"This is the lineage," wrote Morisot in a notebook near the end of her life, asking herself what her daughter Julie would become. Thinking into the future through her daughter, Morisot reflected on her past, on her mother and her mother's mother.
Marie Caroline Mayniel, my grandmother, whom I am like . . . a boyish frankness, a very lucid, very keen intelligence . . . didn't ever hesitate to speak boldly . . . gullible, superstitious . . . flew into terrible rages during which she swore like a manIt could be so vivid, so gay! Nothing can convey her imagination. . . .
My mother, Marie Cornélie, married quite young to Tiburce Morisot, very much enamored of him, wildly fond of
social life, intoxicated by her successes, saved from the intrigue around her by her great love for her husband. She had wit, innocence, grace, and kindness . . . she had the gift of charm and an admirable nature.
As Morisot describes her mother and grandmother, she concentrates on their moral character and their intelligence. More particularly, she recalls the expression of their intelligencethe way they spoke. And because she values self-expression and its formulation, she dwells on their education. Of her grandmother:
Her education at Saint-Denis,1 which was then considered very superior, had instilled in her, besides the French language, which she spoke with extreme precision, a smattering of ancient history and a rather elementary knowledge of science. Her intellect went no farther, however; she firmly believed that this was the last word in female development, often taking me aside and nonplussing me with a test on Arabia Pétréa or some such equally interesting topic. . . . She would have been delightfully charming had she had the genuinely intellectual training that would have kept her from suddenly giving way to childish nonsense.
Of her mother:
She wrote with great facility and charm. I've saved her letters. . . . Though she had little education (her mother, having kept her at home because of her sweet character, taught her only spelling, boxing her ears to drive the lesson home), her reading and her social graces had made her a very pleasant companion.
It is educationhowever little they receivethat gives shape and charm to women's intellectual gifts, and it was Morisot's own education, which she graciously ascribes to circumstance, that made the difference between her fate and her grandmother's.
I said I was like my grandmother; I meant only in terms of appearance. I'm not her equal in many respects, but circumstances have improved me more.
And finally, more grimly, Morisot finds in her mother a legacy of spiritual strength that makes suffering endurable.
She was indifferent to the material world, knowing it was beneath her. She died in atrocious pain, conscious until the last moment, perfectly lucid in spirit.
If her maternal lineage gave Morisot a sense of moral and intellectual identity, her paternal lineage provided her with social and artistic security. Of her father and grandfathers, Morisot never wrote. The facts were public knowledge.2
The men in her mother's Thomas family were high-level civil servants, trésoriers-payeurs-généraux (chief treasurers and paymasters of the province), and her father, Edme Tiburce Morisot, was a civil servant also. He was born in March or April of 1806 into a family of skilled artisans. Family tradition claims indirect descent from the painter Fragonard. Tiburce's brother became a "master carpenter," but he himself had higher aspirations. Somewhere along the line he picked up an engineering degree.
Around the age of twenty-six, in Paris, Tiburce Morisot founded with some others an architecture periodical: his bid for artistic status. Unfortunately, his partners were crooks and absconded with the funds, leaving Tiburce to face the creditors. Honest but unable to cover the magazine's debts, he left what little furniture he owned to his landlord in lieu of rent and fled to Greece in about 1834.
He returned to France a prudent time afterward, penniless. A "very handsome man," "with a distinguished education," he managed to make a "very good marriage," and suddenly he had an independent income of eight thousand francs a year. (The average French worker then earned three francs a day.) His powerful father-in-law Thomas, at that point "personnel director of the Finance Ministry," pulled strings, and Tiburce was offered the job of subprefect at Yssingeaux on February 20, 1836. Yssingeaux was and is the second most important city in the department of the Haute-Loire in southeast central France.
The job, though honorable, was not so important that the government was taking a big chance in awarding it to this unqualified young man. Tiburce outdid expectations. Only a year later he was promoted to a more important subprefecture at Valenciennes, a large town very near the Belgian border. His former
boss congratulated him with regret and predicted further advancement in the civil service, lauding his administrative acumen and his good taste in people as well as in things.
Soon after his arrival in Valenciennes, Tiburce suppressed worker unrest in the Anzin mines, to the central government's satisfaction. This and subsequent handling of provincial matters earned him praise, and a July 1839 report characterized him as upright and prudent in every way, "kindly and reserved at the same time, straightforward without being harsh."
On January 29, 1840, came another promotion, this time to the full prefecture of the Cher, a province almost in the center of France. Once again, a ministry official used the same sheet to draft both an announcement to Tiburce and a note to his fatherin-law, assuring M. Thomas that he was "glad to have this occasion to prove my desire to be agreeable." Now Tiburce was the monarchy's chief administrator for an entire province. He had also, between 1837 and 1840, obtained a sinecure as "rapporteur" of the Council of State. In 1841 he and the prefect of the Haute-Vienne, a province slightly to the southwest, switched posts, and the Morisot family moved to Limoges, the Haute-Vienne's capital, in August. On April 29, 1846, he was named an Officer of the Legion of Honor, a major award.
From then on, Tiburce Morisot's career, and hence Berthe Morisot's childhood, followed in the turbulent wake of French politics. Tiburce was a model bureaucrat, who accepted whatever government came to power, but the radical shifts from monarchy to republic to presidency to autocracy during the next twenty years put even his malleability to the test.
The revolution of 1848 included mob action in Limoges, which Tiburce defused "by asking the population to return to order, assuring it of the vigilance of the public authorities." The new republican government ousted him nonetheless. His father-inlawnow Caissier-Payeur Central du Trésor (Paymaster General of the Treasury) at the Finance Ministrypleaded his case repeatedly, as did his wife's maternal uncle, arguing the Mayniels' proven patriotism and four young children involved. Finally, Tiburce Morisot was named prefect of the Calvados, a northern, Norman province, on January 10, 1849. (His independent income had risen by this time to ten thousand francs a year.) The
shadow of his service to previous regimes still hung over him, however, and when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seized absolute power in 1851 with his December 2 coup d'état, his ministry of the interior fired Tiburce Morisot within the week. A hue and cry ensued among the Calvados population. From its capital, Caen, came letters from every quarter, warning that "news of the dismissal has produced a very unfortunate impression there among all classes of society" and even admonishing the ministry.
It had been an insufficient proof of loyalty, apparently, to have posted a sign on December 6 announcing to the Calvados "the happy outcome of the supreme struggle begun in Paris. . . . Everywhere the Authorities have done their duty." Still, it would have been unwise to ignore the evidence of his popular support, so on December 9 the new Napoleonic ministry appointed Tiburce to the prefecture of the Ille-et-Vilaine, a lesser post in a Breton province to the west.
The Morisot family moved to the populous city of Rennes, but not for long. Whether he bore a grudge against the Second Empire, or whether for once he could not reconcile his principles with administrative policy, Tiburce Morisot proceeded to commit a serious political error. He protested vigorously and in writing against Napoleonic confiscation of Orleanist possessions. Napoleon had nationalized properties belonging to the previous reigning family on January 23. Tiburce was not alone in his alarm at this act of appropriation. Nonetheless, though on April 23 he signed an oath of obedience to the new regime, on July 5 he was removed from active government responsibility. The family returned to Paris: in what was then a Parisian suburb, Passy, they dwelt on the steep rue des Moulins, now the rue Scheffer.
Once more Cornélie's Thomas family rallied. The usual letters were dispatched, but to no avail. Finally, Cornelie's mother, the outspoken Caroline Mayniel, penned a tart note to the ministry, rebuking the government's ingratitude for Tiburce Morisot's years of service and her family's contribution to the first Napoleon's military successes, and castigating their implacable condemnation of her grandchildren to a reduced standard of living. No result. Over the years new appeals would be filed, interviews solicited. Tiburce was consigned to the respectable but much less
powerful administrative position of Conseiller-référendaire á la Cour des Comptes (Judicial Adviser to the Auditor's Office).
Still, Tiburce Morisot held an eminently respectable position in society and a distinguished civil record, and he enjoyed a sizable private income. The family were decidedly and permanently members of the upper middle class, what in France is called la grande bourgeoisie. In the years to come, when Berthe Morisot's choices made her a social eccentric, class privilege would protect her from overt criticism. And she would never need to earn her living. A career might happily supplement an income; but she would never depend on a career for her daily needs.
Berthe's family by this time consisted of father, mother, two sisters, and one brother. Her mother, Marie Cornélie, was married in 1835, when she was only sixteen, and gave birth to her first child, christened Marie Elisabeth Yves but called Yves, three years later. One year after, in 1839, came Marie Edma Caroline Morisot, called Edma. And on January 14, 1841, in Bourges, capital of the Cher, Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot was born. Tiburce, always to be a rather vague character, followed sometime between 1845 and 1848.
We know little about Berthe Morisot's childhood, but two recollections give us an idea of how she herself perceived her formation.
In the same notebook in which she described her mother and grandmother, Berthe wrote about her English governess, Louisa. Louisa was her governess for only a year or two, around 184849, but she left a lasting impression on her small charge, giving her, among other traits, a deep appreciation of Shakespeare.
I loved her as only children can love, I thought she was perfect, you understand, just perfect; I saw her as pretty and apparently she was quite uglyShe instilled in me, first, an absolute faitheven in miraclesa faith I've lost, or almost Then a certain moral strength, the courage to suffer in silence. When I was very small, I would cry in my bed when I was feeling sorry for myself, and she pretended not to hear me and did not console me. She taught me the meaning of equality, of fraternityI've never despised a disabled person. I've never loved one either; that was the
flaw in her education, she didn't appeal to my sensitivity, and a woman has to be sensitive, or certainly seem to be.
A child crying alone in her bed. A child without self-pityand yet a woman remembering a passionate attachment and characterizing her feelings for others with two of the three concepts from the stirring motto of the French Revolution: "Liberty. Equality. Fraternity."
What of liberty, the liberty to be or develop oneself? Berthe would preserve her mother's letters, and the two she kept from her childhood touch on her early efforts to express herself in writing and in music. Both are letters of maternal encouragement, praise, and pride, though in the first letter, her mother chides her "dear little fawn," her "jewel," for her sloppy handwriting, before saying:
Continue to be sweet so that I can be proud and especially happy because of my little Berthe. Since you have an aptitude for the piano, study with care and perseverance; you'll see later how glad you'll be to be able to give pleasure to others and some good moments to yourself. I've on more than one occasion said that I would have been willing to suffer some handicap in exchange for musical talentSo if you're like me, work.
Cornélie wished, then, that she had been a musician, and hoped Berthe would be one in her place. Not because it might become a career but because music would be a satisfying way to please others and, occasionally, oneself.
Although Berthe was encouraged and brought up by her grandmother, her governess, and her mother, her closest childhood companion and influence was her sister Edma. Two years apart in age, they would share a commitment to painting instead of music, make plans and vows together, travel together. Their partnership seems to have been based on a long-standing complicity and a closeness that excluded even other members of the immediate family. Their sister Yves, only a year older, wrote Edma wistfully in the summer of 1862:
Father was saying yesterday evening that we would never be privy to all the incidents of your trip, but that, for the
next six months, you would discuss them with each other in the solitude and secret of your room; we would have to listen at the door if we were curious to know of your impressions.
Behind every great woman there is another woman. Perhaps the only common denominator among nineteenth-century women of outstanding public achievements is their private bond to a female relative, almost always a sister, very often a sister with considerable talents of her own. It remains a subject of fascination that one family produced three exceptional writers: Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Brontë. But it would be more accurate to consider the marvel of the phenomenon as its explanation. Each sister was the other's most constructive critic, challenging audience, and loyal supporter. In the case of many women, like the Brontës, there was for many years no other. Morisot grew up in an atmosphere infinitely freer and more stimulating than the Brontës': privileged, teeming with new ideas, opportunities, and companions. But in her crucial, formative years, she too depended most of all on her sister. Behind Berthe Morisot was Edma Morisot.
Excerpted from Berthe Morisot by Anne Higonnet Copyright © 1995 by Anne Higonnet. Excerpted by permission.
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