The artist Marie Bracquemond (1840-1916) remains obscure though referred to in 1928 as one of the “les trois grandes dames” (the three great ladies) of the Impressionist movement by the French art historian Henri Focillon (1881-1943). The other two “grandes dames,” Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), as well as Eva Gonzalés (1849-1883), are much better known today and rightfully acclaimed. In 1983, Elizabeth Kane’s essay, Marie Bracquemond: The Artist Time Forgot (Apollo, vol. 117.252: pp. 118-121) temporarily revived interest in Bracquemond, yet she is still largely overlooked. Much of what may explain the oversight comes from an unpublished biography, La Vie de Félix et Marie Bracquemond (The Life of Félix and Marie Bracquemond), that their son Pierre (1870-1926) wrote in 1917 after the deaths of both his parents. Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914), a French printmaker and engraver, married Marie in 1869, and their troubled marriage greatly impacted Marie’s work and output.
Marie Bracquemond's Background
Unlike Cassatt, Morisot, and Gonzalés, who enjoyed the benefit of family wealth and affluence, Marie Bracquemond grew up working class and was largely self-taught. Born Marie Anne Caroline Quivoron-Pasquiou on December 1, 1840, in Argenton-en-Landunez near Brest, Brittany, she was the offspring of an unhappy arranged marriage. Bracquemond’s father, a naval officer, died soon after her birth. Her mother, Aline Hyacinthe Marie Pasquiou, quickly remarried the French artist Émile Langlois. With Marie in tow, they traveled through Europe, living in numerous cities between Switzerland and France for the next few years. As a child, Bracquemond’s first attempt at painting was a birthday gift for her mother, created using pigments she made herself with crushed flowers.
After the birth of her half-sister Louise in 1849, the family settled down in Étampes, south of Paris. There as a teen Bracquemond first began taking formal painting lessons under the instruction of Auguste Vassort, whom she described as
In 1857, at the age of 16, a studio portrait of her mother and sister together with her teacher Vassort was accepted by the Salon. Soon after, family friends introduced her to the Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) who recognized her talent and took her under his wing. As a student in his private Parisian studio, Braquemond chafed, writing that
“the severity of Monsieur Ingres frightened me… because 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 lives, portraits and genre scenes.”
She eventually left due to Ingres’s misogynist view of women’s artistic capabilities. Later, the French art critic Philippe Burty (1830-1890) recalled that Bracquemond was
The artist Marie Bracquemond's Notable Works
Some of Bracquemond’s most notable works include 1877’s Under the Lamp, a portrait of the British-French Impressionist Alfred Sisley and his wife, Eugénie Lescouezec, friends of Marie and Félix. Pictured at the dinner table, Sisley’s intense visage is seen through a rising haze of steam. The over the shoulder perspective makes him the focal point of the painting. Eugénie glances away, one hand resting on the cloth, the other arm bent and on the table bearing her weight as she leans forward as though in anticipation.
In On the Terrace at Sévres (1880), Bracquemond composed a group portrait in the garden of her home in Sévres, a suburb of Paris. The work depicts Bracquemond’s sister Louise Quivoron on the right gazing downward pensively, along with the French painter Henri Fantin-Letour in the center confidently looking into the distance. On the left, Bracquemond depicted herself staring almost anxiously toward the viewer. The figures seem disengaged from one another, lost in their own worlds.
For Afternoon Tea, also from 1880, Bracquemond portrayed her sister and favorite model Louise having tea in the garden at Sévres with a book and plate of grapes. Louise looks from her book as though momentarily distracted or deep in thought. She lived with the Bracquemonds and was featured in many of her sister’s paintings
Bracquemond’s Three Ladies with Umbrellas (1880) depicts a trio of fashionable Parisian women whose umbrellas shield them from the bright sun. The center figure holds a fan, an accessory associated with the upper-class. The painting’s alternate title, The Three Graces, invokes the Muses of Classical mythology, daughters of Zeus displaying their attributes of mirth, elegance, and youthful beauty much like the ladies of the painting.
In 1887’s Pierre Painting a Bouquet of Flowers, Bracquemond captured her beloved seventeen-year-old son doing just that. Three years later, she would give up painting professionally, a bitter sacrifice at the height of her powers.
Pierre wrote that his father was jealous of his mother’s success at the Salon. She exhibited with the Impressionists in 1879, 1880, and in 1886. Félix belittled her ambition, and refused to show her paintings to visitors. He was a domineering, controlling, and verbally abusive man who ridiculed his wife’s work, especially objecting to her use of color and Impressionist techniques. According to Pierre, Marie was a quiet, reserved woman who struggled to keep the peace and appease Félix’s temper while making time to paint. Eventually, ill health, the stress in her home, and the pressures of being a wife and mother defeated her.
Frustrated by the lack of public interest in her work and fights with Félix, Marie became a recluse and largely stopped painting after 1890 except watercolors and an occasional private work. She did however continue teaching her only child Pierre and he became an accomplished artist himself. Until the end of her life, she remained a staunch defender of Impressionism, asserting that
Marie Bracquemond died just two years after her husband on January 16, 1916, at the age of 75 at her house in Sévres. Three years later in 1919, Pierre held a retrospective commemorating his mother’s work at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris.
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