the lie and the legacy: the Fempressionists

Les Nympheas by Claude Monet

The French Impressionists are loved all over the world today, and there are few people who are interested in the arts who have not heard of Giverny, the idyllic gardens where Monet lived and painted. Monet made them famous by painting some of his greatest works there. His paintings of water lilies have become synonymous with gentile sophistication. Most casual art lovers assume that he enjoyed ultimate happiness there in such beautiful, inspiring surroundings. Surely he and his family were basking in such a carefree, artistic lifestyle, and his sunny, colorful paintings were his way of sharing his joy.

That would make a great story, but that is not what echoes across the ponds of Giverny. Probably the greatest irony about Giverny is the hardship and difficulty which its gardens have covered over with time. The tintypes I found caught my attention at first because of the glamorous people I recognized. But as I researched the faces, and learned the names and the stories behind them, other tintypes began to tell a deeper, tragic story, inconveniently based on the facts.  That affected me far more than the shallow, pretty faces I had been admiring. My collection became a soap box opera complete with villains and fools and behind-the-scenes heroes.

If I were to write a fitting book about this epic tragedy, its stars would mostly be women.

But one has already been written: the private lives of the impressionists, by Sue Roe. Thanks to her, I could understand the heroism and complexities of the Fempressionists. 

The heroes of the Impressionist movement were not the main artists, whom we venerate today. There were spurts of sterling behavior and leadership from Manet, son of a prominent judge, or Monet, the son of a merchant. Theirs were the most famous names associated with this unorthodox art movement which most Frenchmen considered as a failure executed by madmen. The other, less political artists looked to them for direction. Claude Monet did spend some time in the beginning weaving the group together, much like Bazille, his deceased roommate had dreamed. But Manet stayed aloof and Renoir was selling well enough not to need the Impressionist association, and remained cynical. He went along to get along.  Monet's backbone was disintegrating, and after several years the poor sales and the political complications of trying to organize artists became too frustrating. Meanwhile he had a tangled web at home to navigate.

Pissarro and Sisley were the quiet stereotypical artists, sensitive types, preferring to distance themselves and concentrate on their painting. In those first seven exciting years, Edouard Manet never agreed to show with the group, not once, not wanting to jeopardize his status as a respected Salon artist. In fact it was Degas, the man who shunned plein air painting (and most of the theories of the Impressionists), who needed the group on a psychological level and worked to save it whenever negotiations for solidarity fell apart. It turns out the shining light in the group for him, and in fact for all of this male-dominated group, was Berthe Morisot.

Berthe Morisot in Repose, by Edouard Manet. (cropped)

Berthe Morisot was a stunningly beautiful woman, and that is probably why the men made an exception for her in their group. After all, as a blue-blood, upper class lady she could not (would not) hang out in the taverns with them, where they did all of their carousing and brainstorming, thus she could not be any kind of threat. But she was a solid artist, who would model for them, and she looked good adorning their shows. She also unselfishly helped to sell their works, and she put money into the promotion of their events, and brought along clients from her social circle. 

 L@L  the Morisot clan. Tiburce and his mother Cornelie
 stand behind the sister artists. Wealthy and influential,
 the Morisot clan was useful to the Impressionists.
 Edma and Berthe (seated ) were trained by professional 
artists and had recognized talent. Edma got married,
 Berthe devoted herself to art and specifically the
 Impressionist movement.

Berthe Morisot was moody and insecure, but she was devoted to art, had already earned official respect at Salon exhibits. More importantly, at times she helped pay for their expenses, published the advertising materials, and was the only one trusted to hang the shows (very touchy business!). She not only provided capital and inspiration, she was the constant in the equation. She did everything but paint the pictures, for this group of whining, undeserving underachievers.  She was the mother.

 L@L  Gustave Caillebotte

Later Gustave Caillebotte, another budding artist/son of privilege, but one with A JOB,  joined right along side of her, buying their works, subsidizing their showings, anything to keep the movement alive. The young artist was as committed as Morisot was to their success, but found the group falling apart. Soon there was petty jealousy from Monet and Degas that this newcomer was exercising too much authority. Monet began to threaten not to show. 

 L@L  Mary Cassatt... like an indulgent aunt
herding crying children. (detail from a photograph)

Then Degas befriended an American woman who showed great promise in several ways, and invited her to show with them. This probably signaled the end of the old group, and the warm fraternal feelings they had shared. A second woman represented a cataclysmic shift in power, to a group of insecure, chauvinist narcissists.  Most of them were dubious and jealous, and began to behave in strange ways. Perhaps bitter at circumstances, even Berthe Morisot, preoccupied during the last Impressionist show with pregnancy, seemed to have been ambivalent at best about the presence of this assertive female achiever.

In spite of all of that, Mary Cassatt turned out to have the skill, ambition and connections to insure the survival and the legacy of Impressionism. As Berthe Morisot began to fade because of personal issues, Cassatt picked up the slack. She brokered a great deal of Impressionist art in Paris and planted the seeds of success in the United States. Her role in history has always been understated. 

To put it simply, Cassatt brought in the big money which lifted the Impressionists out of the self-destructive mire of elitist French bickering into acceptance and prosperity.  

I think art historians are generally reluctant to assert the importance which the collectors in the United States played in the lasting legacy of the French Impressionists. Not wanting to cause any more indignation between our country and theirs, they have always scooted past the obvious in deference to French pride. Art was where we find out commonalities, where we celebrate the brotherhood of man... Who cares how or why it happened, just be glad it did. And I could probably go along with that if France and the French were not so... haughty. True I have never been to France, but reports from many friends who have is that I do not want to go there because the people there are condescending and dislike Americans. 

I do not dislike them... I have genuine French (Durant & Brashear back to Charlemagne!) blood in my veins. But the truth is that the Impressionists were practically disbanded, destitute and without hope when Durand-Ruel, their agent tried a desperate move and took large containers full f their their works to America hoping to stimulate sales and keep the artists encouraged and eating. Thank goodness his plan worked. America was the gracious, open-minded atmosphere which immediately embraced the new art and guaranteed its survival and established it as a legitimate art movement. 

The artists cringed, Monet ignorantly and vehemently objected, as  Durand-Ruel went on to America with the purpose and devotion- and Cassatt administered aid like a nun among wretches. And like a nun, she never wanted or got much credit. Strangely, like and indulgent aunt, she seemed to have liked it that way.

Morisot and Cassatt were excellent artists, and yes they modeled some, but more importantly they brought several qualities to the group which it lacked and would never have survived without. They did not let petty issues derail the movement. That means they did not let their egos get in the way. They were more likely to encourage, overlook, forgive, and incorporate many other female abilities, that men, even Frenchmen, of that era found impossible. Morisot and Cassatt once bank-rolled an event, in the process publishing a poster, and yet left their own names off of it so there would be no objections from the “masters.” The two women Impressionists showed the kind of unselfish sacrifice that wives have always had to practice to move mankind forward.

Still, they were serving themselves as they served the male Impressionists. Albeit lop-sided, it was a business arrangement. The most heroic behavior came from the artist's wives and girl friends.

It would be impossible to do the women of Impressionism, the "Fempressionists," justice in the space of this blog. But I will briefly run through this hardy group of adventurers, as they are the true unsung protagonists of this story.

Suzanne Leenhoff was Edouard Manet's fleshy piano teacher, who taught him a great deal more than his parents bargained for. When she became pregnant, she and Manet fled to Paris and his crafty right-brained mother created false documents which deftly made the child Edouard's godson and Suzanne's nephew... and they hid the whole affair from Judge Manet until he died. Suzanne, ever adoring, put up with the charade and Manet's incessant womanizing and his insatiable ego and they finally married a decade later. All the while he was infatuated with Berthe Morisot, his idol and most celebrated model. The patron saint of artist's wives, Suzanne was understanding, never visibly jealous, a faithful, talented, patient model and helpmate till the end.

 L@L  Camille Monet
 Camille Monet paired up with Claude, the son of a ship chandler, before the Franco-Prussian War, when his only visible means of support was poor, indulgent Frederic Bazille. She stayed with him during countless moves, many in the middle of the night, running from angry landlords, and endured hunger, sickness, and want for fifteen years, before her health failed. She gave Claude two sons, Jean and Michael,  and tons of encouragement... all while her own life ebbed away.

 L@L the sons of Claude Monet; Jean & Michael out of Camille, the others out of Alice Hoschede.

Camille also endured the ultimate awkwardness of sharing her life with Claude's faithful female patron and companion; Alice Hoschede.  Alice came into their home to care for her during her illness... and supplied for Claude's "needs" as well. Meanwhile Camille existed in a depressing blur of insecurity and maddening pain, and true helplessness. She passed away from cancer of the cervix when only 32, still young, but when Monet's career was on the skids and he too had lost all hope.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that Camille died in pain and despair. Alice Hoschede got the gold mine. Camille got the shaft. 

 L@L  Alice Hoschede

It does not help our perspective that Alice was so pretty. A mother of four, and a devoted Monet fan and art collector, the powerful Belgian Alice Hoschede left her bumbling husband with his business failures and moved in, 4 children in tow, with the Monets. No one can say what Claude Monet's plan was... or if he even had one. Described by her first mother-in-law as witty, intelligent and strong-willed, no man from this world, or his wife was a match for Alice. 

In the beginning her presence was justified as a temporary favor during the separation from Mr. Hoschede. Then Camille got sick... and sicker. Alice stayed on, under the auspices of helping the Monet household, as Monet was busy painting some of his worst work ever, fighting with his group about coming exhibits, and trying to sell his works in a failing economy. When the Monets moved, she moved with them. Then she gave Monet (or someone!) a son, her fifth child. 

French men often had virtual harems. Hoschede the French Amazon had her men. She dared anyone to complain. Her husband had borrowed money from Monet which he could not repay, so he did not give them any trouble. She was kind of like loan collateral, and struggling Ernest Hoschede just stayed away. 

Alice took care of business, even arranging for things the bohemian Monets' had failed to plan for. When Camille died, she got a proper Christian burial (cheaper!) because Alice thought to get a priest to make their vows official, thus taking advantage of church burial services. (It's nice that a rejected and obsolete religion still has some kind of function...) Alice took over the Monet enterprise without missing a beat. As he got older, Monet became fussy and foolhardy. But Alice Hoschede had the mind for business that Monet had needed to be successful. Under her guidance Giverny was cultivated, Impressionism prevailed, and he became THE Claude Monet, in spite of his idiosyncrasies. No one ever played the villain and the hero simultaneously with more finesse.

 L@L  Aline Charigot Renoir

Perhaps the most patient of all was Aline Charigot Renoir, who did not get the reward or the protection of marriage until five years after she had given Pierre a handsome son. She had to make-do until he was ready to be inconvenienced with a family. And the whole time he was painting and enjoying his various female models, never admitting to his strict parents that he had a child. Renoir, the son of a tailor, is believed to have “had” the most women... and we know them by the paintings he cranked out... Lise Trehot, Michel Levy, and Aline Charigot, who got downright fat, and gladly brought aboard her cousin Gabrielle Renard to help take care of the three boys... and model her womanly form for the man... 

 L@L  Julie Manet

Julie Manet could easily have posed for THE FACES of
 two of the figures in this Renoir painting.

 Renoir's most beautiful model was Berthe Morisot's daughter, Julie Manet, a young woman whom he had committed to help support after she was orphaned at 16. Whether or not she modeled a la natural, he painted her in the nude... (sometimes sticking her sweet face on a huge, out of proportion body) creating the most glorious and bizarre nude fantasies of his time.

Degas had no woman, the closest being the stalwart Mary Cassatt. He once admitted that he could have married her, but said he could never have made love to her. Somewhere in their relationship, she became the mother he never had, a woman he actually liked, even respected, and he would never have tampered with that, perhaps his most treasured human relationship... 

 L@L   Mary Cassatt, about 25,
wholesome American girl
 when she first came to Paris.

Degas sought out the impressionists, nurtured the group passionately, because it had become his surrogate family. Sadly he failed the group and the impeccable Cassatt one too many times, when he did not meet his commitment to provide lithographic artist's prints for a show she labored to bring to fruition. She became disgusted and disillusioned with him and significantly cooled their friendship. Even mothers have their limit.

 Alfred Sisley with his wife, as they posed for Manet.

Camille Pissarro the veteran Portuguese spartan, and Sisley the merchant's son had long-suffering wives as well. They were more private so we know less about the chemistry of their relationships. (sorry, no pictures, so far) But Alfred Sisley's gorgeous wife, Marie Louise Adelaide Eugenie Lescouezec, made a great model for Renoir, who painted her and her husband dancing in one of his finest works. And it is good that he captured her, as her husband painted landscapes exclusively. She may have met Sisley as a model, as her family had fallen on hard times. When they joined households, his parents severed most of Sisley's financial support. She took a job at a florist to support her lover.

Julie Pissarro may have had the greatest hardship to overcome, losing and rebuilding her home during the Franco-Prussian War. Her husband was the black sheep from a prosperous Jewish merchant family.  They had always been on their own. She and Camille were already making their home together in Louveciennes when the war broke out. They had fled and been married in England with a few friends and ex-patriots to witness it. When hostilities ended, they came back to a disaster. One can only imagine the discouragement of returning to a ransacked house, full of bile, your husband's extensive inventory stolen or mutilated, covered with the stinking blood of slaughtered livestock. This was the glamorous life of an artist!

 L@L  Marie Cezanne

Although never allowed to show with the Impressionists, the meek and humble misfit Paul Cezanne has always been associated with them. Like Manet, he had no “group” otherwise. His wife Marie Hortense Cezanne was the most degraded and neglected of all, living in abject poverty, Cezanne playing the same game with his father that Manet and Renoir had played with theirs. Cezanne lied, hid and sneaked around his father for over ten years, avoiding discovery that he had a growing family, while taking money from his father, his friends, anyone to continue making paintings... which he could not sell. Marie was always tucked away somewhere out of sight, without event  the prestige of being married to a "famous Impressionist."  

Cezanne could never have claimed that he lacked access to the art world. In truth he was tolerated like a mascot, a source of pity if not comic relief. His wife, the Impressionists, even his childhood friend, Emile Zola, the most prominent art critic in France, failed to appreciate his works, which seemed more desperately incoherent, rather than iconoclastic. Still, towards the end of the Impressionist organization, when new blood was being recruited, some of the members fought to include him in their last shows.

Marie did all the work around the house, raised the children and lots of chickens and rabbits for food, completely underground, and waited patiently for Cezanne to figure it all out. He never did. She made a small fortune however when he died and avant garde art dealers competed to buy everything. She said he never knew what he was doing... but she did.

Five of the artists in this story who painted themselves as lefties. You have probably never heard of them, yet they were recognized as having superior skill. 

In all these accounts women made such a critical contribution it is impossible to separate them from the survival and victory achieved by the French Impressionists. AND I WOULD BET, (but there is no way to prove this), that in almost every case it was a left-brained woman (right-handed) making an otherwise hopeless situation possible, led by a right-brained artist, who would have perished without her. The right-handed artists seemed to have been notoriously better businessmen... as their names are more recognizable...

Left-brained masters- of right-brained processes in a left-brained world, these artists (except Van Gogh!) seemed to have been whole-brained, able to find balance and success in the art world. Degas and Van Gogh never married, functioning quite independently of any helpmate. Monet, Pissarro and Manet benefited greatly from common sense, earthbound wives.

Thank God for the"Fempressionists"!

When you add the women who were devoted art collectors of the new art, like Madame Charpentier, Havermeyer, etc., it becomes safe to say that without the involvement and intercession of key women, the French Impressionists would have been just another gang of loud, bragging drunks at the tavern.

Which begs the question... why don't we know this?

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