Why the Founding Mother of Impressionism Is An Entrepreneurship Icon
Female entrepreneurs are the same as 19th-century female artists. Some may consider this a bold statement, but why is it true?
With just 28% of startups having a female founder and 39% of women identifying as entrepreneurs, the sector is largely dominated by men – just like the world of art in the 19th-century. Maybe this is because of the lack of funding from venture capitalists, or the social expectation that women are less likely to take risks.
Whitney Wolfe, the CEO of Bumble and the youngest female founder to bring a U.S. company to the stock exchange, explained this assumption saying, “Historically, a lot of women have been discouraged to just go for it. We’ve been riddled with fear, and the ‘what ifs,’ and the ‘don’t be too out there,’ ‘be demure, be quiet.” Women have been told that their place isn’t in the boardroom, or in places of leadership. Even when they gain access to these spaces, they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, being talked over and sometimes ignored.
This treatment extends back hundreds of years. And if anyone can verify this prejudice, it’s 19th-century painter Berthe Morisot. During her lifetime, her desire to be a professional painter was a very radical choice to make. Women with the upper-middle-class status that Morisot’s family enjoyed were expected to marry and take care of the home, not pursue a career, especially within the male-dominated art field
Despite the stigma that may have negatively impacted her, she pushed forward, becoming the only woman in the founding circle of Impressionist painters. In a field, and art movement, dominated by men, Morisot became an important female voice. She balanced her life as a painter, her role as a mother, and the social expectations of a woman to create a unique point of view within her art. She used her limitations as creative fuel, succeeding despite society’s attempts to stop her.
“I do not think that any man ever treated a woman as his equal, and that is all I ask, because I know I am on a par with them,” Berthe Morisot
More than a Founding Member
Born in 1841, her parents encouraged her and her sister to paint when they were growing up but never anticipated her desire to paint professionally. Morisot started challenging the status quo at a young age, beginning lessons with her sister Edma as teenagers. They were lucky enough to afford private lessons from tutors, since women weren’t allowed to study at the national art academy. Their teachers recognized their talent, and introduced them to the art scene as best as they could given the limited access women had to art at the time.
Their work paid off because, in 1864, Morisot began to exhibit her work at the Paris Salon, a big step towards her dream of painting professionally.
While her sister Edma gave up painting after getting married, Morisot pushed forward. She already had new creative companions like Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Together, they formed new ways of painting, creating a movement that would become Impressionism. She liked their avant-garde approach to art and became a large influence in their artistic movement. She was already painting everyday scenes at the time – a break from the art world’s desire for religious subjects – and her techniques influenced the Impressionist approach to light and shadow.
In 1874, she married Eugene Manet, Eduoard Manet’s brother, calming fears that she would never marry. However, her main accomplishment that year was displaying her work in the first exhibition of Impressionist art – an exhibition that rebelled against Parisian standards for art at the time. In one year, Morisot showed that she didn’t need to give up her dreams to fit into society, while also participating in a groundbreaking art movement.
Unlike her sister, she continued painting after her marriage, showing her art at every annual Impressionist exhibition throughout her life. Her work brought her international recognition, allowing her to travel around the world for exhibitions. In a world that expected women to stay at home to care for the family, she became a traveling celebrity, visiting places like New York and London to show her work.
“Work is the sole purpose of my existence. . . . Indefinitely prolonged idleness would be fatal to me from every point of view,” Berthe Morisot
“The Angel of the Incomplete”
Not only was her desire to be a painter rebellious, but the way she approached her art pushed back against the conventions of art at the time. Impressionism itself was avant-garde – its loose brushstrokes and “everyday” subject matter were not considered “good” art. Morisot took this one step further, becoming known as “the angel of the incomplete.”
While the Impressionists were known for rapid painting (they only wanted to capture the Impression of an image), Morisot went deeper. Her works can seem incomplete, with bare canvas showing through and unfinished corners. The viewer can feel a time limit, as though she’s trying to capture the moment before it’s gone. Art critics at the time said that it showed her indecisiveness as a woman, but maybe this pattern of painting just goes to show her reality.
Social rules meant that Morisot couldn’t sit alone in a cafe or park for long hours to paint what she saw, unlike her male counterparts that were painting broad landscapes and daily life outside. But she didn’t let it limit her, letting her creativity shine despite the social constraints. Instead, she painted what she knew: indoor spaces, domestic life, and intimate scenes. She even visualized her social limitations by often painting windows and balconies – accessing the outdoors while obeying social rules. She provided insight into what it meant to be a woman.
Her artistic perspective into the world of women was something relatively new. She painted female domestic workers at home doing chores like laundry, cooking or taking care of kids, framing them as dignified working women. Through this perspective, she suggests that motherhood and marriage is not the only path to success, but that you can earn a decent living as a working woman. Some art historians believe that painting other women like this was self-affirmation for Morisot that her career as a painter also classified her as a dignified working woman.
“Dreams are life – and dreams are truer than reality: in them we behave as our true selves – if we have a soul, it is there,” Berthe Morisot
Role Model in Entrepreneurship
Given the success and influence she had during her career, it’s safe to say that Morisot achieved her dream of a creative working woman. Nowadays, there is no longer much surprise when a woman aims to work, get married and be a mother. While the expectation that a woman must only focus on taking care of the family is still an image that circulates society, there is now greater acceptance for those that wish to do both, or sometimes neither. But in Morisot’s time, she was a trailblazer for thinking that way.
Morisot was a shining example of a working woman when women were expected to only aspire to motherhood and marriage. Although she was encouraged to give up on her dream, she still went forward, proving that she could be both a professional painter and a caring mother. She broke the rules of society and art, paving the way for a new society, and new female leaders.
Female entrepreneurs can learn from her audacity to follow her passion and make her dreams come true. She thrived within the constraints put on her, finding new ways to innovate her work, and influence the art of others along the way.
Her legacy lives on in the trailblazing female entrepreneurs of today, who have learned to succeed despite the constraints society put on them. Look at Joy Mangano, the single mother who invented and repeatedly pitched the Miracle mop, pushing forward despite the many rejections she received. Through her perseverance, she founded her own company and became one of HSN’s top sellers.
Or Wolfe, Bumble’s CEO, who carved a space for women in the online dating scene during the #MeToo movement both as consumers and as a businesswoman. She stood up against Match Group (responsible for the competitor, Tinder) and created new markets with Bumble Bffs. Her advice as another woman blazing a path for future woman in business?
“Start somewhere and go for it.”
Want to learn about another female artist that paved the way for female entrepreneurs? Check out our article on Rosa Bonheur here.
And check out The Artian blog for more information regarding the value of an artist’s mindset in business.