Skip to main content

Femininity versus Feminism in 19th century Impressionism

From a postcard of "Woman with a Muff" ("Hiver") by Berthe Morisot, 1880, oil on canvas, The Dallas Museum of Art. Photographer: unknown.

From a postcard of "Woman with a Muff" ("Hiver") by Berthe Morisot, 1880, oil on canvas, The Dallas Museum of Art. Photographer: unknown.

"Self-Portrait," by Berthe Morisot, 1885, oil on canvas, private collection.

"Self-Portrait," by Berthe Morisot, 1885, oil on canvas, private collection.

"In the Loge," by Mary Cassatt, 1879, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

"In the Loge," by Mary Cassatt, 1879, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

"Self-Portrait," by Mary Cassatt, 1878, gouche on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

"Self-Portrait," by Mary Cassatt, 1878, gouche on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

"Girl Arranging Her Hair," by Mary Cassatt, 1886, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

"Girl Arranging Her Hair," by Mary Cassatt, 1886, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The art of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt

At a time when it was considered unthinkable for women to enter into a profession and normal for them to aspire simply to marriage and having children, the French Berthe Morisot and the American Mary Cassatt overcame the prejudices of the male-dominated era and established themselves as serious artists. Despite their obvious similarities--women who painted women--they represented the "female" in very different ways. Morisot focused on the intimacy of femininity and Cassatt accentuated the independence of the newly emerging liberated woman, a sentiment that reached a crescendo with the suffragette movement of the early 20th century and which today we call feminism.

Berthe Morisot was labeled by art critics and her intimates alike as a very "feminine" painter, meaning probably that they saw a likeness in her painting to what they were used to seeing around them every day. It was not only men, however, who used this term, as her daughter, Julie Manet, described her mother's work as " feminine and which maintains itself so well." Later in 1936, the art historian, Madeleine Benoust, said that she was "an exquisitely feminine creature, whose life cannot be told: she appeared, she felt, she passed."

So, what exactly was meant by "feminine?" Male art critics, while admiring Morisot, felt a little uncomfortable in this new female realm as her work fell outside their familiar and traditional idea of what was satisfactory. The word "feminine" therefore summed up for them the unexplainable. The critic Joris Karl Huysmans probably best described this male exasperation when faced with Morisot's work, when he exclaimed, "Always the same, --hasty sketches, refined in tone, charming, even, but come now! -- no certainty, no whole and full work." It was the slashing brushwork, that Morisot developed from the mid 1870s on, that the critics found hard to understand and the word "spontaneous" was used repeatedly to describe her work, even though she was no more spontaneous than the rest of her mainly male colleagues, and it took years of practice to reach her brushwork "spontaneity."

There is an ambiguity about the word "feminine" as it can be interpreted differently by men and women. To most women in the 19th century it was quite a compliment to be called "feminine" as they had to rely far more upon their charms to secure a satisfactory position for themselves in life. At the same time, however, the very fact that femininity was measured according to male approval somewhat deflated its power of praise. To most men, femininity was also a synonym for weakness, which would be to dismiss Morisot's real talent as an artist.

Impressionism, the school of art with which both Morisot and Cassatt were linked, was a style that critics found very difficult to understand at first. It was dismissed by many as a "feminine" art as they simply could not understand how a man could paint in such a "vague" manner. According to one critic, Claude Roger Marx, the technique of impressionism suited the female temperament for it "implied a manner of perceiving and recording which corresponded well to the hypersensitivity and nervousness of women." The critic Teodore de Wyzewa, while praising Morisot's work, claimed that "Only a woman has the right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system, she alone can limit her effort to the translation of impressions." The critic Paul Mantz went even further by stating, "The truth is that there's only one Impressionist in the rue Le Peletier group: that is Berthe Morisot." In this way, critics managed to neatly explain and categorize their non-comprehension of this new movement by attributing it to women and the foibles and fancies of femininity.

The art of Mary Cassatt, on the other hand, was said by some to have possessed a certain "masculinization" of style, relying on a firmer structural linearity and composition. Anne Higonnet, in her biography, "Berthe Morisot," mentioned that when Mary Cassatt later joined the Impressionist group, the fact that she had infused her female subjects with her own strong personality became all the more apparent and that, although these two painters represented the same feminine themes, they did it in quite a different way.

Cassatt and Morisot both realized that they were not inferior to men, but Cassatt, unlike Morisot, tended to live that belief in a more public way and indeed, in the last 20 years of her life, she became involved in the suffragette movement. In 1910, Cassatt joined the ranks of the suffragettes and in 1913 she said to her friend Louisine Havemeyer "I believe that the vote will be given freely, when women want it, the trouble is that so many don't want it for themselves and never think of others. American women have been spoiled, treated, and indulged like children and they must wake up to their duties." By 1915, she agreed to attach her name openly to the cause and helped to organize the "Suffrage Loan Exhibition of Old Masters and Works by Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt" held in New York. Her argument that women could play a very important role in world politics, was underlined by what she called the masculine society of Germany as being the cause of their aggression in the First World War. Her argument proved to be persuasive and the suffrage amendment was passed by Congress early in 1919. Unfortunately, Morisot never lived to see this amendment enacted as she died in 1895.

Morisot, although a more passive supporter of the women's movement, believed instinctively in her equality to men. She wrote, "I don't think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that's all I would have asked, for I know I'm worth as much as they." Her mother also noticed that, "Whenever she (Berthe) works, she has an anxious, unhappy, almost fierce look....this existence of hers is like the ordeal of a convict in chains...." Morisot dealt daily with an inner dilemma: her career came first but part of her wanted to conform and enjoy the company of the right man and have a family. This situation was not helped when her sister, and constant painting companion, Edma, surrendered to convention and, not only married, but more or less ceased her painting career. This was not acceptable to Morisot. Fortunately for her, at the age of 33, she had the fortune to marry an understanding kind of man with whom she managed to balance a career and a family life. This man was Eugène Manet, the brother of her painting companion, Edouard Manet. Her dilemma was apparently solved.

Cassatt and Morisot's favorite subjects were female, but they had a very different way of expressing the independence of women. Cassatt's "In the Loge" (1879) announces the arrival of a new kind of woman who looks different and deserves to be looked at in a different manner. The lady in the loge, who appears to be alone, confidently leans forward to get a better look at the people around her, through her opera glasses. Her gaze is openly inquisitive and she doesn't appear at all intimidated by her surroundings, a fact underlined by her purposeful pose. The male interest, in the form of the man sitting far off to the right with his opera glasses trained toward the viewer, is introduced purely as a secondary item. His gaze sweeps the room and maybe takes in the presence of this independent woman. He is perhaps only important in so far as he conveys Cassatt's opinion that male approval of females is no longer of primary interest. Women are no longer ornamental, decorative possessions to be worn on a man's arm but free, independent, and totally self-reliant people, like Cassatt herself.

Morisot's women tend to be more difficult to understand or decode than Cassatt's. Using the example of Morisot's "Woman with a Muff" (1880), we notice first of all, there is no interaction of the subject with her surroundings, as in Cassatt's work. Morisot insists on the "interiority" of her images and refuses to include the intrusion of background detail into the very private and intimate study she is portraying. Morisot was concerned with "self" not the interaction of "self" and its environment. As her close friend, Stéphane Mallarmé, French poet and critic, said, her work seemed to him a "pane of glass," a "fascination one would like to enjoy," a "divination that defends itself." There is an inner confidence in the artist, suggested by this bold rejection of the traditional representation of contemporary life for a determined, exclusive, and single-minded focus on the inner "self." It has even been suggested that there is a certain virginal connotation involved in her images of women depicted in enclosed spaces, perhaps in some way related to how Morisot interacted in her daily upper middle-class existence?

The viewer, in Cassatt's "In the Loge," is immediately pulled in and can participate in the scene. It would be easy to picture oneself sitting in the loge right beside this lady, who is not someone to sit at home away from the glitter of the city. Likewise, Cassatt preferred the hustle-bustle of life and was not content to sit on the sidelines looking in. The woman in Morisot's "Woman with a Muff," however, seems more at home looking out from the safe confines of her quiet suburb toward the glittering city, much like Morisot herself. This difference in personality can be explained in part by the diverse experiences Morisot and Cassat had in Paris. As a stranger in a strange land, Cassatt was able to move more freely in parts of the city which were more or less closed to a "haute bourgeoise" such as Morisot. Perhaps being seen as the "eccentric" foreigner and not, therefore, subject to the same strict codes of etiquette as a lady of the upper middle-classes of France like Morisot, Cassatt would be more likely to be left in peace to pursue her work.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and statesman, commented in 1840 on the differences between French and American women, before and after marriage. He surmised that American women had more freedom before marriage than French women, but, once married, all liberty would cease and they would be subjected to much stricter obligations. According to this idea, it would seem that Morisot had a lot less to lose by marrying than Cassatt, which is perhaps another reason why Cassatt clung vehemently to her single state. Had Cassatt stayed in America, she may have been pressured into marriage and would most likely have had a very different life. This is not to say that neither one had doubts about the course they chose, especially Cassatt, who mentioned near the end of her life, "After all, a woman's vocation in life is to bear children."

An interesting comparison between the two paintings already discussed and another two by the same artists--"Portrait of the Artist" (1878) by Cassatt and "Self-Portrait" (1885) by Morisot--can be drawn. Cassatt's self-portrait, depicting herself leaning casually on a sofa cushion in an unconventional pose and looking off to the side, is reminiscent of the same jaunty attitude and personality that she demonstrates in her "In the Loge." She provides an idea as to location, indicated by the interior furnishings, whereas Morisot's self-portrait restates her instinctive wish to keep subject separate from her surroundings, focusing on "self."

Morisot has a tendency to reduce facial features to a minimum, demonstrated in both her "Woman with a Muff" and her "Self-Portrait." The gaze of both women is penetrating but possesses a cool detachment. Behind these women's reserve we detect an intensity, specifically because their emotions are withheld. However, even though both these women look directly out at us, we detect no overt appeal or need for sympathy and no invitation to intimacy. Although they have a close physical presence to us they forge no psychological contact, remaining detached in a different world, parallel to us. The look of both these women has been described as "imploded" in an article by Leila W. Kinney, meaning that the figure as well as the artists resists the intrusion of the viewer's stare by sinking "the outward gaze back into surfaces of paint that screen and occlude it." Kinney goes on to mention in Morisot's "Self-Portrait" that "one eye socket simply collapses beneath a screen of diagonal strokes of orange and dull green." Once again, we see a deliberate "lack" of accommodation, and hence submission, to the male viewer or voyeur, and rather more an emphasis on "self."

Cassatt seemed of the same opinion that the male viewer should not be accommodated, as we see in "In the Loge," but the male presence here is being utilized more bluntly to underline her woman's liberated status. Morisot also acknowledged that while the sight of the female body supposedly symbolized eroticism (in a male dominated society), she preferred to transform the erotic "into an empty spectacle by refusing to provide the sexual content the viewer would expect." The clothing of the women in her two paintings is incidental and simply functional, whereas a male painter, such as Manet, would use clothing as props to entice the male viewer. The conspicuous absence of men in nearly all Morisot's paintings is symbolic of the male who is not permitted to enter the sanctity of such feminine privacy.

Scroll to Continue

Despite the individuality and self-reliance of these two artists, men still played an important role in their lives. Morisot repeatedly referred to her close circle of male friends, especially Edouard Manet, and their opinions appeared throughout her notebooks. She would not, however, take advice very easily from any of them as she had her own very definite ideas, and was horrified if she felt she imitated any other painter's style. Cassatt too enjoyed the intellectual sparring matches she had with some male artists, especially with Edgar Degas, whose work she admired.

it took many years though before Morisot felt at ease and on an equal footing with her male colleagues, whereas Cassatt seemed to fit into the art scene in France with more ease than she probably would have done if she had stayed in her own country. However, she did express some doubts as to her unconventional desire for independence many years after settling in France, to her friend Louisine Havemeyer, "I think sometimes a girl's first duty is to be handsome and parents feel it when she isn't I am sure my Father did, it wasn't my fault though...."

Cassatt drew her initial inspiration and development of her mature style from Degas, with whom she had a mutually influential but sometimes stormy relationship. Her similarity of personality and background to his own actually irked Degas as here he had met his match, in a woman, rather than a man, and he was unable to find a "chink" in her armor. According to the critic of the 1880 Impressionist exhibition, J.K. Huysmans, Cassatt had "a curiosity, a special attraction, for a flutter of feminine nerves passes through her painting which is more poised, more calm, more able than that of Mme. Berthe Morisot." Paul Gauguin, also exhibiting that year, added that Cassatt "has as much charm, but she has more power," when comparing her to Morisot. These comments perhaps reinforce the opinion of most critics that Cassatt must have painted in a more "masculine" way, as they were able to understand her work. In other words, she did not paint in the intrinsically impressionistic (and by default, according to many male critics, feminine) way of Morisot, whom they were unable to understand.

I don't believe Cassatt would ever have had the patience for a full-time relationship with a man and a family although, ironically, she spent many years tending ailing family members who were living with her in Paris, which often interrupted her painting. Through her many mother-and-child portraits, we have also witnessed a very tender and caring side of her nature, someone who perhaps regretted sacrificing her chance to be a mother. Throughout her life though Cassatt demonstrated a single-minded determination to prove her artistic worth and her equality to men. One of her greatest moments of personal satisfaction must have come when Degas, after having retorted that women knew nothing about style, had to concede defeat in the face of her very obvious talent when she produced one of her most technically difficult works, "Girl Arranging her Hair." Upon seeing it, Degas exclaimed "What drawing, what style!" and immediately exchanged one of his pastels for it. It stayed with him until his death. Cassatt wore her feminism on the outside, infusing her subjects with a "no apologies," outward self-confidence, whereas her femininity remained more subtly diffused within her feminism, manifesting itself with her choice of mother-and-child subjects and perhaps with her private self-doubts regarding her choice to stay single and childless.

Perhaps in Mary Cassatt's eyes, Berthe Morisot made sacrifices in marrying and having a child, but it is intriguing how Morisot managed to fit her family around her career and her career around her family. She did this in a quietly determined way, which is a trait that was reflected in her subjects--reserved yet private and self-sufficient. Perhaps it could be said that Morisot demonstrated her femininity outwardly through her painting and her feminism more privately by her steady, quiet determination to reach her goal. She never sat back and relaxed, complaining 5 years before she died that, "Worst of all, I am approaching the end of my life, and yet I am still a mere beginner."

Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt

Please see my hub about studying tourism and art history in Paris in "How my 6 months in Paris turned into 6 years."


Pamspages (author) from Virginia on April 25, 2016:

Nicole, I just contacted you at your fan mail! Thanks for your interest.

Pamspages (author) from Virginia on April 25, 2016:

Hello Shelby. I didn't see a way of contacting you, so if you wouldn't mind posting you email address, I can contact you there. Thanks.

Nikki Spt on April 25, 2016:


I would also like to cite your work for a paper, where can I find you email to get your name!

Thank you, Nicole

Shelby on April 25, 2016:

Hi Pam,

Not sure if you'll see this post since it's been awhile, but I would like to cite your work within my final project for a college class. If so, I can send you my email. Thank you!


Pamspages (author) from Virginia on May 03, 2015:

Sure, send me your email address! :)

Laura on May 02, 2015:

Hi Pam,

This is such a good and helpful article! I am also writing a paper, so I was wondering if I could email you asking for your surname and name initials? If so, where do I find your email address, or should I give you mine?

Thanks so much.


Pamspages (author) from Virginia on September 26, 2014:

For anyone in the D.C. area, I recently enjoyed visiting the Degas/Cassatt exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, open through October 5, 2014:


Pamspages (author) from Virginia on September 04, 2014:

No problem. Good luck with your research!

cyoung90 on September 04, 2014:

Hi Pam,

Not to worry about the underlines. Thanks so much for taking the time to go back and find those! You really helped me out.

All the best,


Pamspages (author) from Virginia on September 03, 2014:

Hi Colin,

Sorry it's taken me a bit to get back to you. I had to dig out my original essay with the footnotes!

Here are the footnotes for Marx:

Claude Roger Marx, "Les Femmes peintres et l'impressionisme, Berthe Morisot," Gazette des Beaux Arts (Jul-Aug 1907) quoted in Tamar Garb, Women Impressionists (New York: Rizzoli, 1987), p.15 and paraphrased in Marni Reva Kessler, "Recontructing Relationships: Berthe Morisot's Edma Series," Woman's Art Journal 12 (Spring/Summer 1991): p. 25

Huysman quote:

Mary Cassatt: Oils and Pastels (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1978), p.15

Wyzema quote:

Leila W. Kinney, “Museum News - Morisot,” Art Journal 47 (Fall 1988), p. 236

Cassatt to Havemeyer:

Mary Cassatt: Oils and Pastels (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1978), p.12

I'm afraid the underlines did not come out when I pasted. The journals should be underlined. If you need it sent via e-mail, let me know. Good luck with your paper!

cyoung90 on September 03, 2014:

Hello again Pam,

By the way, if you'd be willing to help me out, I'll send you my email address if that's more convenient.



cyoung on September 02, 2014:

Hi Pam,

Thanks so much for doin this write up and compiling this info on Morisot and Cassatt. The quotes in particular are great. One question: any chance you could send me the sources for a few quotes here as I would like to footnote them in my research? Specifically I'm interested in the Huysman quote on Cassatt's "flutter of feminine nerves," Cassatt's letter to Louisine Havemeyer about "a girl's first duty," Claude Marx's quote on the "hypersensivity and nervousness of women," and Teodore Wyzema on why only a woman can work towards "the translation of impressions." I would greatly appreciate your help. Many thanks, Colin

Pamspages (author) from Virginia on December 12, 2013:

This is true Julie!

Julie Schauer on December 10, 2013:

Just to add, Berthe Morisot's husband, Eugene Manet, was extremely supportive to her career, loving and helpful. He really did not have a career himself, so could truly devote time to her and to promote the work of other Impressionists.

Pamspages (author) from Virginia on January 13, 2013:

Jo, I thought I had seen a way to contact me via a link which would go to my email but I cannot find it. If you are ok with it can you please give me your email. I have chosen not to identify myself by my last name so don't want to publish that here publicly. Thanks.

Pamspages (author) from Virginia on January 13, 2013:

Hello Jo, I'm flattered you used me as a reference! Could you email me and I'll give you the info you are looking for. :)

jo on January 11, 2013:

Hi i have to reference this as it helped me with my dissertation. I need your last name please as need surname first initial, year last updated and web addy.

Many thanks

Pam's pages on December 01, 2012:

Thank you both for your kind comments. I enjoyed the subject area very much. Two fascinating women.

KrisL from S. Florida on December 01, 2012:

Thanks Pamspages (and thanks Vanderleelie for sharing this hub.)

You have clearly synthesized a lot of history and art criticism in one lucid article.

(Voted "beautiful")

Vanderleelie on December 01, 2012:

An excellent comparison of two female artists who were closely associated with the Impressionist group. Your thorough account of their feminist leanings and the feminine elements in their paintings highlights many of the dilemmas facing female artists. Well-written and thought-provoking hub.

Related Articles