Berthe Morisot and Her Brushwork

I received an email from my blog a while back asking a couple of questions about how Berthe Morisot painted. I thought my reply might be interesting to a wider readership, so here it is…

On Feb 25, 2019, at 11:36AM, Malcolm wrote: 

Mr. Kitts,

I received your email this morning about the micro and macrocosm of your painting brushwork and enjoyed the video. Very nice surfaces!

This evening I will purchase, and watch, your ‘Sargent’ video and hopefully that video will answer a question that I have about gestural brushwork.

But in case it does not I am also sending you this email to ask: in the attached image of the Berthe Morisot painting the brush work is very loose and superimposed over other brushwork, what medium (if any) would she have mixed with her oils to achieve those flowing strokes? They are fluid and almost translucent in areas.


Dans la salle à manger” by Berthe Morisot

And here was my reply…

Hello Malcom. Thank you for your kind words and email. For the record, the video you referred to is a 2018 demonstration of Sorolla’s methods, not Sargent. But I have just release a 17-hour demonstration of Sargent’s techniques a few weeks ago. So perhaps one or the other, or both, will be of interest to you…

But to return your original question: I have always loved the work of Berthe Morisot and feel her influence has long been underrated as one of the original French Impressionists. But I don’t consider myself an authority on her or her work. However, I do feel I can make a few educated guesses based upon what I know about the materials and methods used by Berthe and her brethren. But before I begin, it is important to appreciate few artists worked in the same way with the same materials over their entire career and I believe Berthe was no different. So what follows should be considered a quick generalization about our two paintings and not a scholarly summary of Morisot’s technique.

First, I have attached a different painting than the one you shared. It was probably painted close to the time of your Morisot. But with mine, you can zoom into the image to see more detail, which reveals a lot about her brush work. And please note, the observations I share refer to my image, not yours…

“The Artist’s Daughter Julie with her Nanny”
by Berthe Morisot

1. In general, Berthe painted on a tightly woven linen support. The ground or ‘primer’ would have likely been a mixture of lead oil and a calcium carbonate, or a chalk to aid in the adhesion of the paint layers. This was a common support used by French Impressionists and it is still a lovely surface to paint on today. So why not try it out yourself? If you like Berthe’s work, the support you paint on will often dictate the character of your brush work. 

2. I would guess her ground was somewhat absorptive and Berthe often stained it with a pigmented earth color such as burnt umber. (see the enlargements found in this post.) A thin wash would have been applied and allowed to dry before a painting was started. I say dry because I do not see any softening or diffusion in the lower layers of the painting. Diffusion would indicate Berthe painted into a wet surface, or a wet imprimatura, and we don’t see that here.

3. The colors she used contributed to the character of her brush work. Berthe used a (largely) opaque pigmented palette that was common to most of the original French Impressionists. (She married Eugène Manet, Édouard’s younger brother, and it was she who convinced Édouard to begin painting outside. She also introduced Édouard to her circle of young Impressionists, who received him as a champion of their cause.)

Berthe’s palette primarily consisted of cadmium yellows and reds, and I’d guess from this painting, prussian and colbalt blue, plus possibly an ultramarine blue, a viridian or emerald green, and a few earth colors such as umber, ochre, and sienna. For an impressionist, Berthe favored more neutral color mixes and she painted with a lead white, and there does not seem to be much use of black since it was considered an anathema to the theories of Impressionism. There may be more colors in this painting but confirming what they are would require some sophisticated lab analysis. For the most part, the lead white dictated the character of Berthe’s strokes. Lead white’s thixotropic properties create this kind of stick, drag, grab, and pull, and it tends to imbue such qualities into any other color it is combined with.

4. Consider how the paint is applied. The surface strongly suggest this painting was executed rapidly with paint being applied thinly at the outset. Later strokes were built up and applied more thickly, with more body, and with each pull retaining its own integrity. You do not find much blending between strokes or colors and there is little to no softening of edges. I don’t find any slumping in the thicker strokes so Berthe probably didn’t incorporate much, if any oil or medium beyond whatever was already in the paint. I don’t know if she, like many of her compatriots, purchased her paint from Sennelier in Paris. But if so, her colors would have been ground in safflower, not linseed oil, which behaves differently under the pressure of a brush. Applying paint straight from the tube with minimal alteration was a common practice among the French Impressionists because they valued expediency when painting from life, and color intensity above all else. Thus they did not like to overmix their color. They also preferred their finished work to have a matte surface because they felt glossy surfaces and pre-mixed color diminished the optical (partitive) effects they pursued over all else. Berthe often left small flecks of pure color in her strokes to excite the eye, with the flecks at times being analogous to the base hue, and sometimes the flecks being a complement or near-complementary hue. So as a card-carrying inside member of the French Impressionists, Berthe was likely to have been working straight from the tube, wet-into-wet, and pushing color into, or on top of color. If you look closely at the child’s lacy collar you will find Berthe ‘double-loading’ her brush – where she picks up two colors before she dragged the hair across the canvas – an entirely new and exciting way to paint that became central to the Impressionists’ aesthetic. 

5. In addition, from the marks we see, Berthe preferred using a stiff brush. Likely consisting of hog hair; and even more likely, a combination of short flats with worn down or flayed hair. (So failing to clean your brushes may have an up-side, yes? Ha!) You can see traces of her distressed brushes pressed into the thicker striated impasto strokes. She also applied flicks and touches of color with a round brush on occasion, reserving them for fine details such as the eyes and eyebrows. But please note: Berthe doesn’t use a small round to paint a large shape, nor does she render ’detail’ with a lot of repetitive strokes. Big areas are indicated with expressive gutsy pulls with a fully loaded brush. 

6. And finally, look at the directionality of her strokes. What you and I would call the gesture of the mark. She often pulled her strokes in alignment of a shape. Yet she also turned the direction of her strokes to follow the shifting surface planes to imply a sense of form. (Look at the shoulders of both figures.) Other times she pulled her strokes flatly aligned with the picture plane. (Look at the cheek of the nanny’s face.) Sometimes, some of Berthe’s strokes are short and appear to be laid down randomly, a technique reserved for areas of lesser importance. Sometime her strokes start off going in one direction but then arbitrarily whip around in another. All of this activity contributes to the energy you feel when you look at her work. Her unique brushwork is a crazy, layered, mark-making technique, yet her subjects and narrative still hold together. Why? (hint: Value Relationships…) French Impressionists used such loose and expressive brushwork to convey a sense of light, movement, vibrancy, and a  joie de vivre– with Berthe being one of the more wilder members of the club. In fact, in my opinion, Berthe was farther out there on the edge than all of her better-known male counterparts and yes, she deserves far more credit for being there.

So based on this painting and the others I spent time in front of in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris last August, I don’t think Berthe used much medium at all, beyond the possibility of a little solvent at the start with the one possible exception being the isolated blue scribbles which define the nanny’s left wrist cuff. That blue paint looks as though it was thinned down with a solvent and added after the fact on top of dry paint. A corrective move, perhaps.

And in your opinion would that painting be completed in one sitting or over many days? 

This painting was probably largely completed alla prima, or within a single session. A few passages may have been re-worked or re-touched during a second pass. But given the way the surface looks, any revisions would have been minimal. There is no sign Berthe was working into what the Parisian Academics called a ‘couch’ – meaning, painting into an ‘oiled out’ area with fresh paint – which is how many artists in the late 19th century often made their multi-session paintings look like they were one-shot wonders.

Malcom, I hope you found this information helpful as you continue your studies. Be sure to keep looking at as many originals as you can find but don’t forget to paint from life as well. Why? Well, here is a quote to remember:

“Real painters understand with a brush in their hand…”

   –   Berthe Morisot

“Self Portrait” by Berthe Morisot

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