7 Female Impressionists Every Art History Lover Should Know
“Only a woman has the right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system,” Téodor de Wyzewa wrote in an 1891 article. The art critic made the claim that the French Impressionist style celebrated superficiality in a way that was intrinsically—and unflatteringly—feminine. “She alone,” he continued, “can limit her effort to the translation of impressions.” Other art critics joined de Wyzewa’s chorus, belittling the Impressionists for a new art form they felt suggested the limited capabilities of women, not the sharpened skills of men.
An independent group of artists that staged exhibitions outside the established Paris salon system, the Impressionists were indeed radical, and not easy for critics to love. They prioritized studying the effects of light in small-format works predominantly painted en plein air with unblended colors rendered in soft, broken brushstrokes. Instead of aspiring toward monumental history painting—then considered the pinnacle of artistic achievement—the Impressionists, with their countless views of contemporary Paris, argued that modern life was itself a worthy subject.
This focus on quotidian subject matter helped open the door for female artists. Women had traditionally been prevented from attempting history painting, since the requisite knowledge of human anatomy was considered too ambitious for a woman. Instead, they were pushed toward painting less formal works illustrating daily life, a theme that became synonymous with the Impressionists. Indeed, it was one of the first art movements to include a woman as a founding member.
Yet only five women participated in the entire sequence of eight Impressionist exhibitions (two of whom used pseudonyms and only participated once). Other female artists studied and adopted the Impressionist style, but were formally excluded from the movement. Below are seven artists who exercised their feminine “right to rigorously practice the Impressionist system.”
Parisian rules of decorum dictated that Berthe Morisot couldn’t venture alone to the bars, cafés, and theaters that were the bread-and-butter subjects of her male colleagues. The upper-class French woman still found satisfying ways to be radical, taking on seemingly tame subjects—domestic interiors, portraits of women, and motherhood—from a decidedly female perspective, her fluid brushstrokes verging on the abstract.
After an invitation from Edgar Degas to show work in the first exhibition of the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers, as the Impressionists were originally known, Morisot went on to participate in seven of the group’s eight shows—more than any other female artist. Popular subjects in her paintings were her daughter, Julie, and husband, Eugène—the younger brother of avant-garde painter Édouard Manet, who inspired many Impressionists.
Marie Bracquemond, Under the Lamp, 1877. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
As a teenager, Marie Bracquemond created her first painting—a birthday present for her mother—with pigments from field flowers she crushed herself. This scrappy ingenuity characterized the rest of her creative life. Due to limited resources, Bracquemond, unlike most other female Impressionists, was largely self-taught. As a teenager, she was presented with a rare opportunity when family friends introduced her to Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who recognized her talent and invited her to study in his studio. Despite Ingres’s pedigree, Bracquemond eventually left, explaining in a letter that “he doubted the courage and perseverance of a woman in the field of painting.…He would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes.”
Those subjects didn’t match Bracquemond’s interests or ambitions. She chose to produce large-scale paintings of women, often in outdoor settings painted en plein air. She exhibited three times with the Impressionists, but her husband, the engraver Félix Bracquemond, discouraged his wife’s art career, eventually leading her to give up painting altogether.
Swiss artist Louise Catherine Breslau first began drawing as a means of survival, an attempt to stave off boredom during the childhood years she spent at a lakeside convent recovering from asthma. The diversion soon became her primary focus, and once old enough, she moved to Paris to study art. Within a couple of years, Breslau succeeded in exhibiting a self-portrait at the Paris salon. Breslau showed regularly in the time-honored salon, but adapted some habits of the Impressionists: She painted en plein air in Brittany (a popular artist destination), and used a deft, sketchy brushstroke. Breslau found enough success to open her own studio, which was largely supported by her portrait commissions.
“No woman has the right to draw like that,” Edgar Degas allegedly said upon viewing his friend Mary Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit (1891). The backhanded compliment apparently didn’t hinder Cassatt’s confidence or success, and she triumphantly recounted the remark years later in a letter to the director of the Carnegie Museum of Art when the painting entered its permanent collection.
Pittsburgh-born Cassatt’s audacity to draw masterfully was one of many conventions the artist broke in her lifetime. She pursued a rigorous art education, but when the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, then the top American art academy, prevented her from attending drawing sessions with nude models, she headed to Paris. Cassatt ultimately became the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists, showing with them four times. In addition to finding success as a professional artist, Cassatt also helped introduce Impressionism to an American network of patrons through her family connections and personal friendships.
Born into a creative Parisian family (her father was a novelist, her mother a musician), Eva Gonzalès and her sister Jeanne were always encouraged to paint. As a teenager in Paris, she trained with painter Charles Joshua Chaplin (who was also, coincidentally, one of Cassatt’s first French instructors), before eventually moving on to Édouard Manet’s studio, where she was his only formal student—and an occasional model.
Gonzalès never showed with the Impressionists, preferring the recognition that came with having her work accepted for exhibition at the prestigious and traditional salon (a feat she achieved in 1879). Still, her pastel palette and loose style have always linked her with the Impressionists, and she knew a few of them, including Berthe Morisot and Paul Cézanne, personally. Gonzalès died young from an embolism soon after the birth of her son, leaving behind a body of work that included mostly portraits and interior scenes.
Lilla Cabot Perry drew as a child, but only learned to paint at age 36, after the births of her three daughters. Painting quickly became a daily practice for the next 50 years of her life. Born and raised in Boston, Perry’s wealth enabled her to live and study in Paris, family in tow. In France, she developed a love for the Impressionists, inspiring her to deliver lectures about the artistic circle back home and exhibit her personal collection of works by Claude Monet.
Her love of Monet’s light-filled landscapes eventually dictated her family’s vacation choices, leading them to spend nine summers in a rented house in the town of Giverny, close to his garden-enveloped home. The two artists became friends, and with Monet’s encouragement, Perry began painting landscapes outdoors, adoptinglight brushstrokes and a soft color palette.
From humble beginnings painting on fine China and drawing fossils for a geological survey, Philadelphian artist Cecilia Beaux became a prominent portraitist. Her personal style, which combined solid academic training with an experimental streak, was sought after by prominent figures such as American president Theodore Roosevelt and French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. Beaux’s portraits are appropriately stately and serious, but also capture the sitter’s individuality.
Beaux was wildly successful during her day, despite early struggles during her studies at the Académie Julian in Paris. “You know how I hate to fail,” she wrote in a letter at the time. “My grip is pretty hard as a rule.” Beaux made eight trips to France, beginning at the height of the Impressionist movement, and there, she developed the habit of painting en plein air, using loose brushwork and dramatically cropping paintings.