La Luministe by Paula Butterfield

La Luministe by Paula Butterfield (March 15, 2019 Regal Books) is a lovely new novel about the life and art of Berthe Morisot, a French Impressionist who was able to capture the effect of light and atmosphere perhaps better than any of her contemporaries. They called her La Luministe, a nickname she most certainly earned.

La Luministe cover (don’t the easel and paint brushes make such a nice painterly touch?)

This book reads as if you are standing in front of a Berthe Morisot painting, wishing she would speak to you – and then quietly, privately, she does. And not just about her daring brush strokes or her use of quiet color, but also the secrets, the stories and the struggles hidden in each canvas. Yes, you will be fascinated to read about Morisot’s scandalous love triangle with the Manet brothers, but at its heart, this book is about a woman’s greatest passion: her art.

I absolutely loved the book and knew I’d found a kindred spirit who was as fascinated with Berthe Morisot as I was. I reached out to Paula Butterfield and she agreed to respond to a few interview questions. I hope you enjoy our chat!

  1. Early on in your novel, Berthe and her sister Edma create a “Bonheur Society” for themselves in honor of Rosa Bonheur. What a fun little detail. Isn’t that just what young artistic girls would do? Was this little treasure based on fact or did it come straight out of your imagination? [Note:  long-term followers of this blog know I too am a big Rosa Bonheur fan. Check out my previous post about visiting her studio museum outside of Paris.]

As a women’s studies academic for almost twenty years, I saw over and over my students’ stunned reactions when they learned about previously unknown women’s contributions. I feel like when Berthe and Edma saw a Rosa Bonheur painting in person, they would have been tremendously excited and encouraged. Representation is something we consider now, and it would have been equally applicable for young 19th century would-be artists—if a woman could paint a work that earned the Legion of Honor, maybe they could, too!

Also, I wanted to illustrate the bond between Berthe and Edma. They were sisters only a year apart in age, but they were also each other’s only artistic colleagues, since girls were not permitted to attend art school or to socialize with artists. I was always forming clubs with my sister and my friends as a kid, so I guess it was only natural that I’d form a club for these two artistic sisters.

2. Which Berthe Morisot painting is your personal favorite and why? (Okay, that’s impossible, so give me your top 3.) Have you had the chance to see them in person, and if so, how did that affect your novel?

I’ve seen lots of Berthe’s paintings, in Paris, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and more places I can’t remember. And you’re right; there’s no way to choose one favorite. For my top three, I suppose I’ll choose Summer, the painting in which Berthe came closest to achieving her goal of making a figure dissolve into the atmosphere. 

Berthe Morisot, Young Woman at a Window or Summer (1880), oil on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier

I’m compelled to add a painting of Berthe’s daughter, Julie, the light of her life and her favorite model. To me, this study for a painting of Berthe and Julie (tellingly, never completed) says everything about being an artist-mother. Sometimes, if you want to get anything done with your little anchor following you around, you have to integrate your child in your work! 

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait with Julie (Study) (1887) – Private Collection

And finally, I have to include one of Berthe’s paintings from the post-Impressionist years, when she returned to Renaissance techniques. Jeanne Pontillon, a portrait of Berthe’s niece, uses rich hues and long brushstrokes.

Berthe Morisot, Portrait of Jeanne Pontillon (1894), Private Collection

3. Tell me about your thoughts that shaped one of my favorite sentences in the book, where Berthe is getting to know Manet. As she said: “I was baffled about my feelings for Manet. Was I falling in love with him, or did I wish I could be him?”  

4. I myself have wondered for years whether Berthe and Edouard Manet were in fact lovers. When there is no concrete proof and letters have been destroyed, it’s hard to know for sure. What tipped the scale for you? 

No, there is no concrete proof that Berthe and Edouard were lovers. And Berthe’s biographers have varying opinions. For me, Edouard’s portraits of Berthe tell the tale. For one thing, he painted more portraits of her than of any other model, and he never parted with any of them. One of Berthe’s biographers, Margaret Shennan, refers to the relationship between Berthe and Edouard as “a dialogue of two intelligences.” They were of the same social class, so it was possible for them to get to know each other in the first place. The two met their intellectual and artistic matches in one another. And just look at the paintings, which range from flirtatious to downright steamy. Can anyone look at Reclining and tell me that Berthe and Edouard were not lovers?

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot Reclining (1873)

5. I never before understood what an enormous impact the Franco-Prussian War had on the Morisot family and particularly Berthe’s health. What sources did you rely on to dig into that period in the Passy neighborhood? Do you think her health issues from the war contributed to her early death?

Every book I read about Berthe or Edouard discussed the war. The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, by Ross King, and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, by David McCullough are two non-academic books that offer harrowing descriptions of Paris during war and its aftermath.

Most definitely, the deprivations Berthe suffered during the siege of the Franco-Prussian War left her lungs permanently weakened. She suffered from bronchitis every winter for the rest of her life, and when she contracted pneumonia during the winter of 1894, that illness was too much for Berthe to withstand.

  1. I am surprised to learn how many men of this time period were afflicted with syphilis. In the novel, Berthe learns about Edouard Manet’s disease and says: “my sympathy for him transformed into utter rage that he would let his taste for women lead to the destruction of his genius.” How did you decide you had to address this issue?

It wasn’t a decision; I wasn’t going to dissemble about the cause of Edouard’s death. But I made the effort to put it in context to emphasize the dark side of the City of Light. Even Berthe, who lived a sheltered life, knew that one in five Parisian men suffered from syphilis. And I also make a point of Berthe’s awareness of prostitution and illegitimate children. She was conscious of the light and shadow in life and was contemptuous of the enormous hypocrisy displayed by Parisian society. Later, that same contempt spilled over into her opinion of the ossified art establishment. That rebellious attitude shaped what was a radical life: she loved whom she chose to love, and she painted in the style she wished to paint.

  1. Tell me what made you want to write a book about Berthe. What was it in her artistic struggle that captured your imagination the most?

What spoke to me personally about Berthe’s story was what I think of as the prison of her privilege. While no women were permitted to attend l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, the prestigious state school that trained, exhibited, and provided patrons for its students, there were some art schools open to working class women. Rosa Bonheur, the artist Berthe and Edma idolized, ran such a school herself. But it was deemed unseemly for upper-class girls to attend a school that prepared students to earn their livings as artists. Girls like Berthe did not pursue professions or enter the commercial world to any degree.

I’ve often wondered how life might have been different if Berthe had attended a women’s art school. She would have had many more artistic colleagues, to fall back on when Edma gave up painting. And with more artists with whom she could exchange ideas, Berthe might have developed her own style earlier in life, saving herself years of paralyzing self-doubt.

      *         *          *

About the Author

Author Paula Butterfield taught courses about women artists for twenty years before turning to writing about them. La Luministe, her debut novel, earned the Best Historical Fiction Chanticleer Award. Paula lives with her husband and daughter in Portland and on the Oregon coast. 


Author’s Statement:

Berthe Morisot was a fist in a velvet glove. In 19th century Paris, an haute-bourgeois woman was expected to be discreet to the point of near-invisibility. But Berthe, forbidden to enter L’École des Beaux Arts, started the Impressionist movement that broke open the walls of the art establishment. And, unable to marry the love of her life, Édouard Manet, she married his brother. While she epitomized femininity and decorum, Morisot was a quiet revolutionary.

Author Contact:

@pbutterwriter  (Twitter) (“illustrations” for La Luministe.)

Cassat and Degas: A Love Story?

i always loved you

I Always Loved You is Robin Oliveira’s wonderfully atmospheric story about Mary Cassatt’s early years in Paris, beginning in 1877 when Edgar Degas invited her to exhibit with the revolutionary group of French artists known as the Impressionists. Oliveira has done a fabulous job of capturing the place and times of these 19th century artists, including Degas, Morisot, Manet, Renoir Caillebotte and Pissaro.

Oliveira offers us lively and colorful scenes in Paris, from the studios of Montmartre to the salon scene along the Champs d’Elysée. I have photos of some of these scenes in an earlier post called Mary Cassatt’s Greater Journey, including her homes on avenues Trudaine and Marignan.

As the title suggests, this book imagines that there was more to the story of the friendship  between Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas and Cassatt were known to be very close friends and colleagues. It is absolutely true that Degas had an enormous influence on Cassatt’s art and life. But was there ever more? Oliveira imagines their story as a love story.

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886)

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait (1886), pastel on paper

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878),  gouche on paper 23x17in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Mary Cassatt, Self-Portrait (1878), gouche on paper 23×17″ 
Metropolitan Museum of Art,

But wait. Wasn’t Degas the disagreeable painter of nude prostitutes, working class absinthe drinkers and the petit rats from the demi-monde of the Opéra? He had a bad reputation, if rumors are to be believed. Some have made him out to be celibate, impotent, a misogynist, or even a sex offender.

And wasn’t Cassatt a cloistered woman of high social standing, best known for her tender portraits of mothers and children?

What could these two possibly have in common? Despite their differences, there was something that bound the two together, and I believe it was their fanatic devotion to their art. They both worked brutally hard at their technique and admired that in each other. They loved capturing the color of flesh and preferred to paint indoors, unlike many of the other Impressionists. They were the most experimental of the Impressionists, spending a great deal of time working and re-working their prints.

Was there ever more than this professional bond? We will never know. Cassatt destroyed all of her letters with Degas before she died. Oliveira draws her own inferences from that big mysterious gap, but I’m not so sure. Can’t Cassatt’s extraordinary work speak for itself? Isn’t her true story – as far as we know it – enough? Isn’t it enough that Cassatt and Degas had an intense, complicated, or even tortured friendship? Why do we have to impose on her our desire for romance?

This story is different than the one about the love affair between Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton that Jennie Fields wrote about in Age of Desire (2012). That imagined story was based on Edith Wharton own letters. Her late-in-life extramarital affair might have been a surprise to Wharton’s many fans and admirers, but it was undeniably true. And with it came the revelation that Edith Wharton had written her own erotica. Quelle surprise! 

The Cassatt-Degas question is similar to the one between Berthe Morisot and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, whose story is also told in Oliveira’s book. There were rumors of a romance there too, and inferences to be drawn. Both Morisot and Manet left behind some remarkable paintings that give us a potential peek at their inner secrets. I’ve written about this in the past – you might want to check out this previous post, Berthe Morisot’s Interior.

So are there any clues in Degas and Cassatt’s work?

Degas made numerous drawings, prints, pastels and etchings of Cassatt in the years between 1879 and 1885. But there is not one nude, no sweet smiles or sultry stares. Mary Cassatt would never have subjected herself to that kind of exposure. All we have are inscrutable poses like this:

Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mary Cassatt (1880-1884).  Mary Stevenson Cassatt / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas, c. 1880-1884 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and the Regents' Major Acquisitions Fund, Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt  by Edgar Degas, Oil on canvas, (1880-1884), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Degas made a series of studies, drawings and prints of Mary and her sister Lydia at the Louvre, including this study of Mary’s silhouette:

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study (1880)

Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, Edgar Degas, Study in pastel (1880), Philadephia Museum of Art

The second pose is flattering, and has an unmistakeable sense of Degas’ interested gaze, but it is a long way from suggesting that they were lovers.

And yet it nags us, if there was nothing improper, why would Cassatt destroy their letters? It is entirely within this mysterious gap that Oliveria’s book takes place.

The letter burning story does make for lovely opening and closing scenes in I Always Loved You. Cassatt is elderly and living with no one but her long-term housekeeper at her country home, the Chateau de Beaufresne, and she is reading the letters she and Degas wrote to each other.

But she had kept these letters, as he had kept hers, though what they had been thinking, she couldn’t imagine. Such recklessness. Private conversations should always remain private. Why should anyone know what they themselves had barely known?

At the very end of the book, Oliveria returns to this same scene and shows Cassatt sitting in the dim light next to the fire, nearly blind from cataracts, as she decides to destroy the letters.

Was it a crime to burn memory? She didn’t know. Memory is all we have, Degas had once said. Memory is what life is, in the end.

She would be ash herself, soon, like all the others. She thrust the letters one by one into the fire. . . .

The pages burned on and on. And in those flames the years evaporated, the things unsaid and foregone, the misunderstandings and misconceptions and subverted hopes, the things that would now never be said.

Did they or didn’t they? We’ll never know for sure. Oliveira’s book offers one possible interpretation. What’s yours?

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source:

Mary Cassatt at Chateau de Beaufresne, undated photo. Source:

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source:âteau_de_Beaufresne.JPG

Chateau de Beaufresne (2012 photo). Source:âteau_de_Beaufresne.JPG

If you’re a fan of Mary Cassatt and would like to see more photos of Chateau de Beaufresne and the family gravesite nearby in Mesnil-Théribus, go to I hope to get there myself on my next trip to Paris.

Berthe Morisot’s Interior

In this 1893 painting, Berthe Morisot pictures her teenage daughter Julie in the interior of their apartment at 10 rue Weber, where they moved after the 1892 death of Morisot’s husband Eugene Manet. I think it tells us a story about the interior of Morisot’s own life.

Berthe Morisot, Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

One of the first things I notice is the portrait of Morisot hanging on the wall to the left of the fireplace. Her brother-in-law Édouard Manet painted it in 1873, when Morisot was thirty-two years old and had just started showing with the Impressionists. Manet gave it to Morisot as a gift. I am always struck by the pose and the gaze that Manet captured. Pretty sensuous. Yet one year later, Morisot would marry Édouard’s brother. Twenty years later, after both Édouard and Eugene have died, Morisot paints a picture with this portrait in the background.

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot Reclining (1873)

There are a few other interesting details in the painting of Julie and a Violin. According to Julie Morisot, who is quoted in the Exhibition Catalog for the Berthe Morisot Exhibit at the Musée Marmottan, the painting to the right of the fireplace – which is cut off and barely even depicted – is a painting of her father by Degas. In the center of the painting behind Julie, there is a large Chinese bowl, a treasured gift from Édouard Manet. Notice how close it is to the fireplace, how bright and prominent it is in the center of the room next to Julie. Finally, consider the empty yellow chair facing Morisot’s own portrait. It has been placed there on purpose – why else would it be facing the wall and not Julie?

I think we know. The two most treasured people in Morisot’s life were her daughter and Édouard – not Eugene – Manet. But of course, I’m just speculating, drawing wild conclusions from a pretty painting. And yet, I know that everything in the background of a painting is carefully selected and placed there for a reason, just like the details in a book. I think this painting hints at a really good story.

If you go to rue Weber today, you can find Morisot’s lovely apartment still standing. There is no historical marker, and few of the neighbors I spoke to even know it was once Morisot’s home. It is one of the loveliest streets in Paris, in a quiet corner of the 16th arrondissement that ends at the Bois de Boulogne. Despite their loss and grief, Morisot and her daughter must have had some simple pleasures their last two years there together, with frequent walks and sketching opportunities in the nearby park.

Morisot would catch pneumonia in 1895 and die at the age of 52. Julie would come under the guardianship of a Manet family friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, until his death in 1899.

Morisot’s secret interior would live on in her paintings. You can see many of them for yourself at the special Berthe Morisot Exhibit at the Musée Marmottan until July 1, 2012.

Berthe Morisot’s Garden

Berthe Morisot: “Woman in a Garden” (1882-83)

This lovely Berthe Morisot painting once traveled from Chicago to Paris, just like me. It was included in the Berthe Morisot Exhibit at Musée Marmottan in 2012.  It had been loaned out by The Art Institute of Chicago.

This exhibit represented the first major retrospective of Berthe Morisot’s work in over 40 years. There were over 150 works, including paintings, pastels, watercolors and drawings, gathered from museums and private collections all over the world. Some you might have seen before, whether at the Marmottan or the Musée D’Orsay, but there were some you may never have the chance to see again. The effect of seeing so many of her works together, in such a beautiful setting, is just plain stunning. Once in a lifetime perhaps.

But the exhibit offered much more than that. Together, Morisot’s collected works told the story of this remarkable woman’s life, from her earliest years as a copyist at the Louvre to her final years as a celebrated Impressionist and devoted mother.

In the Exhibition Catalogue you can find the details of Morisot’s life right alongside her paintings, all in chronological order. You can follow Morisot as she moves from home to home in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, from her parents’ homes at 12 and 16 rue Franklin, to her last home as a widow at 10 rue Weber. Aside from her travels and her summers in suburban Paris, she spent her entire life in the 16th.

In fact, Morisot painted Woman in a Garden during the period she lived on rue Villejust, now known as rue Paul Valéry. Her home still stands today, with the same garden that she once could have painted in.

Morisot lived at 40 rue Villejust (40 rue Paul Valéry) from 1883-1893, during her marriage to Edouard Manet’s brother Eugene. They lived on the first floor and her mother-in-law lived on the second floor. Morisot hosted weekly salons where the Impressionists hung out. As Renoir’s son Jean said in his father’s biography: “In Berthe Morisot’s day the Manet circle had been one of the most authentic centers of civilized Parisian life. . . . It was not just intellectuals one met at Berthe Morisot’s, but simply good company. . . . Berthe Morisot acted like a special kind of magnet on people, attracting only the genuine. She had a gift for smoothing rough edges. ‘Even Degas was more civil when with her.’ “

After her husband Eugene died in 1893, Morisot and her daughter Julie moved out of the rue Villejust home.  In 1900, Morisot’s niece Jeannie Gobillard and her new husband, the French poet Paul Valéry, moved in.

rue Villejust was eventually renamed rue Paul Valéry. It is located in the northern part of the 16th arrondissement, not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

This was once Berthe Morisot’s private garden. It resembles the setting for Woman in a Garden, but Morisot also spent time at a suburban country home, so we do not know if this was the setting for the painting. I would like to think so, because, well, I was there. When the construction on the house was completed in 1893, Morisot’s husband planted the flowers and plants in the garden.

I love the green lattices in French courtyards. They certainly make for a beautiful background in Morisot’s painting.

I must admit I was a little disappointed with the historical marker at 40 rue Paul Valéry. Its only reference to Berthe Morisot? Paul Valéry married her niece. That’s it. Every other line is devoted to Valéry.

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait (1885). Morisot would have painted this in her home on rue Villejust, where she had no separate art studio. She managed to balance her career with motherhood by merging her home life and her painting life.

I admire Morisot’s skill and patience in being able to capture these busy girls (her daughter Julie age 8 and the concierge’s daughter, Marthe Givaudan) playing with goldfish in a valuable bowl, which was a treasured gift from Morisot’s brother-in-law Edouard Manet. The home as studio, yet a comfortable place where kids can be kids and mothers can be painters.

More photos and posts will follow from my Berthe Morisot tour of the 16th. There are no more historical markers, but there is plenty of art history. I hope you’ll follow along.

Paris Artists Walking Tour: The Impressionists’ Paris

 The Impressionists’ Paris by Ellen Williams (The Little Bookroom, 1997) is a wonderful little travel guide for art lovers in Paris. It offers three separate walking tours of some of the Impressionists’ art studios, homes and painting sites.

The first walk in the book takes you to the area around the Louvre and the Seine, over bridges known as Le Pont Neuf or Le Pont Des Arts to the Left Bank area near L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.

The young Impressionists would have spent much of their time in this area in the 1860’s, honing their skills by copying the paintings and sculpture inside the Louvre, and by studying under established artists at various ateliers in the city. If you were male (women were not accepted until 1897, and only then after years of bitter disputes) you hoped to be admitted to the finest art school in Paris, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.

Unlike the female artists of the Impressionist era, I was able to walk right through the gates of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. I was overwhelmed by its impressive surroundings, from the outdoor courtyard to a massive interior hall with a glass ceiling. There were several printmaking classes underway at the time of my visit, and the air smelled of ink and paint thinner, the happy scent of art in the making.
















Just across the street a few doors north of the entrance to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts is the birthplace of Edouard Manet, which is commemorated with a historical plaque (the street was known as rue des Petits Augustins until Napoleon III renamed it in 1852). Manet is recognized as the leader of the Impressionists. When you see where he lived, you understand how he grew up completely surrounded by art.









The next stop on the walking tour is the studio of Frederic Bazille at 20 rue Visconti, just a block away from L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. In 1867, Bazille invited his friends Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet to paint with him in his studio. It has been immortalized in such paintings as Bazille’s The Artist’s Studio, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1867. Walking down this old narrow street in the fading afternoon light made me feel like there might have been a few friendly ghosts at my side.

And of course, to finish off the walking tour, I had to stop at Cafe La Palette, 43 rue de Seine, for a glass of wine and a little rest. Although La Palette doesn’t date back as far as the Impressionist era, it has been a local haunt for generations of art students since the turn of the century. I just wish I’d thought to bring a sketch pad to  memorialize it. I guess I’ll just have to go back!
The Impressionists’ Paris is a wonderful little guidebook with easy-to-follow maps as well as helpful cafe and restaurant recommendations. There are two more walking tours in the book besides this one: one for the Montmartre area and one along the Grand Boulevards. Pick this book up at your local independent bookstore and enjoy planning your own trip in the footsteps of the Impressionists. And let me know if you too can sense the ghosts.