The present work was painted in the garden behind Morisot’s home on Rue de Villejust (now known as rue Paul-Valéry) in the 16ème arrondissement of Paris. While overseeing the construction of their new town house, Eugène Manet wrote to Morisot in 1882 with the suggestion, “It would be a good idea to give the house a pleasant appearance as soon as possible, hence we should plant early” (quoted in M. Mathieu, Berthe Morisot, exh. cat., Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, 2012, p. 140). When they moved into the house in 1883 the garden was already flourishing, establishing a little piece of nature within the confines of the city. By that point Morisot had shown a great fondness for painting her natural surroundings at their country home in Bougival. The home's location in the northern part of the 16ème also placed her near the Bois de Boulogne, another frequent setting for the artist. But Morisot’s most favored subject to paint was her daughter, Julie, depicted here seated in the garden engaged in her own activity, likely painting or drawing alongside her mother.
Morisot’s paintings of her only child––nearly fifty canvases by the time Julie turned twelve––constitute the most extensive and innovative pictorial project of her entire career. “Her daughter became the framework, the very architecture of the whole of her artistic production,” Delphine Montalant has written. “Julie’s constant presence became the substance and leitmotif of her work” (op. cit., 1997, p. 16). Rather than entrusting Julie’s education to the schools, Morisot oversaw her intellectual and creative development at home, hiring piano and violin tutors to foster her musical talent, enlisting Stéphane Mallarmé to instruct her in literature and composition, and teaching her drawing, painting, and art history herself. “We were always together, Mother and I,” Julie later recalled. “She painted at home during the day and, when we went out, she took along notebooks to sketch me” (quoted in A. Higonnet, Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992, p. 226). In Morisot’s work, we see Julie grow up as if in a photograph album, an effect of pictorial intimacy that reproduces the artist’s own subjective experience of maternal immersion in the cultivation of her beloved daughter.
Almost as soon as Julie was past infancy, Morisot began to depict her engaged in all forms of independent creative activity, developing an intellectual and artistic life that echoed her mother’s, yet was largely her own. As a toddler, she played with her father in the garden at Bougival (fig. 1); as she grew older, she read, wrote, drew, sewed, and made music, always remaining rooted in the warmth and privacy of the home. Julie’s concentration and quiet self-absorption in her sketchbook parallels Morisot’s own work as an artist. The use of the green lattices to structure the composition underscores the act of looking, while the active brushwork on the canvas reveals her process of painting. “Morisot’s work bound Julie increasingly to her not only as the product of her own creation and the object of her loving gaze but also as a kind of partner in art, the one person with whom she could share most fully her own artistic ideas and beliefs,” Greg M. Thomas continued. “Art became a way simultaneously of constructing her own identity, cultivating Julie’s identity, and binding the two together into what was for Morisot the essential family bond” (Impressionist Children: Childhood, Family, and Modern Identity in French Art, New Haven, 2010, pp. 110-111).