Five Extraordinary Women Who Influenced the Course of Modern Art

Study Day

This study day looks at the lives and work of five women who in different ways influenced the course of modern painting in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The study day is wide ranging and brings in many artists within their circles and should appeal to a wide range of interests. The five women are:

1. Berthe Morisot  1841-1895

Entering the established art world as a woman in the 19th century was very difficult, but being involved in a group of anti-Establishment artists such as the Impressionists made this task virtually impossible. Yet Berthe Morisot became one of the few woman Impressionists to make her reputation in this male dominated world. Brought up in a wealthy and respectable family, she was given private art tuition and regularly copied paintings in the Louvre. She met Edouard Manet who became a life long supporter: this relationship continued after she married Edouard’s brother Eugene in 1874. Berthe was extremely talented and beautiful but suffered self doubts. Her works are both delicate and sensitive and she worked in oils, pastels and watercolours. She exhibited regularly with the Impressionists and took part in their famous first exhibition at Nadar’s studio in 1874.

Berthe Morisot ‘The Cradle’

2. Mary Cassatt 1844-1926

Born near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt spent most of her adult life in France. She travelled extensively in Europe with her parents, before settling in Paris in 1866 to study painting. Unable as a woman to join the Ecole des Beaux Arts she copied paintings in the Louvre. At first her work was accepted by the Salon, but after a series of rejections she was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists by Degas with whom she had an enduring, but platonic relationship. Although she was never married, Mary Cassatt became a wonderful painter of domestic scenes, in particular, mothers with small children which she depicted in oils and pastels. She was also an outstanding printmaker deeply influenced by the Japanese. Mary also played an important role in introducing French Impressionism to the United States.

Mary Cassatt ‘Mother and Child’

3. Misia Sert 1877-1950

Misia’s extraordinary life was celebrated in 2012 with a one-man show at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. With her first husband, Thadee Natanson, she was involved in the famous art magazine ‘La Revue Blanche’ and was painted by Bonnard, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir. She later inherited money from her second husband and devoted twenty years to supporting Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes acting virtually as his business manager. Misia was a brilliant concert pianist, a pupil of Gabriel Faure, and she persuaded Diaghilev to stage ballets by Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie and Milhaud. She was also a close friend and confidante of Coco Chanel.

Misia Sert 1897

4. Suzanne Valadon 1865-1938

Born in poverty, Suzanne began modelling in Montmartre aged 15. She was a successful model and greatly in demand and we see her in a number of important works such as Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘Hangover’ and Renoir’s ‘Dance at Bougival’. She also posed for Degas who saw her talent as an artist, encouraged her to paint and bought her works. She quickly established a reputation for her striking and unusual nudes as well as her figure paintings and was exhibited by the leading Parisian dealers. There is a uncompromising modernity about her work which makes them appear very contemporary. She was the mother of Maurice Utrillo whose alcoholism caused her many problems.

Suzanne Valadon ‘Casting the Net’

5. The Marchesa Luisa Casati 1881-1957

A fascinating and even outrageous figure, Luisa was born into a huge Italian fortune which she recklessly spent on herself and art during her lifetime, dying in penury in London in 1957. Painted brilliantly by Giovanni Boldini , Augustus John, Kees van Dongen and other leading artists as well as being photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, Luisa staged extravagant parties at her palace on the Grand Canal (now the Peggy Guggenheim Museum) and her mansion outside Paris. Extravagantly dressed and accompanied by two black panthers, she became a fashion icon and a legend in her time. More recently John Galliano based his 1998 Dior collection on Casati, as did Karl Lagerfeld in his 2009 Venice collection and Alexander McQueen in 2007. The Marchesa range designed by Georgina Chapman continues to remind us of this extraordinary woman.

Giovanni Boldini ‘Marchesa Luisa Casati’