La Luministe by Paula Butterfield

A fictionalized biography set in mid to late 19th century France.

When the story opens, Berthe Morisot is a young girl who, along with her sister Edma, is allowed by their parents to study painting prior to the inevitable marriage. While Edma makes a suitable marriage, Berthe refuses the role society and parents have assigned her and hopes to make a career as a serious artist. Such a career for a respectable woman was unthinkable in those days. When she meets the great Édouard Manet and falls under his spell, her desire to enter and conquer his world becomes her overriding passion.

This book is not a page turner. Nor is it a conventional romance. It is a detailed and fascinating look at Paris at a time after the Franco-Prussian War when the city was undergoing great changes; a time when the new boulevards were being laid out; when artists well-known today were struggling to make names for themselves and impressionism was a new movement setting itself against the constraints of the staid Salon. Mostly it’s about Berthe and her fraught relationship with Manet as she struggles to find herself as artist, lover, and woman. She’s a very nuanced character. We see her in moments of weakness, despair, envy, and self-doubt, but she never let’s go of her vision, and we have to root for her. And it’s also about Manet, a libertine who loves life and lives it to the fullest. There is also a supporting cast of famous names.

The writer goes deeply into the complex love affair between Berthe and Manet. The prose is excellent. The book is a sensual delight that must be not just read but experienced. It’s always a pleasure to rub shoulders, in a manner of speaking, with the good and the great of the art world. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I recommend it for anyone who likes literary fiction, but it is a must for those interested in art history.

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