By Sally Holland
Berthe Morisot had only a few more hours left if she were going to finish her painting before the deadline for the Salon of 1870.
On the canvas, her sister Edma sat on the left wearing a white dress with long sleeves and a high neckline. Her brown hair defined the slope of her shoulder against the background. Their mother, on the right, was all in black. Both had pleasant countenances as they sat on their elegant settee and looked down toward a book in the older woman’s hands. The scene was lightened by bits of color in the blue bow in Edma’s hair, the lilacs in a vase on the table, and hints of red in a pillow. To a less discriminating eye, the representation looked complete, yet the artist remained unsatisfied.
Canvases at various stages of completion leaned haphazardly against the walls and on easels in the studio. A fire in the stove took the edge off the chill of early spring although it was not enough to warm Berthe’s hands. Her fingers were cold. Only painting could warm them.
Her dark hair was pulled back from her face except for a few escaped tendrils. She wore one of her older dresses under an artist’s smock although she hadn’t actually worked with wet paint in hours.
She studied her composition, the hues, and the brushstrokes.
Berthe had begun working on the painting a year earlier when Edma had come to visit their home in Passy during her confinement for her first born. Both Edma and her mother had been more than pleased to sit for Berthe and Berthe loved spending her days with them. In the painting, Edma had the rosy cheeks and the warmth of a woman with child. She possessed the softness of youth, while their mother had the serious expression of maturity.
Perhaps that was the problem, Berthe thought. Perhaps her mother looked too stern. Or was Edma too delicate?
Berthe had been going around and around all day with such questions. Sometimes the likeness of her mother seemed too grave. A few moments later, she was too stern. Sometimes Edma looked too serious, then too kind, or too solemn. Berthe would then think that perhaps the wrinkles in their dresses fell awkwardly, and the table to their left was either too large or too small.
If she could just figure out the problem, Berthe felt sure that she could fix it–she had confidence in her skill with a brush.
The sound of laughter outside drew Berthe’s attention. Her mother and Edouard were making their way to her studio, and Berthe was relieved to hear them. Edouard had said he would come by as soon as his own paintings had been shipped off to the jury. He knew she was struggling and had offered to help.
“Berthe, look who’s come to visit,” her mother said as she opened the door. “Monsieur Manet will certainly know how to fix your problems.”
“Yes,” Berthe held out her hand to him. “Edouard is a master.”
He removed his hat, took her hand and gave a small bow.
“I will attempt to live up to such high praise,” he said. “I am happy to offer my opinion.”
“I think her painting is fine,” said her mother. “But she continues to fuss over it.”
Berthe gestured toward the painting. “Something is not right, and I cannot quite define it. Hopefully your eyes can find my flaws.”
Monsieur Manet stepped directly in front of the canvas. His presence made her studio seem small. Lithe and muscular in his formal attire, his self-assurance as he studied her painting made her feel it was even more inadequate.
Berthe removed her smock and pushed a stray lock of hair out of her face. She wondered if she had any paint smudges on her cheeks then realized it was unlikely, since she hadn’t put brush to canvas all day.
“It is good,” said Manet. “Very good.”
Berthe let go a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding.
“If I were going to criticize anything,” he said. “It would be your mother.”
She heard her mother gasp. Monsieur Manet’s eyes sparkled. A flash of teeth appeared between his mustache and beard.
“Perhaps I should rephrase,” he said. “The criticism is of your mother’s dress. Something in the hem and the way the fabric falls is not quite right. A quick fix, and your painting is sure to be accepted by the jury. Let me show you.”
As he spoke, he picked up her palette. The paints on it being long dried, he added some blacks and white to it.
“You are lucky I have time to help you,” he said. “Just within the past hour I have shipped my entries. I think the jury will be pleased with what I have sent.”
He sounded confident but Berthe knew that confidence could be short-lived. Manet’s experiences with the jury had been rough at best. His offering several years earlier to the Salon of 1863 had met with a solid rejection. The jury found the clothed men lunching with the unclothed women of “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” to be lacking in unity. The painting’s rejection by the Salon had prompted Napoleon III to create the Salon do Réfuses for that and other paintings that didn’t meet the Salon’s strict standards.
Their objections had centered Manet’s use of nudity in a modern setting. Whatever they had thought of his composition, the critics had not questioned his brushwork. Although it niggled at her, Berthe decided not to object to him touching up her mother’s skirt.
“Monsieur Degas is talking of going to America,” Manet said conversationally. He had begun to work on the hemline of the dress. Berthe watched him closely.
“Monsieur Degas struggles not to be rude,” said her mother. “I wonder that he will offend all he meets on his travels.”
“Mama…” Berthe began.
“You know I am right,” her mother said. “It is easy to see why he has not found a wife.”
Monsieur Manet chuckled. His brush travelled farther up the skirt than Berthe would have liked.
Her mother continued, “I don’t know why any woman would want a husband who spends so much time studying the arms and legs of young ballet dancers.”
Berthe’s mother always wore long sleeves, long skirts and necklines that came up to her neck. She had made it clear many times before that she believed it to be scandalous for a man to paint the uncovered limbs and flimsy costumes of ballet dancers.
“I don’t think that the dancers are the reason that Monsieur Degas has not married,” said Manet.
He had touched up the painting from the hem to the waistline of the black skirt. Taking a step back, he gave his work a final approval with a slight nod. He handed the brush and the palette to Berthe.
“See what I have done,” he said. “The skirt now hangs more naturally.”
Berthe studied his work. She was undecided as to whether it was an improvement.
“Now,” he said taking the palette and brush back from her. “We could do the same with the bodice.”
“I don’t think…” Berthe began.
“You don’t think Monsieur Degas is rude?” said her mother persisted. “I find his jokes to be harsh and not funny.”
Monsieur Manet’s good spirits continued as he touched up the bodice. “I agree that he can be a little hard sometimes, but he is a good man at heart.”
“Then why has he not found a wife?”
“He believes that to give himself to a woman would take him away from his art. He believes that the best painting happens without distraction.” He smiled at her mother. “Beautiful women can be very distracting.”
As he touched up her painting, Berthe felt it slipping away from her. She reached out to try to gently take the palette from him. He did not notice. He moved to another area of the dress and began to add more accents.
“Oh, you tease me,” her mother said with a giggle that drew his attention.
“When you laugh, your features soften. I find your countenance to be too stern in this painting.”
He studied her face on the canvas.
“It’s getting late,” said Berthe. “If I’m going to have the painting delivered before the deadline, it needs to be finished. We don’t have time.”
“Nonsense,” said her mother. “We have plenty of time.”
“I must agree with your mother on this,” said Manet. “The jury will like the painting more if we do a little work on her face.”
Monsieur Manet added some flesh tones to the palette.
“A few well-placed strokes and your painting will be perfect,” he said.
Her mother put a hand on Berthe’s arm. “Don’t you want to see how Monsieur Manet can make me look softer?”
Berthe shook her head but Manet was already looking at the canvas.
“See, Berthe,” said Manet. “Five strokes and it will change her whole countenance. Here and here.”
He added some tone to her forehead and near her temple.
“Here…here…and here. Violå!”
The woman on the canvas was still clearly her mother yet he had softened her features with his firm strokes. Although Berthe’s brushstrokes were lighter, his firmer ones had changed the look entirely. To Berthe, his style on top of hers seemed incompatible.
“You’re painting is complete!” he declared proudly. “The jury will not be able to turn it down.”
“Excellent!” her mother exclaimed. “It is ready to be delivered and Berthe can put her worries aside.”
Berthe tried to find words of thanks but they didn’t come. The painting of her mother and her sister had become distant from her.
“You are still unhappy with the painting?” Manet asked upon seeing her face. He turned back to the canvas, the palette still in his hand.
“It’s just that I…it doesn’t look like I…” She tried to put her thoughts into words, yet to criticize an artist of Manet’s stature did not come easy.
“It’s the background, isn’t it?” he said. “It looks unbalanced. I will put some a few accents into this painting in the painting here on the side and that will balance it out. An easy correction.”
“The painting in the painting,” Berthe’s mother repeated laughing. “Have you ever thought to do a painting in a painting in a painting?”
“That would indeed be a challenge,” Manet said. He added more paint to the canvas.
Berthe just wanted him to stop.
“That is enough,” she said firmly.
Manet stepped back to look at the whole canvas.
“I believe you are right,” he said. “We have created the prettiest caricature ever seen!”
“It is exquisite!” her mother said.
“It is done,” said Berthe.
Manet continued to chat with her mother while Berthe stared at the canvas. His bold strokes seemed to trample over her lighter ones and she felt disheartened.
She knew what she would do. When he left, she would pick up her brush and reclaim her painting. She would bring it back to her original vision. And if she couldn’t, if she failed, she would not give it to the jury. She would tell Edouard that she had sent it in but it had been rejected. He would never know the difference.
“Have you arranged for the carter to pick up the painting?” Manet asked.
“Yes,” said Berthe. “A man is supposed to be here at five.”
Manet took out his pocket watch to check the time. “It is nearly five now. We should give the paint a few minutes more to dry and then I can help you pack it.”
“Edouard, you have been so kind to help me out this afternoon,” Berthe said. “I hesitate to ask more of you. Mother and I can get the painting ready for transport.”
“I came to help, and help I will,” Manet smiled kindly at her.
Before she knew it, the paint had dried and the painting had been removed from her possession–shipped off to the jury where it would be judged as hers.
Monsieur Manet took his leave amidst words of appreciation and accolades from her mother. Berthe managed to say a thank you of her own. She tried to make it sound heartfelt.
He strolled away down the street with his back straight and confidence in his step.
“Such a gracious man,” her mother said.
“He took my painting and altered it such that it was more his than mine.” Berthe could feel the tears welling up in her eyes.
“He made my face look better,” her mother laughed. “I think you might be a little jealous of his talent.”
“Jealous?” Berthe said.
“My dear, he is a great artist–you have said so yourself many times. You can learn from him.” She disappeared into their home.
Berthe watched as Monsieur Manet disappeared from sight. He was a great artist. Her mother was right in that she could learn a great deal from him.
Yet she felt so wretched that she could only hope that the Salon jury rejected her painting.
Author’s note: This is historical fiction which means that although Berthe Morisot included in her letters a description of this incident, we have no way to know what was actually said or the details of how the incident occurred. Those details, I made up.
The painting in question, now hangs at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. In that same room, is a painting by Mary Cassatt of a child sprawled out on a blue sofa. It is a similar story to the one above in that Edgar Degas worked with Cassatt on the background of the blue sofa painting. The difference is that Cassatt was not upset by Degas’ suggestions.