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To catch the fleeting moment—anything, however small, a smile, a flower, a fruit—is an ambition still unfulfilled.—Berthe Morisot 1(p5)
During the summer of 1881, Julie Manet's parents, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Eugène Manet (1834-1892), moved to the Paris suburb of Bougival on the Seine, 10 miles from the center of Paris, believing that the climate there would be best for her. Julie (1878-1966) was born on November 14, 1878; her then 37-year-old mother had married her father 3 years earlier. Her parents first met in the late 1860s around the time that her mother met his older brother, painter Édouard Manet, at the Louvre. Édouard asked Berthe to model for him soon afterwards and, with Berthe's mother as chaperone, painted her often and in various poses—so often that questions were raised about the propriety of their relationship. Despite such rumors, Édouard was an ardent supporter of Berthe's marriage to Eugène.
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), French. Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden at Bougival, c. 1881. Oil on canvas, 36.2 × 28.7 in (92 × 73 cm). ©Musée Marmottan (http://www.marmottan.com/francais/collections/manet.asp), Paris, France, Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.
At the time of marriage, Berthe was an established artist, having exhibited at the Salon regularly from 1864-1873. She was the only female artist invited to join the impressionists in their first exhibit in 1874 and she continued to exhibit with them. Like other impressionists, she painted scenes from her daily life.
Morisot's life seemed illuminated by the presence of her daughter, Julie, the only Manet of the next generation. After Julie's birth, Berthe's art became the record of Julie's life, much as a photograph album might today; her paintings were a visual diary.1First she painted Julie as an infant, and then as a growing child and adolescent, alone or with a companion. That companion might be her governess, her cousin, or her father. Julie was Berthe's favorite model. She enjoyed painting her playing with her father.
Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden at Bougivalshows the garden near their summer home.2Eugène is shown in profile sitting on a blue bench, one hand in his pocket. He looks down on Julie as she plays with the trees and houses of a toy village that rests on a platform on his legs. He is fashionably dressed. Julie, wearing a yellow sunbonnet, looks down, immersed in her game. The painting was positively reviewed at the seventh impressionist exhibition.
Fourteen years later in early January 1895, Berthe Morisot wrote to a friend that Julie was ill with the flu. Flu pandemics had re-emerged in Europe in 1889 after a quiescent period and were to occur regularly in the succeeding years. By that time, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and their followers had established the contagiousness of infectious diseases, which led to recommendations that the sick be separated from the healthy in households. Julie was quite ill with a high fever in this 1895 epidemic and, despite public health warnings about infectiousness, was under the constant care of her mother until she recovered. Soon afterwards in February, Berthe, who had a long history of restricted eating and of bronchitis, became ill with the flu, which progressed to pneumonia. Witnessing her mother's illness, Julie, age 16 years, recorded in her diary on Friday, March 1, 1895:
Maman has been very ill since I wrote anything . . . she is terribly weak, can scarcely speak, takes only a little milk. . . . She is suffering a great deal with her throat, which prevents her from swallowing. . . . It's hard not to cry. And if only I could do something useful—I don't know how to nurse and everyone wants me to go to sleep at night. How bleak this all is. Dear God, make Maman better.3(p58)
On that same day Berthe wrote her last letter to Julie:
My dearest little Julie, I love you as I die; I will love you when I’m dead; I beg of you, do not cry; this parting was inevitable. I would have liked to be with you until you married. . . . Work hard and be good as you have always been; you have never caused me one sorrow in your little life. . . . I love you more than I can tell you.3(p61)Jeannie, take care of Julie.4(p277)
Julie did not write in her diary until Wednesday, April 17:
. . . since I last wrote I have lost Maman. She died at half past ten on Saturday 2nd March. I cannot describe the enormity of my grief. . . . In three years my parents have left me and now I am an orphan. . . . On Saturday morning she was still laughing . . . how pretty she was then; she was her usual self. . . . At 3 o’clock I spoke to Maman for the last time . . . (Oh! If only it were just a nightmare). But no, alas it’s reality.3(p58) . . . she left a letter for me, a letter that is so precious; and she wrote to [my cousin] Jeannie, “Take care of Julie.” Her last word was “Julie.”3(p60)
Berthe's death certificate lists “no profession,” as had her marriage license. She is buried in the cemetery in Passy as “Berthe Morisot, widow of Eugène Manet.” Throughout her life, despite her successes, she frequently expressed doubts about her work.4Her friends had no doubt. On the first anniversary of her death, Monday, March 2, 1896, a retrospective exhibit was held. Monet, Renoir, and Degas supervised the installation of her works. Julie labeled the pictures with numbers assigned to them in the catalog; she noted the dates, sitters, and owners of the paintings. Julie's notes provided the basis for the fully illustrated catalog that was finally published in 1961. After her mother's death, Renoir was appointed as Julie's guardian and Degas took pride in introducing her to her husband several years later. He attended her wedding.
Berthe Morisot was an agnostic. She wrote, “Memory is the only part of life which is imperishable.1(p63) . . . I have often thought that immortality, our mystic life, was the trace we left of our material life.”5(p210)She questioned the life of the soul, writing, “There are people who never had a soul—how could it be eternal?”5(p210)Unlike her mother, Julie was religiously devout. Clearly, for Julie, remembrance of their lives together was imperishable as she championed her mother's work into the 20th century. Today Berthe Morisot is recognized as the first lady of Impressionism.4
Harris JC. Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden at Bougival. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(12):1356. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2008.511
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