Marie Bracquemond (December 1 1840—January 17, 1916) is one of the grand dames of Impressionism, reintroduced into critical consideration from the 1980s.
Marie Bracquemond’s early life was beset with a series of difficulties that possibly complicated her development as an artist. Her parents’ marriage fell apart, and Marie followed her mother and her new husband from place to place for several years before they all settled in Paris. (Bracquemond’s maiden name was Quivoron; she would acquire the name by which is known through marriage.)
She also did not enjoy the privilege of a thorough formal education, as was instead the case with Mary Cassatt and other better known female Impressionists.
Studying to become an artist
Bracquemond studied drawing under a minor artist (Vassor) in her teens before achieving the remarkable success of having a portrait of her’s accepted by the official Salon in 1857.
This led to her acquaintance with Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the renowned classicist painter, and an apprenticeship under him. After leaving Ingres’ studio when she no longer thought she was going to learn anything new, Bracquemond received the illustrious commission from Empress Eugenie herself. This was followed by a copyist’s job at the Louvre.
Working at the Louvre, she first laid eyes on the painter and printer Felix Bracquemond and fell in love. After two years of engagement, the two married in 1869 and had a child the next year. Due to the wartime conditions in which her pregnancy and childbirth occurred (the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune), Bracquemond’s health was compromised.
From their atelier in Auteuil the Bracquemond’s ran a decorating business started by Felix. Some of Marie’s decorated plates and tiles were shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1878. In particular, a table service commissioned by the merchant Eugène Rousseau earned Felix a medal from the Exhibition’s jury. The set, decorated with floral and bird motifs, was inspired by Japanese art, of which Felix Bracquemond was a pioneer in Europe.
From 1864 Marie Bracquemond’s paintings began gaining regular acceptance at the Salon, signalling a trajectory towards an established place on the artistic scene as an academic Realist. At the same time, she followed her husband’s guidance in learning to etch and in progressively acquiring facilities with multiple media.
Marie Bracquemond and introduction to Impressionism
However, by the late 1880s, Marie Bracquemond had met Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, whose work she admired. She had already taken to en plein air painting, broad canvasses, and a colourful oil palette.
Felix disapproved of her painting, disliked Impressionist painting in general, and refused to give any credence to her artistic development beyond their printmaking and etching studio. The rising success of that studio bolstered his belief that both of them ought to be focused on it. (In 1889 he would be awarded the Legion of Honour for his contributions to the arts.)
When in 1886 her husband befriended the then-unknown and impoverished painter Paul Gauguin, this had (for Felix) the unintended consequence of bringing Marie into contact with someone who would advise her on using starker colours and expanding her palette. After Monet and Degas, Gauguin became Marie’s third Impressionist mentor whose influence upon her distinctive style would be readily felt.
It should be noted that Felix Bracquemond was in any case close to the Impressionist circle. He had exhibited some of his portrait etchings at the inaugural exhibition of 1874 and maintained his contacts with the far-flung group all his life. He was even depicted in two paintings by the Impressionist Henri Fantin-Latour, one of which was later destroyed.
Marie Bracquemond took part in three Impressionist exhibitions (1879, 1880, 1886) while at the same time working in her husband’s studio and having her work independently published. She continued her en plein air projects for some years despite Felix’s constant deprecation.
Due to her reserved nature, she chose to restrict herself to their garden in Sèvres. Her forays into the outside world would also have been strongly discouraged by the then notion that it is improper for a reputable woman to move about the city alone, let alone to work in the open.
Eventually, in 1900, Marie Bracquemond appears to have given up on painting, twenty-six years before her death, seemingly out of discouragement.
Later Fame as an artist
Marie Bracquemond was ‘discovered’ by the critics in the 1980s, despite having been called one the ‘three great ladies’ of Impressionism by the French historian of art Henri Focillon as far back as 1928.
The primary source of her life is the book written by her son Pierre, to whom we owe the explanation of why Marie’s work was so little noted by her contemporaries. We are told that Felix would make sure that no visitor saw it, all the while calling Marie vain for cultivating her painting ambition.
Bracquemond’s academic style
Even though, as a painter, Marie Bracquemond progressed toward a clearly Impressionist technique, she never abandoned the practice of preparatory studies. Her painting en plein air and the impression of spontaneity were therefore based in a series of preliminary drawings. This, as well as a point of personal style, was an inheritance of her academic training.
In Woman in the Garden of 1877 we have a fine example of a portrait set up according to the academic rulebook. Although completed several years after Marie Bracquemond abandoned the atelier of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, it bears the telltale exquisite finish of her master, who displayed his skill through fined renditions of vaguely distorted human shapes.
Here that is the case with the posing figure’s hands, where one rests peculiarly on one arm while the other appears to hold an elbow. The young woman’s (who is Marie’s own sister) posture was likely caught from the side and in an act of torsion in order to display the artist’s familiarity with body structure and perspective.
The woman is sitting on a green bench surrounded by the splendid greenery of a garden. She is wearing a long, white, billowing dress that flows away from the bench and towards the spectator.
It is a display of the artist’s ability to compose a mass of creased fabric wrapped around a body and show its stream of folds and creases in detail. The entire composition is, in other words, academic, from the set-up of its subject to its fine execution. The gorgeous colour permeating the figures suggests itself as a Bracquemond characteristic.
Three Women with Umbrellas from 1880 exemplifies instead Marie Bracquemond’s maturing Impressionist technique. Thematically derived from the classicist repertoire — the painting was dubbed The Three Graces — it shows a trio of Parisian women shading themselves with fashionable umbrellas while on a city walk.
The three figures occupy the entirety of the visual space — the picture even appears cropped from the bottom and the sides as if it were a photograph of a moving scene. The shining light from the right-hand side appears so strong that it has momentarily blighted entire patches of colour from the women’s clothing. The dresses of the two women on the sides appear in fact indistinctly coloured.
In a painting that materialises the Impressionist commitment to light and colour, achromatic opposition construes a remarkable sense of structure. The dress of the woman in the middle appears as the most vividly coloured, possibly due to the ideal shading from the two umbrellas on the sides.
The woman in the middle is also the one who, keeping her arms low as she is not holding an umbrella aloft, stands upright and centre before the eye of the hypothetical camera. She is the carrying column, the central axis, of this composition, her friends’ orange and white umbrellas offsetting each other in a neat opposition to the left and right of her head, like two halves of a vault above a statue.