On 15 April 1874, a sensational exhibition sparked outrage in Paris. Thirty artists branding themselves the Indépendantes had joined forces against the capital’s official art show, the Paris Salon. With their loosely painted ‘impressions’ of modern life, their canvases flouted the conservative standards enforced at the Salon. To crown it all, there was ‘also a woman in the group’, exclaimed the journalist Albert Wolff. The exhibition shocked the public, provoked the critics and dominated Parisian conversation that spring. It also changed history.
Nearly 150 years later, the Impressionists (as the group became known) still hold audiences enthralled. And although the male Impressionists have dominated the cultural scene, the women remain a source of particular curiosity – for in espousing Impressionism, their behaviour was doubly controversial. Not only did it subvert 19th-century artistic conventions; it also set them at odds with everything a woman was supposed to be.
Now, for the first time ever in a mainstream biography, The Women Impressionists gives these female painters a voice. It proposes an unprecedented group portrait of the four most prominent female Impressionists: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond.
Through chronicling the lives and loves, the trials and tribulations, of these four talented and revolutionary women, The Women Impressionists presents readers with a revelatory perspective on Impressionism. The biography traces the women’s concurrent journeys along the perilous path of the male-dominated 19th-century Paris art world. It explores what it meant to be a little girl growing up in the 1840s and living through the Revolution of 1848, before comparing the women’s artistic training (both with each other and with their male counterparts). The book unpicks the implications of Eva, Marie, Mary and Berthe’s commitment to a career at a time when ‘nice girls’ were expected to restrict their ambitions to keeping house and reproducing. It exposes their most intimate feelings and anxieties at showing their work in public and uncovers how they overcame personal challenges. Certain of the difficulties encountered illuminate a specific moment in history – living through the Franco-Prussian War, for example. But as it delves shamelessly into the women’s private lives, the book also pinpoints some very familiar personal problems, ones which the 21st-century reader will relate to – concerns such as finding a potential spouse, struggling to forge (then maintain) a career, juggling work and family life, insecurities over personal appearance and the stress of disguising an eating disorder. Besides offering a fresh angle on Impressionism, the women’s lives become a window onto the female condition, as the book dares to pose the questions other studies have failed to ask: how did a woman deal with her monthly period in the 19th century? What could she do to sustain her professional profile during pregnancy at a time when childbearing was widely read as proof of female inferiority? If her work demanded a face-to-face meeting, how could she present herself well in an era where new clothes were costly and make up considered vulgar?
The women’s collective tale is full of dramatic twists and turns – from Eva Gonzalès’s exhilaration at being accepted as the only pupil of the great Édouard Manet, to her tragic death in childbirth aged just 34; or when yet another terrifying row at home drove Marie Bracquemond to choose between her jealous husband and the career she so loved; or equally when Mary Cassatt defiantly told her parents that she would never marry and intended to emigrate to France; then when Berthe Morisot empowered women artists everywhere by appearing as the only female at the First Impressionist Exhibition, all the while privately nursing her anxiety over her ability to become a mother. The tensions, the passions and the rivalry (Berthe Morisot once proclaimed Gonzalès’s work to be ‘passable but nothing more’) are virtually palpable.
Founded on rigorous research, The Women Impressionists interweaves these four, interconnecting stories to present a narrative which is as gripping as a work of fiction. Through diaries, letters and 19th-century newspaper reviews, readers will come to know recognised names like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt even more intimately, while the less familiar figures of Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond are coaxed out of the shadows. Guiding the reader on a riveting historical and emotional journey, in a tale constellated by famous artistic faces (including Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas) and lavishly illustrated, this biography will transform the way readers perceive the role women played within Impressionism. It shows that Morisot, Cassatt, Gonzalès and Bracquemond were far more than just women painters; together, they emerge as powerful feminine icons and a dynamic force behind Impressionism.
Catherine Hewitt has had a long career in academia, with a special interest in 19th-century French art, literature and social history.
Having been awarded a first-class honours degree in BA French from Royal Holloway, University of London, she went on to attend the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art where she took a Masters in the History of 19th-Century French Art and was awarded a distinction. In 2012, she completed her PhD on The Formation of the Family in 19th-Century French Literature and Art, with joint supervision from Royal Holloway and the Courtauld Institute. Throughout her a...
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