Modern Life Heroism - Berthe Morisot's 'The Cradle'

Berthe Morisot's The Cradle depicts Edna, the painter's sister, looking at her sleeping baby in the crib. The subject carries a gaze of love, affection, and fatigue, holding her head up with her left hand. She plays with the crib's veil with her right hand, gently sliding off the side of the crib. The painting transmits an overall peaceful and quiet notion, conveying a vast sense of tranquillity.

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872.

Morisot captures a very intimate female moment: in 1872. A man would not have been present in such scenery; it would have been a space for women only. Morisot shows the viewer a secret, a glimpse of motherhood, a fraction of the love and devotion in looking after a baby. The painting depicts a precise moment in time, showing transcendence and ephemerality through Edma's hand placement and the falling of the cradle's veil. They accentuate a sense of transition that is happening outside of the painting as opposed to inside.

The painting displays a modern outlook on impressionism, both in how she painted it and in the choice and depiction of the subject matter. The domestic setting differs significantly from the classic impressionistic depictions of the outskirts of Paris, however, the broken and loose brushstrokes fit in perfectly with the 19th-century movement.

Claude Manet, Banks of the Seine, Vétheuil, 1880.

The clothing on Edma and the baby equipment Morisot depicts are contemporary for the year of 1872, reinforcing the notion of modernity within it. However, the initial acceptance of it was negative and unappreciated. She exhibited it at the first-ever impressionist gallery in 1874. It was not a historical painting depicting the usual subject of a man but rather a woman's life. Although brushstrokes in The Cradle are considered an impressionist painting, the subject matter and the colour palette Morisot chose strayed away from the style. Morisot uses light pastel shades of blue and purple, including much white, a significant transformation from the usual primary and bright colours of other impressionist artists. This is a heavy influence on the reason for which it was not acclaimed until much later on.

Berthe Morisot, The Fable, 1883.

Morisot's The Cradle can be considered a very progressive painting in her capturing of the heroism of modern life, projecting it onto a maternal and domestic sphere (M. Reva Kessler, 1991 p.25). The intimacy illustrated is shocking: it was uncommon to see such a scene between mother and child in real life, especially in paintings. The way its viewers found it so shocking creates some ambiguity and confusion. On the one hand, it seems evident for Morisot to paint such a scene as it was a large part of her daily life. It is what she was exposed to, making it nearly impossible for her to paint anything else. Her fellow male contemporaries would have led a completely different life to her, being exposed to different scenes, therefore painting completely different depictions.

Although this is one theory as to why she painted The Cradle, another more likely one is her need for progression in terms of womanhood. She was painting modern realism with a new and progressive technique. This artwork is feminist, focusing on the female gender rather than the classical male history paintings, projecting on canvas something men could not appropriate as their own (M. Reva Kessler, 1991 p.25). Morisot shows a woman captured in a specific moment. It was and still is seen as very feminine, also recalled by the un-intellectual and subjective quality impressionism bared. Her desire to be herself, despite the duties and consequences that followed being a woman in the 1800s, can be seen by the fact that she refused to marry until she was satisfied with her artistic path. Delaying her marriage to paint it shows her mindset. She “always remained completely herself, [...] her point of view always her own.” (R.M.Fernandez, 1924, p.50).

Berthe Morisot, Julie with her Nanny, 1884.

Eventually, she married Édouard Manet’s brother, Eugène. This led to a very close relationship with the Impressionist painter, cultivating a strong artistic relationship in which they pushed each other, allowing both to develop the movement.

Bibliographical References

Kessler, M. R. (1991). Reconstructing Relationships: Berthe Morisot’s Edma Series. Woman’s Art Journal, 12 (1), 24–28.

Hyslop, F. E. (1954). Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. College Art Journal, 13 (3), 179–184.

R. M. F. (1924). A Painting by Berthe Morisot. Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951), 18 (4), 50–51.

Buettner, S. (1986). Images of Modern Motherhood in the Art of Morisot, Cassatt, Modersohn-Becker, Kollwitz. Woman’s Art Journal, 7 (2), 14–21.

Visual Sources

The Cradle, Berthe Morisot, 1872,

Julie with her Nanny, Berthe Morisot, 1884.

Banks of the Seine, Vétheuil, Claude Manet, 1880,

The Fable, Morisot, 1883,

Author Photo

Cosima Franchetti

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