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Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets [detail]. Édouard Manet. 1872. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. When Manet painted this portrat, Morisot was in mourning following the death of her father.

By all accounts, the independent and unattached Berthe Morisot fascinated the married Édouard Manet. Between 1868, when they first met, and 1874, when she married his brother, he painted her portrait eleven times, making her his most frequent model. His wife Susan Leenhoff sat for five paintings [Luncheon on the Grass] and Victorine Meurent [Olympia, Luncheon on the Grass], eight.

One of the earliest documented conflicts between the two artists, Morisot and Manet, occured in 1869 as Morisot prepares a painting, Portrait of mother and the sister of the artist reading, for consideration by the Salon. At Morisot's invitation, Édouard Manet came to give her feedback on the piece. The day he came coincided with the day that she had arranged for the Salon to pick it up. The text below is from a letter she wrote to her sister Edma concerning what happened that day. This letter -- along with the response by Manet and Morisot's mother -- not only provides a window into the relationship between Morisot and Manet but into societal attitudes toward women as serious artists in nineteenth century France.

'Tomorrow, after I have sent off my pictures, I shall come to see yours, and you may put yourself in my hands. I shall tell you what needs to be done.' The next day ... he came at about one o'clock; he found it very good, except for the lower part of the dress. He took the brushes and put in a few accents that looked very well. ... That is where my misfortunes began. Once started, nothing could stop him; from the skirt he went to the bust, from the bust to the head, from the head to the background. He cracked a thousand jokes, laughed like a madman, handed me the palette, took it back; finally by five o'clock in the afternoon we had made the prettiest caricature that was ever seen. The carter was waiting to take it away; he made me put it on the hand-cart. ... And now I am left confounded. My only hope is that I shall be rejected. My mother thinks this episode funny, but I find it agonizing.*

Manet produced his final images of Morisot during the time she became involved with his younger brother and then married him (1872-74). These last portraits provide a window into the intense desire and rivalry which Manet felt in his relationship with her. As the loss of Morisot neared, there was an increasing distortion of her image and departure from his usual painterly technique. This culminates in the skull-like portrait Berthe Morisot in a mourning hat [1874]. After Morisot's marriage, Manet never painted her again. He died in 1883 of complications from syphilis. At his death, seven of her eleven portraits remained in his private collection.

[immediately above] A bouquet of violets. Édouard Manet. 1872. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Manet gave this painting to Morisot in 1872 and is another intriguing dimension to their relationship. The violets and fan are objects found in two earlier portraits: The Balcony, where she carries a red fan, and Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets, where the violets are pinned to her dress. The third object, a partially folded letter, reveals handwriting which reads: à Mlle Berthe and bears the signature, E. Manet. Art historians note that this particular trio of symbols represents the primary tools of Victorian seduction. In other words, the painting serves as Manet's coded communication of sexual desire.

The mother and the sister of the artist reading. Berthe Morisot. 1969. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

*The source for this quote is Unmasking Manet's Morisot, Marni R. Kessler, Art Bulletin, September 1999. The painting depicts Morisot's sister, Edma Pontillon, in the last stages of her first pregnancy.

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