Saturday, June 9, 2012

Berthe Morisot -The Wet Nurse

Berthe Morisot, The Wet Nurse and Julie, 1880
(Private Collection)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mother Nursing Her Child, 1886
(Private Collection)
Art history is full of female mavericks that not only overcame their gendered roles by actually producing works that went down in history but also made bold statements quite contrary to the popular culture and beliefs of the society they were living in.  I was watching the latest rendition of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre for the big screen last night where I was reminded once again of how incredibly modern and wonderfully askew a story it was.  It is so refreshing to be witness to a strong female character who not only overcomes her "Tale of Woe" but also comes back at the end to rescue the love of her life, Mr. Rochester who is now debilitated.  She has become rich while he has become blind...Jane Eyre is the veritable knight  in shining armor or the prince on the white horse charging to rescue the damsel in distress...

Berthe Morisot, one of the rare specimen of female Impressionists along with Mary Cassatt was also a remarkable artists who used imagery usually associated with the female sphere that can be read to have transposed meanings.  One of the most fascinating works form her oeuvre is The Wet Nurse and Julie which at first seems like a typical scene of a woman nursing her baby but is actually a work scene. It is really interesting to compare this work with Renoir's Mother Nursing Her Child where the artist portrays his wife Aline with their son in lieu of his conservative views. In this traditional scene of woman breastfeeding her child, the idealized expression on the woman's face connotes pure bliss while the baby holding his toes is obviously happily enjoying the experience.
As opposed to Renoir's main figure, the mother in Morisot's painting is not an actual mother but a wet nurse hired to feed the artist's daughter. In this painting the actual mother (the artist) is working (painting) a scene of a woman working.  Only the yellow hat lying on the grass to the right of the wet nurse is interpreted as recalling the mother/artist's presence. Linda Nochlin defines this phenomenon as "two working women confront each other... across the body of "their" child and the boundaries of class, both with claims to motherhood and mothering..."1

Wet nursing was a large scale industry in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where working women in the cities would send their children out to be nursed so they would be free to work.2  Members of the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie that Berthe Morisot also belonged to would hire a live in wet-nurse.  Wet-nursing was a point of controversy at this time because some argued that the mother- child bond would not be successfully formed and the baby would not be properly nourished.

 There is a very interesting essay written by Linda Nochlin, "Morisot's Wet Nurse" about this painting that goes into detail about what constituted work among women in nineteenth century France and how most of the working women in Impressionist paintings maybe except for the few washerwomen, were actually associated with male leisure and pleasure. These working women - the ballet dancers, the barmaids and waitresses and the prostitutes - were all subjected to the male gaze, another major element of Impressionist paintings.  Since the artist is a woman in this case, the lack of the male gaze is another wonderfully disorienting factor in The Wet Nurse and Julie. 

According to the critic Gustav Geffroy, no one represented Impressionism with more refined talent or with more authority than Morisot.  Upon encountering this work in the sixth Impressionist exhibition he stated:
"The forms are always vague in Berthe Morisot's paintings, but a strange life animates them.  The artist has found the means to fix the play of colors, the quivering between things and the air that envelops them .... Pink, pale green, faintly gilded light sings with an inexpressible harmony."3
Although it has been suggested by some critics that there was a femininity to Morisot's feathery brushstrokes, she stands out even among the Impressionists with her particular daring handling of paint. 4

Berthe Morisot, Eugene Manet and His Daughter, Julie, in the Garden, 1883
(Private Collection)
Since the subjects depicted by the Impressionists were of their personal experience, the female members of the group mostly represented the female sphere of domestic life, interiors, the nursery and mother and child scenes.  Berthe Morisot offered a unique twist to these feminine themes that can also be seen in her paintings of her husband, Eugene Manet (the artist's brother) with their daughter, Julie.  Morisot's paintings offer a very interesting perusal for feminist discourse but I have to admit the greatest appeal for me personally, is their message being conveyed in a such an unassuming subtle manner.  


1  Nochlin, Linda.  "Morisot's Wet Nurse."  The Expanding Discourse:  Feminism and Art History. New York, NY:  IconEditions, 1992. p 231
2 Ibid. P. 235
3 The New Painting:  Impressionism  1874 - 1886. p. 366 
4  Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism:  Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1988. p. 152


  1. wow i love your approach on this painting! very well written

  2. You know your projects stand out of the herd. There is something special about them. It seems to me all of them are really brilliant! georgia nursing ceu


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