Reviw by Julie Lorenzen
After reading the book Growing up with the Impressionists: the Diary of Julie Manet, I couldn’t help but think that Julie Manet, the niece of painter Edouard Manet and daughter of Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot led an enviable life. Born November 14, 1878 in Paris at the height of the Impressionist period, Julie grew up amongst the likes of Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and the Great Symbolist Poet Stephane Mallarme who were all friends of Berthe Morisot and Eugene Manet, Edouard’s brother. Unlike her brother-in-law, Edouard Manet, who refused to exhibit with a group that called themselves the Impressionists, Berthe Morisot embraced the title and showed her works along with artists such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Alfred Sisley. She showed every year starting in 1874 except for 1879, the year after Julie was born. Julie soon became Berthe’s favorite subject and Julie occasionally wrote of posing for her mother.
There was no mention of formal schooling in the diary although Julie wrote about being tutored. Her entries revealed an intelligent girl who grew up in a sophisticated world that included attending concerts and art gallery exhibits in Paris. Her mother hosted Thursday night gatherings that Mallarme and the Impressionists would attend. After Morisot died, it was not uncommon for Julie to join Morisot’s friends for dinner at someone’s home where such current events as the Dreyfus affair were discussed.
Julie started her diary at the age of 14 in 1893. The last entry of this diary ends December 1899, when Julie was twenty and engaged to artist Ernest Rouart. In some entries, Julie’s topics of having a birthday, getting the chicken pox, shopping in Paris and attending the funeral of her “oncle” and “tante” seemed rather ordinary. However, when Julie writes about the art in Paris and the people who created it, her diary became extraordinary. An aspiring artist herself, she often wrote about visiting the artists at their studios, going to an exhibit where she would spot their work, or having a conversation with Renoir or Degas while copying work at the Louvre. In one entry (undated but included with others from the year 1897), it was apparent that Julie realized the importance of impressionism to the era in which she lives. After reading a few pages of a published diary of a young girl like herself she comments, “What infuriates me about her is that, living at a time when Manet and all the Impressionists were alive, she had nothing to say about any of that.” (111)
Although covering a relatively brief time span of six years, Julie’s diary provided a commentary of real-life characters who helped define nineteenth century Paris. Being a part of the social circle of Stephane Mallarme and the Impressionists allowed Julie Manet to provide readers with an intimate impression of Morisot, Renoir, Degas, Monet and Mallarme. The details and stories, some humorous, made me feel like part of their circle. On page 71 there was an (undated) entry in which she described Degas’ obsession with photography. “Monsieur Degas can think of nothing but photography. He has invited us all to have dinner with him next week and he’ll take our photograph by artificial light: the only thing is you have to pose for three minutes.” At a later date, on November 29, 1896, when Renoir and Julie visit Degas, best known for his paintings of ballet dancers, at his studio, he greeted Julie Manet with “I’m sorry, the photographs were all failures, I haven’t dared to get in touch with you. (76) Three years later she describes Degas at an art sale as “very comical in the way he examined each item through his magnifying glass.” (177) In the same entry, Julie’s place in the social circle was evident when Degas showed her and some companions his work in progress. “Monsieur Degas was an absolute darling. He discussed painting with us, then suddenly said ‘I’m going to show you some veritable orgies of color that I’m doing at the moment’, and showed us up to his studio. We were very touched, as he never shows anyone what he’s working on. He got out three pastels of women in Russian costumes […] (177)
It was also apparent that Julie adored Auguste Renoir with whom she spent a few summer vacations (which often extended until October) after her mother died of pneumonia March 2, 1895—leaving her an orphan at the age of 16. On October 4, 1895, four months after Morisot’s death, she writes “Monsieur Renoir has been so kind and so charming all summer, the more one sees of him, the more one realizes he is a true artist, first class and extraordinarily intelligent, but also with a genuine simple heartedness. (69) After visiting a gallery where some of his work was shown, she described his portraits as “smiling, happy works.” (136)
A year after Morisot’s death, Monet, Degas, Renoir and Mallarme and Julie all worked together on a memorial exhibit featuring Berthe Morisot’s work. A highlight of the book was an argument that ensued over the removal of a big screen that divided the showroom into two rooms. Degas argued with Monet, Mallarme and Renoir. ‘You want me to remove this screen which I adore,’ M. Degas said, emphasizing the last word. ‘We adore Mme Manet ’, retorted M. Monet [about Morisot]. It’s not the question of the screen, but one of Mme Manet’s exhibitions. (87) Degas lost the argument and Julie documented Renoir’s somewhat accurate prediction the next morning: “You can bet Degas won’t be coming,’ said M. Renoir. “He’ll be here later in the day up a ladder hammering away and will say, ‘Can’t we put a cord across the door to prevent people from getting in?’ I know him too well.” Julie validated the prediction by writing “sure enough, no M. Degas all morning.” (88) I liked this story because although Julie adored Degas, he was known to have a disagreeable side and it came through at the exhibit.
When writing about Claude Monet, Julie seemed to display sympathy and respect rather than adoration. In one entry in which she described the funeral of Mme Monet’s “poor daughter.” Julie wrote “for some years now these [the Monets] have had nothing but sorrowful events.” Julie liked Monet’s paintings and this was evident in her June 9, 1898 when she wrote about going to Monet’s exhibition. “Contrary to the opinion of many people, I found the flowers beautiful. I thought I was seeing one of those clumps from a chrysanthemum show—those gigantic chrysanthemums in superb colors. His SEINE series seemed very sad to me, thought two with quite choppy water appealed to me very much.” (134)
Throughout her diary, Julie chronicled quite a few funerals. However, besides her mother’s death, one other seemed to affect her profoundly. Stephane Mallarme, who had often taken Julie sailing on the Seine at his summer home called Valvins and who had become her guardian after her mother’s death, died suddenly in 1898. She wrote, “How unhappy the death of this greatest friend of Papa and Maman makes me. He was so wonderful to us; he called us ‘the children’ in such a paternal way. He reminded me of the delightful Thursday evenings we used to have at home. How atrocious it is to think that his man, who was looking so well in July, has now disappeared. Death is terrible. (141)
Included with the diary entries in Growing up with the Impressionists was an insightful introduction and after word by editors Rosalind de Boland Roberts and Jane Roberts who skillfully translated and assembled the diary which was not a “neat ladylike leather bound volume but untidy notes scribbled down in old exercise books, often in pencil, the presentation as spontaneous as the contents.” (9) Unlike Julie Manet, the editors seemed very conscientious when putting the book together. The font of the year provided and the logo that appeared at the top of each page seemed reminiscent of the nineteenth century. Also, by adding in various paintings by Julie Manet, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Berthe Morisot as well as a few photographs by Edgar Degas (and some by anonymous photographers.), the editors made the diary seem complete. An index was not provided, but the editors did include an alphabetized list of names, places and events that included the Dreyfus Affair, which comes up several times in Julie’s diary.
In conclusion, although the diary covered only six years, Julie Manet
provided so many anecdotes about Mallarme and the Impressionists that it
was impossible to include them all. An enthusiastic painter, Julie was
delighted with her friendships with the Impressionists. It was also evident
that Julie Manet admired her mother and uncle’s body of work, respected
and adored Renoir and Degas and emphasized with Monet, who had a rather
unfortunate personal life. She wrote her diary in such a way that one felt
like part of her world by reading her entries. I would suggest this book
to anyone wanting an intimate insight into the Impressionist era.