A summer day in Paris: Berthe Morisot’s Hunting Butterflies

Berthe Morisot, Hunting Butterflies, 1874, oil on canvas, 46 x 56 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, looking at Berthe Morisot’s “Hunting Butterflies.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] Morisot was a key member of the Impressionist circle, that group of artists who exhibited together between 1874 and 1886.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] Like Degas, she came from an upper-class family, but as a woman she had more restrictions on where it was appropriate for her to be seen. The result is that many of her paintings depict the world that she inhabited, and here we see a young woman with children.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] She, and Cassatt too, often depicted domestic subjects like this one. Here we are out-of-doors, like many Impressionist paintings, and that sense of loose, sketchy brushwork that flouted the rules of the Academy. This looked like a sketch, not a finished painting.

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] This was made in 1874, the same year as the first Impressionist exhibition. The lack of resolve in form would have been seen as absolutely radical, and it snubbed everything that academic painting held dear.

Dr. Harris: [1:01] By academic painting, we’re referring to the traditions of painting that were carried on by the Academy through its School of Fine Arts that also, for the most part, controlled official exhibitions in Paris.

[1:14] We’re clearly in a park. We’re not in the actual countryside. This is a well-to-do Parisian family out for a day of leisure. For all its sketchiness and looseness of that brushwork, there’s still a forthrightness about that central figure, who looks directly out at us.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] She holds a butterfly net at a diagonal, in contrast to the upright tree immediately to her right that separates her space in the canvas from the space of the children.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] The expectation of a painting would be that it would create an illusion of space, but there really isn’t one here.

[1:46] If we take that flowering tree: look at that brownish paint that follows along the bottom, that moves up the left side. It doesn’t change its tonality. It doesn’t move from dark to light as it moves into the background. It just stands out as paint.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] That bit of soil before the planting, where the tree is located, functions two ways. We can read it back in space, but we have to force that a little bit. It also rests on the surface of the canvas.

[2:11] Here we see an artist who is experimenting with allowing paint to function simultaneously in two ways, both as a vehicle to depiction and as a forthright representation of itself. Because of that, we see canvases like this by Morisot and by Édouard Manet, for example, as creating a conflict between recessionary space, the illusion of depth, and the flatness of the canvas.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] That figure strides toward us. There’s an insistence on her subjectivity here that I find fascinating from a woman artist.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] I love how, despite the softness of the brushwork, her eyes are piercing. They look directly at us, they catch our gaze, and they hold it. The young woman is acting into space, is in control of this space.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] And moving away from a child who almost seems to be beckoning toward her.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] One could almost say that by expressing her independence, she refuses to be like the butterflies that she wants to capture in that net.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A summer day in Paris: Berthe Morisot’s Hunting Butterflies," in Smarthistory, May 23, 2018, accessed June 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/morisot-butterflies/.