[Essay] Painting Anxiety: Berthe Morisot’s ‘Julie Daydreaming’ — Connie Sjödin

In the ongoing task of expanding (and eventually dismantling) the art history canon, one case in particular has seen recent success. The 2018–19 travelling exhibition Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist finally brought the ground-breaking nineteenth-century artist to the public’s attention, at least in the cities of Quebec, Philadelphia, Dallas and her native Paris. As the title suggests, the aim was to return Morisot to centre stage as a key member of the French Impressionist circle, while defying the male scholars that shoved her into obscurity during the twentieth century.

At the time, reviews from The New Yorker to Apollo Magazine charted the exhibition’s success and retold Morisot’s story for anyone who hadn’t been listening: Berthe Morisot, close friend of Degas, Renoir and Mallarmé, the woman who contributed to seven of the eight exhibitions organised by the core Impressionist group from 1874 to 1886; whose paintings are boldly ‘unfinished’, populated by fizzing, overlapping brushstrokes and women with complex interior lives. Morisot, who was not only a sitter for many of Edouard Manet’s famous works (see her sitting bottom right on The Balcony in 1868), but whose own paintings Manet admired enough to hang in his bedroom. Morisot, who married Manet’s brother Eugene (who gave up his own artistic aspirations to support his wife’s work) and gave birth to Julie Manet in 1878.

As with the exhibition, many of the reviews ended with Julie Daydreaming (1894), a late portrait of the artist’s daughter. The critics recognised something new here: Peter Schjeldahl discerns ‘a new emotional audacity in Morisot’s art, with colors that sizzle and lines that whip.’[1] The painting speaks to a shift in Morisot’s output, but she died the following year at the age of 54 and Julie Daydreaming became another cliff-hanger in the story of art.

Full disclosure: I have never seen Julie Daydreaming in the so-called flesh. As with much of Berthe Morisot’s work, the original painting usually sits in a private collection. Eighty-five percent of Morisot’s 423 paintings were owned by her family at the time of her death.[2] Even if there were a Musée Morisot, museums are largely closed and travel to Paris restricted. For now, we can only see printed and digital copies of Julie Daydreaming, such as thumbnails and pixelated duvet covers.

More perplexing still, although the composition stays the same between different reproductions – a young woman leans her chin on one hand and stares contemplatively out of the frame – her colours somehow mutate over a single Google search, from a murky green background to a black-ice blue. Julie herself changes hue: sickly yellow or a fleshy pink depending on the webpage. In the great internet gallery, such inconsistency is often a sign of neglect. Anonymously owned, the true Julie Daydreaming is left undefended by museum or artist estate – the gatekeepers of quality that charge eyebrow-raising sums for a high-res Picasso or Cézanne. Looking through books and catalogues, the original Julie Daydreaming seems to lie somewhere between these pirate copies: emerald green background and pinkish skin. With this version in mind, what follows is an imagined encounter with a painting whose very subject is the act of imagining.

Identity and identification

At first glance, Julie Daydreaming ties into Morisot’s other paintings of women. Morisot’s typical scenes, often indoors, depict women’s shared experience of nineteenth-century French society and its construction of a feminine identity. Morisot’s engagement with modernity and gender has already been widely discussed by art historians such as Griselda Pollock, Linda Nochlin and Mary Jacobus. They have commented usefully on the artist’s representation of largely domestic pursuits and intimate spaces, as Morisot’s women busy themselves at the dressing table or with a book. Even the portraits show a kind of activity; the women pose, relaxing against a sofa and looking with delight or boredom at their artist companion.

Among Morisot’s portraits of women, there are approximately 120-150 depictions of her only child Julie Manet, affectionately known as Bibi.[3] Bibi as a baby, Bibi as a smiling toddler with a rounded face and the props of childhood: a book, a doll and (enviously) a parakeet. Later, Bibi becomes Julie, an active tween, playing the violin or with the family greyhound, Laertes. Pollock observes that ‘Morisot used her daughter’s life to produce works remarkable for their concern with female subjectivity especially at critical turning-points of the feminine’.[4] I would add that the ‘Julie series’ also records the critical turning-points in Morisot’s experience of motherhood, another crucial element in the anticipated life of a nineteenth-century woman, especially in the bourgeois circle to which Morisot belonged.

Moreover, Julie Daydreaming suggests Morisot’s identification with her daughter. Morisot’s biographer Anne Higonnet points out that the composition of Julie Daydreaming evokes a mirror; Julie’s loose hair and her contemplative look transform the canvas into a reflective surface, firstly for and of Morisot as she was painting, and then shared by the viewer. As such, the painting projects Julie as a young extension of the mother, or a delayed impression of the mother’s own youth. Morisot herself wrote in a letter to her brother: ‘she’s all that I love, all that’s left to me of youth and beauty’. [5] Morisot’s possessive reference to her daughter suggests a complex, shared female identity, bound by time and yet repeated across generations.

Rupture and non-reciprocity

However, look again at Julie Daydreaming and you’ll notice that Julie is not looking back: in her glassy stare her pupils are slightly too far apart to be in focus. There may be a shared experience of modern life, a mother’s identification with her daughter, but Julie does not reciprocate. As we know from the title, Julie is daydreaming.

In a break from Morisot’s previous work, the very subject of the painting, in which Julie is lost in a daydream, openly denies the viewer knowledge of the sitter’s interior life. When Julie is reading or playing music, she is, in Sartre’s term, a ‘being-as-object’, forming a closed circuit with her book or instrument that allows the viewer to ‘apprehend a closed “Gestalt” in which the reading forms the essential quality’: she is simply ‘girl-reading’ or ‘girl-playing’.[6] Thus, although she is granted a thinking role as a subject engaged with a book, we can easily understand her internal processes within the logic (of object and action) that helps us to organise the outside world.[7]

In Julie Daydreaming, Julie does not smile or notice the viewer and her disjunctive gaze suggests an absence, or an ‘elsewhere’, from our worldview. Although she is engaged in an activity, dreaming points outside of a closed circuit to a psychological reality separate to our own. Morisot herself wrote extensively about this separate plane, scrawling in a personal notebook ‘life is a dream– and the dream is more real than reality; in dreams one is oneself, truly oneself– if one has a soul it’s there’. [8] Clearly for Morisot the visual apprehension of another person does not always allow access to their entire existence, even a daughter’s.

More significant still is the formal composition. The background is entirely painted over, unlike most of Morisot’s work, and the emerald green is unique among Morisot’s output in its obscurity and solidity. In both The Artist’s Daughter with a Parakeet (1890) and Julie Manet Holding a Book (1889), the backgrounds, while still ambiguous, are much lighter and more varied in colour; more of a gentle, bourgeois pastel interior. Most importantly, Julie Daydreaming does not share the female space that Pollock identifies in Morisot’s other paintings, in which ‘compression or immediacy in the foreground spaces’ inscribes into the image the closed-off zones of the domestic sphere, and forms a ‘notional relation between the viewer and the women defining the foreground’.[9] This is clear in works such as On the Terrace (1874), in which the wall of the terrace separates the bottom half of the painting from the beach scene in the background and implicitly includes the viewer in the foreground space. From here, the female figure smiles welcomingly and there is a chair available for us to take. For Pollock, such spatial arrangements are necessary for Morisot’s inscription of a reciprocal female gaze.

There is no such shared space in Julie Daydreaming. The ambiguous background provides no context which we can enter, and the canvas is split by Julie herself. She takes up the entire foreground and her body is cut off by the bottom of the frame, so that the lack of depth reminds us that she is only a thin layer of paint on a surface. But why the separation? Why does Morisot cut her daughter off from the viewer’s space and depict her as an inaccessible, yet thinking, subject? While there are clear experimental and art historical reasons for the shift, this family portrait contains a more personal history. Let’s start with Morisot’s biography.

‘Ma petite Julie’

At this point in Morisot’s career there is a new psychological element to her work. While the ‘mirror image’ of Julie Daydreaming reflects a self-identifying mother, Julie’s refusal to make eye contact with the viewer also inscribes a deeper anxiety. We could credit this shift to the sitter’s age: at 16, Julie enters early adulthood and leaves behind the innocent, infant Julie of the 1880s. In his thesis on Morisot, Robert Hopson rightly asserts that this portrait of Julie could not have come at a younger age, as only now does Julie form a fully coherent subject.[10] Yet the anxiety is also more personal: as Higonnet notes in her biography, in her later years Morisot demonstrates a constant occupation with the passing of time, as she writes in a letter to her sister Edma, ‘I often think of life in the old days, of all of us’.[11]

Morisot’s anxiety around this time was arguably heightened by a string of deaths of those close to her, beginning with Edouard Manet in 1883, Eugène Manet in 1892 and finally her older sister Yves, in 1893. According to Charles Stuckey, the pain in the Manet household leading up to Eugène’s death is clearest in Young Girl Writing (1891), infused as it is with sickly greens.[12] In Girl with Greyhound (1893), the ‘fragility of the setting’ again refers to the biographical context in which the women have just lost their father and husband.[13] Nochlin further suggests that the ghostly chair in Girl with Greyhound inscribes the absence of Morisot’s dead husband – or even her own unexpected death.[14]

In Julie Daydreaming, the sense of melancholy and death are even more apparent in the tenebrous, green background. Morisot died a year later from pneumonia, contracted while nursing Julie through an illness. In a heartbreaking final letter, Morisot writes to her daughter: ‘My little Julie, I love you as I die; I shall still love you even when I am dead.’ Of course, at the time of Julie Daydreaming Morisot was unaware of her approaching illness, but there is an undeniable poignancy in her daughter’s failure to make eye contact and the pair’s ruptured gaze. In one of Morisot’s final portraits of Julie, her daughter is suddenly inaccessible.

Amidst Morisot’s anxiety, could the act of painting her daughter even be an attempt to inscribe, in Lacanian terms, the objet petit a, or Morisot’s gaze as an externalised desire for cohesion and stasis? As Morisot writes, ‘my own ambition has been to fix something of all that passes’.[15] In Julie Daydreaming the fixed perspective stages both cohesion and stasis, especially in relation to Morisot’s other work, in which the loose facture gives the illusion of movement. We can see this movement in Reading (1888), in which it is unclear which of Julie’s blurred hands supports the other, while the scene outside the right-hand window remains completely open to interpretation. Furthermore, light seems to bounce off every surface in Reading with no obvious source, suggesting a shifting luminescence. Not so in Julie Daydreaming: lit from the viewer’s direction, the painting invents a singular viewpoint and even predicts the camera flash, freezing the image against ‘time’s relentless melt’, as in Susan Sontag’s evocative phrase.[16]

Impressionism to Symbolism

In order to understand the painting fully, we must view it within its wider art historical context. The development of portraiture during this period supported precisely this kind of psychological interiorization. Heather McPherson explains that the rise of photography raised questions about the role of portraiture as a viable artform, leading to a preoccupation with facture, interiorization, compositional abstraction and intimist vision.[17]

More specifically, Julie Daydreaming suggests a move from Impressionism to Symbolism. This introspective, meaning-laden approach was gaining ground in Europe at the end of the 19th century, as artists moved away from the supposedly scientific and optical preoccupations of Impressionism. Hopson, in particular, identifies this painting as Morisot’s most direct engagement with symbolist portraiture. Hopson points out its symbolist elements, such as the motif of dreaming, the significance of green (indicating life, death, youth and jealousy) and the continuity between the green background and Julie’s eyes, as if the background were an extension of her inner self. An apparent halo in lighter paint, which encircles and seems to emanate from Julie’s head, literally highlights the site of her interiority, separate from ‘external stimuli’.[18]

In particular, many reviewers of Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist noted aesthetic similarities between Julie Daydreaming and the Norwegian symbolist Edvard Munch. In The Clyde Fitch Report Carol Strickland compares the artists’ ‘undulating, fluid streams of acidic paint’.[19] Notably, Julie Daydreaming shares its dreaming motif and ambiguous, rich background with Munch’s famous print series The Madonna (1895-1902), although there is an added sexual element to Munch’s depiction. We might also note other artists’ increasing preoccupation with dreams in the late nineteenth century: Odilon Redon’s portrait of his wife, Closed Eyes (1890), is an obvious comparison, or, in literature, the symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, dreaming of ‘a nameless woman, whom I love and who loves me’.[20] The male, heterosexual gaze is prevalent in these examples and there’s much more to unpack about Morisot’s alternative engagement with contemporary models and tropes. For an excellent reading of Morisot’s paintings of women and resistance to the male gaze, I recommend Mary Jacobus’s article on the creation of the female psyche.[21]

Finally, whereas Impressionism privileges the synthesising perspective of the viewer – who makes sense of the optical surface of the painting – the flatness and mono-perspective of Julie Daydreaming subscribes to a decorative, symbolist aesthetic. Our attention is directed to Julie’s inner psychology rather than the optics of shifting perception. Hopson explains Morisot’s turn to Symbolism as reflecting the influence of the popular science of fin de siècle pathologists, such as Jean-Martin Charcot, on Morisot’s portraiture, skimming over the significance of this mother-daughter encounter. He claims that, according to contemporary psychology, this portrait represents Julie as a healthy individual, in whom there is continuity between the conscious and unconscious self.[22] I argue that this reading ignores the painting’s innate anxiety – the heightened separation between viewer and sitter – which goes beyond the painting’s historical or biographical context.

In dreams

Even without the context of Symbolism, contemporary psychology or Morisot’s grief, Julie Daydreaming enacts a fascinating encounter for the modern viewer. Imagine passing in front of Julie’s glazed stare. The fact that her body points in our direction, but she does not see us, makes the moment of viewing profoundly uncomfortable. As Julie refuses to reciprocate our gaze, I believe that the painting highlights the temporary and transient status of the viewer on the other side of the mirror-canvas. The sudden exhibition of Julie Daydreaming across two continents in 2018 and 2019, outside its usual private setting, is an interesting example. Suddenly, thousands of faces passed in front of Julie’s un-noticing line of sight; but in my interpretation of her absent stare, their presence was no different to the probably quiet interior of her private collection.

Arguably, most art and particularly painting is indifferent to the viewer (save for acts of violence and too-close pointing fingers). We may be moved, but perhaps only specific artworks need the presence of the viewer to ‘work’ or ‘move’. I see heads shaking! I won’t enter here into the extensive debate about the status and agency of art, but instead I argue that Julie Daydreaming plays on this indifference and highlights temporal and spatial forms of separation. Morisot gestures to the material surface of the canvas and the separation that it entails between artist, viewer and sitter, all existing in different temporalities and on different material planes. Julie exists in the past of the sitting, Morisot in the indexical trace of the paint, the viewer in the unstable present. We are reminded that this is only a painted image of Julie, unable to return our gaze, which itself points to the limited encounter with another human subject, of whom we see only the material surface and from whom our timeline differs.

While we pass in front of Julie Daydreaming, Julie has always been there – at least since 1894. As the world moves on and strange unrealities carry us along (surely coronavirus has something of the fictional, the surreal about it?), Julie daydreams. We are an inconsistent, fleeting vision. After all, I’m imagining this whole uncomfortable encounter. This is the crux of Morisot’s painting and her legacy: who is to say that we are not the dream? And who is to say that this is a bad thing? Remember Morisot: ‘life is a dream– and the dream is more real than reality’.


Connie Sjödin is an arts researcher and writer living in London.


[1] Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Berthe Morisot, “Woman Impressionist,” Emerges from the Margins’, The New Yorker (29 October 2018).

[2] Madison Mainwaring, ‘Always the Model, Never the Artist’, The Paris Review (24 July 2019).

[3] Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women (Harvard University Press, 1992), 212.

[4] Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity, and Histories of Art (London, 2003), 115.

[5] Quoted in Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot (California, 1990), 172.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (London, 2005), 256.

[7] See Marni Reva Kessler, ‘Reconstructing Relationships: Berthe Morisot’s Edma Series’, Woman’s Art Journal, 12:1 (1991), 27. Kessler observes the same ‘book-signifier circuit’ in Morisot’s depiction of her sister Edma reading.

[8] Quoted in Higonnet (1990), 219.

[9] Pollock, 87.

[10] Robert Hopson, ‘The symbolist portraiture of Berthe Morisot’, PhD dissertation (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002), 315.

[11] Quoted in Higonnet (1990), 172.

[12] Charles Stuckey and William Scott, eds. Berthe Morisot: Impressionist, Exhibition Catalogue (National Gallery of Art, New York, 1987), 158.

[13] Stuckey, 164.

[14] Linda Nochlin, ‘Morisot’s Wet Nurse: The construction of Work and Leisure in Impressionist Painting’, Women, Art, and Power: and Other Essays (New York, 2018), 52.

[15] Jean-Dominique Rey, Berthe Morisot: La Belle Peintre (Paris, 2010; English edition), 133.

[16] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Penguin Classics, 2002), 15.

[17] Heather McPherson, The Modern Portrait in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, 2001), 9.

[18] Hopson, 294-315.

[19] Carol Strickland, ‘Impressionist Berthe Morisot Finally Gets Her Day’, The Clyde Fitch Report (15 November 2018); see also Schjeldahl, ‘Berthe Morisot, “Woman Impressionist,” Emerges from the Margins’.

[20] Paul Verlaine, ‘My familiar dream’, trans. Timothy Ades, www.timothyades.com/paul-verlaine-1844-96-familiar-dream/

[21] Mary Jacobus, ‘Berthe Morisot: Inventing the Psyche’, Women: A Cultural Review, 6:2 (1995), 191-199.

[22] Hopson, ibid.

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