Julie’s youthful glow while also showing her practicing a common hobby. An exhibition of Morisot’s portraits of Julie enables the viewer to watch the young girl grow up before their eyes. Julie grew up in a world of music, art and culture. Thanks to her mother, the viewer glances at a more intimate side of Julie that is not apparent in other portraits. 



Manet, Édouard. Julie Manet Sitting on a Watering Can, 1882. Oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm. Private collection. https://www.pubhist.com/w11320. 

Manet, Édouard. Portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier, 1879. Oil on canvas. Private collection. https://www.christies.com/imp_mod_sites/m od_feb02_ks/specialist.asp?article=2#top

Morisot, Berthe. Violin (Julie Manet Playing the Violin in a White Dress), 1894. Oil on canvas, Private collection. Exhibited at Barnes Foundation – Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, October 21, 2018-January 14, 2019. 

Renoir, Pierre Auguste. Julie Manet also known as L’enfant au chat, 1887. Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm. Musée d’Orsay. https://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search /commentaire/ commentaire_id/julie-manet-9742.html?no_cache=1

Textual Sources: 

Cramer, Dr. Charles and Dr. Kim Grant, “What does “Impressionism” mean?,” in Smarthistory, December 3, 2018, accessed August, 8 2020. https://smarthistory.org/what-does-impressionism-mean/ 

Stuckey, Charles F. and William P. Scott. Berthe Morisot: Impressionist. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1987.

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