One of the best loved Gilbert & Sullivan operettas is The Mikado, and one of its best loves songs is “Three Little Maids from School”. My wife and I were talking about Gilbert & Sullivan the other night, and about how so many communities on the east coast used to have a FROGS (Friends of Gilbert & Sullivan) group. These groups would put any Englishman to shame in their love and enthusiasm for the famous duo, and presented yearly community productions. Artist that I am, I had to contribute something to top her knowledge of music (and of the east coast!). So, I told her the story of les trois grandes dames of Impressionism. Art critic, Gustave Geffroy, so labeled Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Marie Braquemond “the three great ladies” of the French Impressionist School.
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) grew up within the haute bourgeois of Paris. As a member of the upper middle class—and a woman—she was certainly not expected to work, let alone exhibit her work. But so strong was her dedication to art that the restrictions placed on female artists often left her depressed, insecure, and full of self-doubt. Morisot studied with Corot, who introduced her to plein air (outdoor) painting. She, in turn, introduced plein air to her brother-in-law and close friend, Manet. Morisot’s work was first accepted into the Salon de Paris, the official academic exhibit, in 1864. She exhibited successfully at subsequent Salons until 1874, when she joined the Impressionists. In support of their radical and academically unaccepted style, she exhibited with them at the Salon des Refusés, held in Nadar’s photography studio in 1874. Like the other female Impressionists, Morisot’s work reflects the 19th-century cultural restrictions of her class and gender. Many of her works are portraits of domestic life. Berthe Morisot was the wife of Eugène Manet, brother of the painter Edouard.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was also from a prominent family. She, too, felt the restrictions of being a woman in the art world. Born in Pennsylvania, Cassatt left the security of home for Paris in 1866. By 1868, she was accepted to exhibit at the Salon de Paris. She returned briefly to the US in 1870 to live at home. Continual pressure from her father to marry into her station, and his refusal to pay for any of her art supplies, sent her packing back to Paris the following year. By 1872, she was again exhibiting at the Salon. Cassatt was a very outspoken woman who grew disenchanted with the Salon and its jury. Citing their condescending and contemptible view of female artists, she became a bit too vocal for her own good. What followed were consistent refusals of her yearly entries. Finally in 1877, she was invited by Degas to show with the Impressionists. Mentored by Degas and taught by him how to use pastels, Cassatt fully embraced the Impressionist style. She, in turn, mentored American women who came to Paris to further art careers. She introduced California artist Lucy Bacon to Pissarro and convinced him to take her on as a student.
Marie Braquemond (1840-1916) is the less familiar name in this trio. Braquemond was a student of Ingres and in 1857, her first painting was accepted into the Salon. After 1864, Braquemond was a regular exhibitor. In 1869, she married Félix Braquemond, an engraver who was artistic director for the Haviland Studio at Auteuil; there, she found herself designing dinnerware and tile panels. Félix Braquemond made it his primary campaign to thwart his wife’s artistry and career as a painter. The years 1887-1890, mentored by both Monet and Degas, Braquemond’s work moved progressively into the Impressionist style, much to her husband’s disgust. By this time, she was totally overshadowed by his criticism and his insults in front of friends and colleagues. After 1890, Braquemond gave up and produced only a few more paintings until her death. Sadly, she was, in fact, the closest of anyone to the true Impressionist ideals.
Of course, there were other women in the circle of Impressionists. Suzanne Valadon was the first women admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Lilla Cabot Perry was so taken with Monet’s work that she moved from Paris to Giverny where she became a close friend. Eva Gonzalès was Manet’s only student. Like Manet, she didn’t exhibit with the Impressionists, but her style was strikingly similar.
In an age when women, particularly women artists, were severely criticized for trying to enter the man’s world of art, the three grandes dames established a place for women in painting. And we can be thankful for their outspoken refusal to be shelved in a stifling domestic environment. I can forgive Marie Braquemond for “selling out”. After all, enough is enough! But she did make a name for herself and is remembered in the trio of stellar artists, alongside Morisot and Cassatt. So they weren’t really “maids from school” at all, but “great ladies”. Good thing Gilbert & Sullivan weren’t French!