Books: Impressionist women and Impressionists’ women

New works on a quartet of women painters and the wives and models of three of the men


Women Impressionists and Hidden in the Shadow of the Master are worthy additions to the growing literature on the role of women in avant-garde art in France during the second half of the 19th century. At the same time the notable differences between these two books reveal the diversity of approaches that now exists within the subject.

Of the two, Women Impressionists is the more traditional in scope and format having been published in connection with an exhibition that was first shown at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, and is now at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor (until 21 September). It is no surprise that the exhibition is centred on Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond and amounts in reality to “four retrospectives rolled into one”. Particularly welcome is the attention paid to the relatively unknown Gonzalès and Bracquemond who have been generally less well served in terms of scholarship than Morisot and Cassatt. Regrettably Gonzalès died young and Bracquemond retired early from the fray. Apart from their paintings, the exhibition includes some superb pastels by Gonzalès and some equally impressive drawings by Bracquemond, as well as examples of her watercolours and decorated ceramics. The extended representation of work by these two artists allows for a more balanced assessment of their contribution to Impressionism to be made.

The excellent essays in Women Impressionists deal with general issues to do with being a female artist in Paris from the middle of the 19th century onwards, covering such aspects as training, official recognition, critical reception and assumed gender distinctions in stylistic analysis or treatment of subject matter. There are also detailed essays on the individual artists, notably a brilliantly perceptive and sympathetic piece on the evolution of Morisot’s style by Sylvie Patry and a rigorous but wonderfully stimulating examination of Cassatt’s engagement with the human figure by Griselda Pollock based on formal analysis, stylistic considerations and psychological interpretation.

Dr Pollock writes that “Cassatt’s sense of human time, the time of a life, lived across its different moments, each shaped by interior changes and social demands, by emerging consciousness and cultural regulation, informs the whole of her oeuvre and gives sense to the pattern of choices of what she painted and when.” This is exactly right.

Jean-Paul Bouillon’s account of Bracquemond is characteristically well-informed and revealing on tensions in family life. Linda Nochlin’s contribution on “Morisot’s Wet Nurse” is reprinted from her volume of essays Women, Art and Power of 1988, but counteracting this is the publication of seven unpublished letters from Cassatt to Morisot presented by Hugues Wilhelm. The biographies of the artists are illustrated with contemporary photographs.

Ruth Butler’s Hidden in the Shadow of the Master is of a different order and is in essence an exercise in parallel lives. Subtitled The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin, the author traces the lives of Hortense Fiquet, Camille Doncieux and Rose Beuret and considers the part each played in the development of artists who are widely acknowledged as having laid the foundations of modern art. Dr Butler uses both works of art and contemporary literature to draw attention to the plight of women and their changing identities while caught up in the social flux of late 19th-century France, moving from model through muse, single mother, wife, to early death or lonely widowhood. All experienced poverty and hardship “in a time when most women had little power to determine their own lives” and against a background where “art always came first”.

Cynically, Hidden in the Shadow of the Master could easily be dismissed as just another reworking of the history of impressionism, but this is in fact a subtle, carefully crafted and beautifully modulated book reaching a searing climax in the section on the relationship between Rodin and Beuret. Since the author is an authority on Rodin this might be expected, but she also writes with feeling and insight about the portraits of Fiquet and Doncieux. Bravely Dr Butler admits that owing to a paucity of documentation, the “story I tell depends both on fact and on imagination”, but this combination, which involves a personal dimension, is adroitly handled and the final effect is strangely moving. A comparison with Janet Malcolm on Chekhov or Robert Dessaix on Turgenev is justified.