Home > 2000, 21st Century, Biography, Bona Dominique, French Literature, Non Fiction > Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona – a biography

Berthe Morisot. The Secret of Woman in Black by Dominique Bona (2000) Original French title: Berthe Morisot. Le secret de la femme en noir. 

Berthe Morisot – The Secret of the Woman in Black by Dominique Bona was our Book Club read for February. It’s a biography of the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. I was looking forward to reading it as it was a great opportunity to dive into the artistic Paris of the 19th century.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 in a bourgeois family. Her father was a préfet, a civil servant and her mother was a lot younger than her husband but it was a love marriage. She had two sisters, Yves and Edma and a younger brother Tiburce. The three girls were close in age but Berthe was tight with Edma.

Madame Morisot had a lot to do with her daughters’ upbringing. She was the great-niece of Fragonard and was instrumental in Berthe and Edma’s painting lessons. She allowed them to devote a lot of time to painting, understood that her daughters were gifted and accepted that painting wasn’t just a hobby for them. She didn’t sacrifice their passion on the autel of bourgeois thinking. We owe her for Morisot’s paintings. Paul Claudel wasn’t as understanding.

Edma and Berthe followed different paths. Edma got married and gave up painting. Berthe kept on painting and married Eugène Manet, Edouard’s brother, in 1875. He always supported her career and helped organize exhibitions.

Dominique Bona places Berthe Morisot in her time, among her friends. And what a group of friends she had! Fantin-Latour, Puvis de Chavanne, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé. She was an early impressionist, she remained faithful to her group and kept on working on her talent, following her path. Manet influenced her painting, especially at the beginning. They worked a lot together and she influenced him too. They had a close relationship.

Bona’s biography is chronological and shows Morisot’s personal and professional life. We see who were her teachers, her friends, where she painted and the history of the Impressionist exhibitions.

Morisot’s life is fantastic material for a book. She was the only female painter in a group of artists who revolutionized painting in a Paris. And yet, this biography is a disappointment. The style is flat, flat, flat to the point of boredom. I expected better from a member of the Académie Française.

In my opinion, Bona failed to bring the Paris of that time to life. I would have liked better descriptions of the ambiance, of the places these painters spent time in and more context about what was happening at the same time in politics, literature and science. I would have liked her to show in which society the Impressionist movement happened.

But the worst is the “secret of the woman in black” angle. It grated on my feminist sensibilities.

In the first chapters, Bona describes how many paintings of Morisot Edouard Manet did, points out that she was his most frequent model and hints that he was in love with her. She also hints that Morisot was in love with him. The last chapter of the book comments on the fact that the correspondence between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet is nowhere to be found. That’s suspicious and would mean that they exchanged love letters. Well, ok. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she loved him and it was unrequited love. Who knows? And more importantly, what does it matter? I can’t help wondering: if Bona had written Edouard Manet’s biography, would she have chosen this angle? Would the title be, Edouard Manet. The secret of the man with the beard? Probably not. It seems to me that women artists with close relationship with other artists are always seen as their sidekick. You know, like Camille Claudel. They are mentioned in relation to their male friend or partner.

And then, there’s this passage, page 205, that left me stunned, stricken by its sheer stupidity. (Sorry if the translation is terrible, I’m not fluent in astrological terms. I barely know them in French.)

Car Berthe ne sait peindre que ce qu’elle ressent, elle exprime ce qu’elle est. Or, qui est-elle sinon cette fille née sous un signe de Terre –Capricorne—mais qu’anime un fort ascendant d’Eau—Cancer. Son thème astral, selon les spécialistes, conjugue un Soleil en Capricorne—une forte ambition, apte à se réaliser—et une Lune en Balance conjointe à Mars –qui souligne les valeurs instinctives et de puissantes aspirations affectives. Les astres qui l’ont vue naître sont propices à une personnalité douloureuse et conflictuelle, qui est à la fois Ambition et Féminité ; mais aussi Passion et Colère. Conflit permanent entre la Terre et l’Eau –la réalisation concrète de soi et les appels lancinants d’une sensibilité exacerbée—, Berthe Morisot est très différente de l’univers qu’elle peint, des toiles aux tons joyeux et calmes, où irradie le bonheur. Les experts en astrologie complètent leur analyse en opposant la position de Neptune en Verseau (ces deux planètes de la sensibilité renforcent l’influence de la Lune, déjà importante dans le signe) et celle de Saturne en Sagittaire (autre moteur de la réalisation de soi.)

Berthe only paints what she feels. She expresses what she is. And who is she but his girl born under an earth sign –Capricorn—but animated by a strong water ascendant –Cancer. Her birth chart, according to specialists, mixes Sun with Capricorn—a strong ambition, likely to be fulfilled – and Moon with Libra, along with Mars—which underlines strong instinctive values and powerful emotional aspirations. The stars she was born under are liable to lead to a painful and conflictual personality, which is both Ambition and Femineity but also Passion and Anger. Berthe Morisot is a permanent conflict between Earth and Water – concrete self-actualization and the nagging calls from an exaggerated sensitivity. She’s very different from the world she paints, pictures with joyful and soothing tones, irradiating with happiness. Experts in astrology back up their analysis in opposing the position of Neptune in Aquarius (these two planets of sensitivity strengthen the influence of the Moon, already important in the sign) to that of Saturn in Sagittarius (another push towards self-actualization.)

See the astrological mumbo jumbo? First, it’s contradictory. How can she paint what she feels and then be very different from her paintings? Second, it’s more that stupid, it’s insulting for this extraordinary artist.

And again, I wonder: would anyone write something like this about Manet? Who would use astrology to describe a male’s artist style? Would anyone call Renoir a “boy”? Who would make Monet’s sensitivity sound like a flaw?

Just typing the quote made me angry. I see Berthe Morisot as a strong woman. She kept on painting despite the difficulties. She was gifted, smart enough to pursue her career without making any waves and yet never giving up her line of work. She didn’t marry young as it was customary in her social class. She chose herself a partner who understood her, supported her and helped her career. She was in the center of one of the most important painting movement of the century. She had her own style, she never wavered. Berthe Morisot deserves better that this astrological analysis.

My only regret is that I didn’t read this biography before going to the Berthe Morisot exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. I would have appreciated it more. And now, I want to rush to the Musée d’Orsay, see again all the Impressionists’ paintings there but of course, it’s closed at the moment.

  1. March 7, 2021 at 11:28 am

    What is it about the French and astrology? I remember hearing the horoscope daily on the radio stations. But, of course, you are right that the fact Morisot was a woman plays a part as well. How I miss the museums too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 7, 2021 at 2:38 pm

      About the French and astrology. I don’t know where it comes from. Roman heritage? Introduced to the court by Catherine de Médicis? President Mitterrand was notorious for consulting with a horoscope counselor.
      You’re right about horoscopes. It baffles me. Their presence clues you about the level of the radio or the paper you’re reading. (IMO)

      I miss visiting museums and going to exhibitions. I love the Musée d’Orsay and I hope it’ll reopen in a few weeks.

      Like

  2. March 7, 2021 at 11:38 am

    I came across Berthe Morisot through a novel by Robin Oliveira about the painter Mary Cassatt, who was also painting in this era and part of that group of artists and poets who used to meet at their weekly salon in Paris. Cassatt and Degas were close in the late 1870’s to mid 1880’s and their work created in this era has been exhibited together.
    It’s annoying when women get portrayed as the ‘femme fatale’ though sadly there is often little left to adequately tell their story or allow them to exist in their own right and in the light, out of the shadow of men.
    If only the conversations that Berthe and Mary no doubt had, were on record, what an I sight they would have been.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 7, 2021 at 2:42 pm

      Mary Cassatt is mentioned in Morisot’s biography too. I wish Bona had painted those salon scenes better. I’ve been spoilt by Proust , I’m afraid.

      She’s not portrayed as a femme fatale at all. My problem with the book is that she’s pictured as a woman who paint and not a painter who happens to be a woman, if you get my drift.

      And to think that she died of syphilis passed on by her husband. Grrr…

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      • Emma Decker
        March 12, 2021 at 11:54 am

        @Emma Totally agree, this is in part due to the image the Rouart family ( the family her daughter married into) and the Morisot family put forward after her death that Morisot was ” a special case” in the otherwise steady line of well-bred bourgois catholic ladies in their family. Morisot also played along with this, she had to walk the line between her career and keeping her place in her circles, this often involved alternating between being ambitious and being modest and self-deprecating. So it’s hard to decipher her in the sources. However the answers are all in her work, you only have to look at her Self-Portrait from 1885 to understand. It portrays a painter, confidant, with the hint of medal on her lapel. She never showed this painting during her lifetime, but it, to me, shows her true self.

        fyi she did not die of syphilis but of pneumonia that she caught after tending to her daughter.

        @Claire I suggest you read Images of women by Anne Higgonet, there is a whole chapter about Cassatt and Morisot working on rendering the female nude in the late 1880’s.

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        • March 12, 2021 at 9:26 pm

          Hello and welcome to Book Around the corner.

          I totally agree with your comment about her ability to keep her career and behave like it was expected of her in her milieu. And yes, this Self-Portrait is how I imagine her too. Playing the social game but not losing sight of what she wanted: to be a painter.

          She died of pneumonia, like Freddie Mercury.
          It was not socially acceptable to die of syphillis in her circle. I read that it was said she died of pneumonia after Julie got sick but Eugène Manet died of a “pneumonic form” of syphillis. And since it’s a STD… (And remember all the people who did not die of AIDS in the 1980s…)

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          • March 12, 2021 at 10:20 pm

            Hi! Interesting hypothesis. I never thought about it. However, Eugene’s illness was drawn out over years, and Berthe died within a matter of days, although she was depressed after Eugene’s death ( as evident from her notebooks) the amount of work she produced in the last few years of her life suggests she wasn’t physically ill. This leads me to believe she did not die of Syphilis. Conversely, there is evidence she had anemia/anorexia at least up until and during the Franco-Prussian War, which may have affected her health in the long-term.

            Side note: I always thought Eugene had a type of cancer ( maybe colon) because the way Berthe describes it reminds me of the symptoms when one of my family members was sick and they don’t match Edouard’s or their father’s (Auguste Manet) “Tabes dorsalis” symptoms. Though Syphilis was rampant in the Manet family, it could very well be that.

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            • March 14, 2021 at 8:16 am

              According to Dominique Bona, Edouard, Eugène and Berthe had syphilis and it wasn’t broadcasted because it wasn’t something people in their circles acknowledged.

              I haven’t read more about Berthe Morisot than this book and Wikipedia. I expect a biography to be accurate, though and I didn’t question it because this desease was rampant at the time. (Maupassant, Baudelaire, Flaubert…)

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  3. March 7, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    I suppose even the most intelligent people can write poorly – but to expose yourself as believing that astrological mumbo-jumbo! It’s ridiculous. And I understand your anger at the author downplaying Morisot’s career. Women now need to know that there were role models in the past.

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    • March 7, 2021 at 2:44 pm

      I was shocked by this passage with astrology. And it was written in 2000, not in another century!
      And I agree with you: all the roles models are needed and there aren’t many of them in arts in France in the 19thC.

      Like

  4. March 7, 2021 at 2:18 pm

    Well said, Emma. I hate books that trivialise women like this.

    Like

    • March 7, 2021 at 2:44 pm

      It’s really a missed opportunity. It’s such a great subject to write about.

      Like

      • March 7, 2021 at 11:21 pm

        It’s so disappointing to women of my generation who worked so hard to have men take us seriously, to see the way these gains have been lost, especially when it’s women doing it.

        Like

        • March 9, 2021 at 10:13 pm

          I totally agree with that.

          Like

  5. March 7, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    I love Morisot’s work, but know nothing about her life. After reading this I really want to find a good biography of her life and work. Sadly this one sounds truly awful with the astrology mumbo jumbo and not giving her her full due as an artist.

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    • March 7, 2021 at 9:31 pm

      I hope you’ll find that biography, she had an interesting life and she was right at the heart of Impressionism.
      This astrology passage is unique, thankfully but struck me as useless and something the author should have edited on the second draft…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. March 7, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    I was interested in this book so thanks for warning us. I’ll probably still have a look at it when I get a chance though I agree with your doubts about astrology and the “woman’s secret” angle (I suppose it does appeal to many readers). Re-the Académie française, could it be that we think a little too highly of the institution and its members (as a group)? To me, they seem like a strange mix of real intellectuals and people who’ve written a number of quite popular books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 7, 2021 at 9:33 pm

      Another friend from the Book Club has the same opinion as mine regarding the style.
      And yes, maybe I expect too much from an Académicienne.

      Like

  7. March 7, 2021 at 9:58 pm

    Oh dear, oh dear… I *so* agree! Why should we approach the biography of an artist differently depending on her gender???? I would be fascinated to read a book about her, but not this one. As for all the astrology – what place does this have in a scholarly biography? And if the style is dull too…. Is there a better alternative available??

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    • March 7, 2021 at 10:05 pm

      I don’t think this gender approach was done on purpose. (which is worse, when you think of it)
      I think Morisot is fantastic material for a good biography.
      And I don’t know about the astrology and I agree with you, it doesn’t have a place in non-fiction.

      Is there an alternative? Yes, an essay by Paul Valéry who married Jeannie Gobillard, the daughter of Yves Morisot, Berthe’s older sister. I imagine it’s better.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. March 8, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    Nothing to add to the comments you and others have already made about the demeaning approach taken by this biographer. A timely reminder on International Women’s Day. It’s some years since I went to the Musée d’Orsay – so looking forward to being able to travel again – not just to visit places like that, but to see family.

    Like

    • March 9, 2021 at 10:14 pm

      I think that the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée Jacquemart André are my favourite museums. The buildings are gorgeous and the art is extraordinary. And the Musée Jacquemart André has a Proustian vibe I really love.

      Like

  9. edith de belleville
    March 11, 2021 at 1:06 pm

    Bonjour,
    What you wrote is very interesting and smart but I don’t agree with you.Dominique Bona chose a romantic angle to tell the story of Berthe Morisot not a feminist angle. And I think she was right because you can’t see Berthe Morisot with a feminist and modern angle it’s an anachronism. If Bona links Morisot with Manet its because this is how it was in France at her time, exactly like Camille Claudel with Rodin. It does not mean I agree with this, but it’s History. And what you call a flat and boring style I’m sorry but I call it an accessible style, easy to read and not pedantic. Thats why Dominique Bona is so popular in France. Again I like what you wrote even if I don’t agree 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 12, 2021 at 9:18 pm

      Hello,
      Thanks for dropping by and we are here to discuss books, so not agreeing with me is also a welcome!

      Berthe Morisot was not a feminist like George Sand, that’s for sure. She navigated between what she wanted to do and what was appropriate and I think she did very well. She managed to stick to her guns without creating any scandal. She kept on painting.
      I think she’s a positive role model and an advocate for women’s rights in her own way.

      I also think that Dominique Bona made a choice by using the romance angle and that it’s not an obvious one. It is an obvious one for Rodin and Claudel, they were lovers. Here, maybe they were, maybe they were not. If they were, pushing this romantic angle doesn’t bring anything to her biography. It’s not necessary to take that road to comment on how they influenced each other’s painting.
      And I’m still convinced that this is not a thread one would have chosen when writing Manet’s bio.

      I’m not fond of pedantic style either and I’m always happy when biographies and essays have the right level of details to make the book accessible to non-academic reasders. (I am one of those common readers) But I find Bona’s style uninspired.

      That said, even if I’m not the only one among my book club who thinks that way about Bona’s bio of Berthe Morisot, I know that Dominique Bona is popular in France. I expected better from her, perhaps because I have fond memories of her bio of Romain Gary.

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