Marie Bashkirtseff. Part 2 her later life and diaries

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 - 1884)
Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 – 1884)

In my previous blog I concentrated on the portraiture of Marie Bashkirtseff but she will probably be remembered best for other genres

One painting by Marie Bashkirtseff which came about during her time at the Académie Julian was one commissioned by the founder of the establishment, Rodolphe Julian.  He asked her to paint a canvas depicting the artists at work in his academy.  The finished canvas was entitled L’Atelier Julian and is now looked upon as one of Bashkirtseff’s finest works.  Initially Marie was not impressed by the commission but could see the benefit for herself, writing in her diary:

“…As for the subject, it does not fascinate me, but it may be very amusing, and then Julian is so taken with it, and so convinced… A woman’s studio has never been painted.  Besides, as it would be an advertisement for him, he would do all in the world to give me the wonderful notoriety he speaks about…”

Atelier Julian (In the Studio) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)
Atelier Julian (In the Studio) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1881)

The painting portrays the light and airy studio at the Académie Julian where Bashkirtseff and her fellow students would work.  L’atelier Julian is a quite large oil on canvas work measuring 154 x 186cms and is currently housed in the Dnepropetrovsk State Art Museum.  It is a fascinating work featuring sixteen students all taking part in a life-drawing session. The studio looks well organised, although small in size, but that maybe due to the number of people crammed into the room.  As an observer, we firstly focus on the woman seated at the centre of the work.  She wears a bright blue dress.  In her hands are a small brush and a maulstick.  She is working on a painting of the young nude model, who is holding a staff whilst standing on the raised dais so that he can be seen clearly by all the female studentsIf we look past this lady we see one of her colleagues staring out at us.  Maybe someone is entering the room to join this artistic group.  Our eyes now leave the lady in blue and we start to scan the rest of the room.  It is a hubbub of activity.  Some of the females are concentrating intently on their canvases whilst others partake in chit-chat. The two females in the foreground, one seated, one standing, engage in conversation.  The lady standing rests her hand on a wine-coloured velvet drape which has been laid over the back of the chair.  Look at the drape.  See how Bashkirtsteff has showcased her artistic ability in the way she has depicted the elaborate folds of the material.  Many artists in the past and in the present time like to show off their artistic skills in this way.  This large and multi-faceted work was exhibited to great acclaim at the 1881 Salon.

Following a visit to Russia in 1882 to visit her relatives she returned to Paris.  She had not been feeling well and decided to visit her doctor.  In Dormer Creston’s 1937 biography on the artist entitled Fountains of Youth – The Life of Marie Bashkirtseff, he quoted her diary entries:

“…At the doctor’s.  For the first time, I had the courage to say: Monsieur, I am becoming deaf.  It can be borne, but there will be a veil between me and the rest of the world…” 

Later that year her health deteriorated further and she noted in her dairy after visiting the physician that the news was not good:

“…I am consumptive, he told me so to-day…”

Despite her failing health she carried on with her art.  She punished herself by working long hours almost as if she realised her time was almost up and none should be wasted.  It was in 1882 that she met the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.  He was ten years older than Marie but he became her confidante and mentor and her greatest inspiration.  It has often been mooted that the two became very close romantically.  He persuaded her to look beyond her wealthy lifestyle and observe and depict in her paintings those who were less financially fortunate than herself.  She listened to Bastien-Lepage and soon the subjects of her work changed.  Her works soon depicted the lower classes and street scenes.  This was such a turn-around for a young woman who had only known the life of affluence.

The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)
The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)

One of her best loved paintings featuring the “real world” is entitled The Meeting which she completed in 1884 and was exhibited at that year’s Salon.  It is now housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.   It was an enormous success, both with the press and public alike.  However, much to Bashkirtseff’s annoyance, her painting was not awarded a medal.  In her diary she wrote of her frustration and disappointment:

 “…I am exceedingly indignant because, after all, works that are really rather poor have received prizes…..There is nothing more to be done. I am a worthless creature, humiliated, finished…”

 Marie believed that being awarded a medal by the Salon jurists would help to immortalise her and that, to her, was of the utmost importance as, at this time, she knew her life was coming to an end.  She desperately did not want to die before her artistic talent was recognised.  She dreaded being forgotten.

 In this next work, Marie Bashkirtseff copies the Naturalist style of her friend and mentor, Jules Bastien-Lepage.   Lepage’s naturalism focused mainly on the countryside but Bashkirtseff decided to follow his style of naturalism or realism but concentrate on an urban setting.  In some ways the work is a genre scene, a depiction of everyday life.  Before us are six young boys, who stand in a circle fascinated with what the tallest boy has in his hand, although it is not visible to us.  Whatever it is, it has them deep in discussion.  Some still wear their school smocks.  The shabbiness of their clothes and shoes marks them as coming from poor working-class families and the setting is a run-down working class area.  We see, behind the group of boys, the old wooden fence with the graffiti and the torn posters all inferring that the setting is one of poverty.

 Bashkirtseff’s choice of depicting working-class schoolchildren in this painting may have come about as it was the subject of schooling which had become a great topic of conversation in the early 1880’s with Jules Ferry, a member of the French government at the time, establishing the law that saw the arrival of free, compulsory, secular education.  However other art critics would have us believe that the depiction of the boys was simply a bourgeois stereotype that people like Bashkirtseff would adopt.   Again some people wanted to look for a message in the painting, a message that may only be there in their eyes.  The feminists pointed to the fact that the group are all males and further suggest that the young girl walking away alone is symbolic of the feminist movement and their desire for better integration in society.  In the book, Overcoming All Obstacles:  The Women of the Académie Julian by Gabriel Weisberg and Jane Becker, the writers wrote about the painting and its lack of recognition by the Salon jurists:

 “…While painters at the Salon designated her for a medal, the jury passed on her submission. The public complained.  While Robert-Fleury was encouraging her to include passages of draped figures (to show off her virtuosity in that skill), Marie refused, not finding drapery fitting to her modern street boys.  Again the critics noted her sincerity of execution, freshness of facture, and realism in taking up the subject. While the work did not receive a medal, it was bought by the state, and several engravings and lithographs were made after it…”

Autumn by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)
Autumn by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

 Although I stated earlier that Bashkirtseff wanted to focus on urban portrayals, my next offering of her work is a beautiful painting entitled Autumn, which moves towards a landscape work.  The setting is a rutted tree-lined road which runs parallel to the river.  Through the trees we see an arched stone bridge which straddles the waterway.  The time must be late summer or maybe early autumn as many of the trees have shed their bronze-tinted leaves while others cling to the branches and retain their summer colour.  To the side of the road is a pavement.  Look at the details Marie has depicted of the sidewalk.  The fallen bench straddles the pavement and the road.  The crumbling stonework of the pavement is clearly visible and which is now home for the fallen, windswept leaves and what looks like an abandoned newspaper lies in the gutter close to the fallen bench.  Beside the pavement we see a stretch of garden fencing which has seen better days.  This is an example of Naturalism in art, a style Marie Bashkirtseff had adopted due to the influence of her close friend, Jules Bastien-Lepage.  The painting is devoid of people and this fact alone means we are not distracted from the artist’s detailed depiction of the area.  It also avoids the work of art being focused on people and the depiction of them may turn the painting into a work of Social Realism with the landscape being looked upon as merely a background to a story within the work.  The colours used by the artist set the scene for a certain time of year and also a certain time of day.  One can imagine the lighting of the scene would be different at another time of day and obviously it would be a far different depiction if this had been mid-winter.

 In a diary entry for May 1884, she wrote:

 “…What is the use of lying or pretending?  Yes, it is clear that I have the desire, if not the hope, of staying on this earth by whatever means possible.  If I don’t die young, I hope to become a great artist.  If I do, I want my journal to be published…”  

Marie Bashkirtseff's mausoleum  in Cimetière de Passy, Paris
Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum in Cimetière de Passy, Paris

Four months after this entry, on October 31st 1884, Marie Bashkirtseff died of consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) in Paris.  She was just twenty-five years old and for her, she sadly believed she had achieved little.

Inside of Marie Bashkirtseff's mausoleum
Inside of Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum

She was buried in Cimetière de Passy in a large mausoleum, designed as a full-sized artist’s studio and has now become a French Heritage site. The inside of Marie Bashkirtseff’s mausoleum we see in the central background a copy of Marie’s bust which was sculpted by her friend the sculptor René de Saint Marceaux.  Behind the sculpture hanging on the wall is one of Marie Bashkirtseff’s last and unfinished paintings entitled Women Saints. At either side, on pedestals are busts of her parents Sadly almost two hundred of her works were destroyed or looted during the Second World War.  However her journal was published by her family in 1887.  Sadly it was an abridged version which had been heavily censored by her relatives who thought a lot of the contents about them were unflattering seeing to it that a good deal of material was critical and unflattering to the family and unfit for the reading public.  Having said that however, the diary stands as one of the great diaries of its time.  It was not until some years later, with the discovery of Marie’s original manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France that it was realised that the diaries published by the family had been heavily edited.   An unabridged edition of the complete journal, based on the original manuscript, has been published in French in 16 volumes, and excerpts from the years 1873–76 have been translated into English under the title I Am the Most Interesting Book of All.

The diaries were started by a girl of fourteen and they began as a simple coming-of-age journal but later developed into an often sad account of how life conspired against her and her fight to survive.

I will leave you with an entry in her diary when she talks about how people may remember her.  She wrote:

“…If I do not die young I hope to live as great artist; but if I die young, I intend to have my journal, which cannot fail to be interesting, published. Similarly: “When I am dead, my life, which appears to me a remarkable one, will be read. (The only thing wanting is that it should have been different)…”

Marie Bashkirtseff. Part 1 The portraitist and feminist

Photograph of twenty year old Marie Bashkirtseff (1878)
Photograph of twenty year old Marie Bashkirtseff (1878)

I had been researching the life of Jules Bastien-Lepage for a future blog when I came across the fascinating story of a Ukranian lady, a friend of his, who during her very short life excelled as a painter, a sculptor and a diarist.  It was her talent as a diarist and her personal diary which led to her notoriety.  I have split her lifestory, as short as it was, between two blogs, so come with me and explore the life of Maria Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva who became better known as Marie Bashkirtseff and her portraiture.

 Marie Bashkirtseff was born in November 1858 at Gavrontsi, a beautiful country estate close to the provincial town of Poltava in southern Ukraine.  Her father was Konstantin Bashkirtseff and her mother Mariia Babanina, who was a lady, fiercely proud of her Tartar heritage.   The family were wealthy and were looked upon as being of the petite noblesse social class, which was a termed used to describe the lesser nobility of France, especially rural landowners of noble ancestry.  A year later Marie’s brother Paul was born.  Marie was a studious and very intelligent child, speaking Russian and French fluently and even when young she exhibited a dynamic personality.  Her parents split up in 1859 and her mother took her and her brother back to her parents’ home in Tcherniakovka. 


The Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff  (1883)
The Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

In May 1870, when Marie was eleven years old, her grandfather, Stepan Babanin, her brother Paul, and a motley collection of other family members, along with the family physician, Doctor Walitsky, left Tcherniakovka for good and embarked on a voyage of discovery around Russia and Europe.  The extensive journey lasted almost two years until the weary travellers settled down in a villa situated in the foothills of the Mediterranean Alps overlooking the coastal resort of Nice.  It was at this idyllic setting that fourteen year old Marie started to dabble with her artwork and also started to write her diary.  This diary which was eventually published in 1887, three years after her death, was to become a best seller.  In it she would write about her life on the Côte d’Azur with her extended family, her teenage infatuations, her dreams for the future and her loves.  She had a fixed idea of what her diary would be all about, writing:

 “…If I don’t live enough to be illustrious, this diary will be interesting for naturalists; the life of a woman is always curious, day by day, without affectation, as if nobody in the world should ever read it and at the same time with the intention of being read; I’m sure that you will find me pleasant… and I mean everything. Otherwise, what’s the point in writing? Apart from this, you will see that I say everything…”

Portrait of Mme X by Marie Bashkirtseff (c.1884)
Portrait of Mme X by Marie Bashkirtseff (c.1884)

 Marie Bashkirtseff received a well rounded education.  She was home-tutored with the family employing governesses and private tutors and she studied a number of languages including English, German, Italian, Greek and Latin.  She was well versed in history, mythology and literature and it was that knowledge that found its way onto the pages of her diary.   She also developed a great love of music and singing.   She was an accomplished pianist, played the harp and was a talented singer and she hoped that one day she would become a professional mezzo-soprano.   This plan for her future was to be dashed after a severe bout of laryngitis which irrevocably affected her vocal chords.  She was devastated at this turn of events, once musing in her diary about what could have been:

 “…My God!  What a beautiful voice I had!  It was powerful, dramatic, captivating; it gave chills in the back. And now I have nothing, not even a voice to speak with!…”

 With music being a thing of the past, Marie needed another outlet for her exuberance and it came in 1877,  when, aged nineteen,  she decided to embark on a career as an artist.  For this to happen she decided that Nice was not the place to be and insisted that the whole family should move to the European capital of art, Paris, for it was here she believed she would receive the best art tuition and be able to study the paintings of the Masters.  The family opposed the move, not because they didn’t want to move to the capital but because of Marie’s fragile health.  They believed that the warm climate of Nice was more suitable for Marie than the colder, damper climate of Paris.  It was not because of their wish to stay warm and enjoy the sunny climate of the south but it was because Marie had been diagnosed with irreversible tuberculosis and doctors had warned against such a move.  However the dominant and forceful character of Marie won the day and that year they left the south of France and moved north.

Portrait of a Woman by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)
Portrait of a Woman by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

The Parisian establishment, which was in the forefront of art tuition, was the École des Beaux-Arts but this was not an option for Marie as, at that time, women were not allowed to enrol for study at that academy.  Marie then chose to enrol at the Académie Julian, which was the only academy at the time which accepted female students, albeit the men and women trained separately.  However the training for females was similar, even allowing women to participate in life drawing classes with nude models, which was frowned upon by other art establishments.  It was founded by Rodolphe Julian in 1868.  It was a private studio school for art students, which, as well as training aspiring male artists to pass the exams to enter the hallowed and prestigious École des Beaux-Arts,  it also offered independent training in arts to wannabe female painters.  Whilst there Marie received excellent artistic training under the tutelage of the likes of Rodolphe Julian, Tony Robert-Fleury, Gustave Boulanger, and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.  She revelled in this world of art and even the glamour of her social life took a back seat as she commented in her diary:

 “…as for me, although feeling pleased of being in the ballroom, I’ve been thinking all the time in a pastel painted this morning with which I wasn’t satisfied…

 Marie was a perfectionist in all that she did and was highly competitive.  This latter characteristic manifested itself in her fierce competition with her fellow student, the Swiss-born painter, Louise Catherine Breslau.  They both exhibited works at the Paris Salons and Marie’s competitive nature soon turned to jealousy, jealous of the artistic ability of her fellow student.  She looked upon Breslau as a competitor in the race to be recognised by the art critics and the public.  Breslau was two years older than Bashkirtseff  but was to outlive her by more than forty years and so was able to consolidate her reputation within the art world.

Parisienne, Portrait of Irma by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)
Parisienne, Portrait of Irma by Marie Bashkirtseff (1882)

Marie Bashkirtseff, besides her dedication to painting, developed another love whilst living in Paris.  She was drawn to the feminist movement .  Hubertine Auclert had founded the feminist movement known as Le Droit des Femmes in 1876, the year before Marie had arrived in Paris.  It was a movement that supported women’s right to have the vote.  Marie, using the pseudonym, Pauline Orell, applied her innate ability as a writer to produce articles in support of feminism.  She had some of her writings published in La Citoyenne, a bi-monthly feminist newspaper first published Hubertine Auclert in Paris in 1881.  In the March 1881 edition an article by Baskirtseff appeared which linked her artistic career with that of the plight of women.  She cynically wrote:

 “…I will not surprise anyone by saying that women are excluded from the School of Fine Arts as they are almost everywhere.  Yet we admit them to the School of Medicine, why not at the École des Beaux-Arts.  Perhaps one fears scandals that would cause the element in this female comedies environment…” 

Jeune Femme Lisant la Question du Divorce d'Alexandre Dumas (Portrait of a Young Woman Reading) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1880)
Jeune Femme Lisant la Question du Divorce d’Alexandre Dumas (Portrait of a Young Woman Reading) by Marie Bashkirtseff (1880)

In 1880 , Marie Bashkirtseff submitted a beautiful work of portraiture to the Salon.  It was entitled Jeune femme lisant la Question du Divorce d’Alexandre Dumas (Portrait of a young woman reading).  It was not simply a portrait of a young woman,  it was a work of art with a message.  We see before us a portrait of a beautiful and stylish young woman who is totally engrossed in reading her book, The Divorce Question by Alexandre Dumas.  The sitter for this portrait is thought to be Marie’s cousin, Dina Babanine, who two years after Marie’s death would marry and become the Countess Toulouse-Lautrec.  There is a feminist statement behind this depiction.  There is the message that beautiful women have intelligence.  The title of the painting tells us the title of the book she is reading.  It was the 1880 work by the well-known author, Alexandre Dumas, who was discussing divorce and the French laws appertaining to the subject.  It was a controversial book and in some ways a ground-breaking one.  The serious and intellectual nature of the book was a statement that women do not, as believed by many, especially men, only read frothy romantic novels.   The artist was also making a statement regarding the important position of women in society.  In this case, it was about her aspirations for female independence.  The right to divorce and break free from an abusive relationship, the same right as men to be trained to become an artist, the women’s right to vote.  It was simply her belief regarding the right of women to be equal to men.

Portrait de la Comtesse Dina de Toulouse-Lautrec, by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)
Portrait de la Comtesse Dina de Toulouse-Lautrec, by Marie Bashkirtseff (1883)

Dina Babanin featured in another of Bashkirtseff’s works.  It was a work in pastels, simply entitled Dina Babanine and was completed in 1883.   Dina was Marie’s cousin and also a close life-long friend.  Her early upbringing was in total contrast to that of Marie.  Dina and her brother had been brought up in a very disruptive household.  Her father had his marriage to their mother annulled making his children illegitimate.  This beautifully crafted portrait depicts the beauty of Marie’s cousin.  She wears a pale blue décolleté peignoir with a wide delicate white collar.  Her face, neck and chest have been depicted using delicately blended light tones which enhance the youthful beauty of the sitter.  Her full lips are pressed together but it is her eyes that catch our attention.  They are dark blue in colour.  She does not quite focus upon us.  There is a feeling that she has lost her power of concentration and there is a blankness about her stare.  Like all inquisitive and discerning observers we search for imperfections of her beauty but they are hard to find.  Maybe we comment upon the slight cleft of her chin.  Maybe we remark upon the flatness of her nose.  However we cannot but acknowledge her overall beauty.  Look at the composition.  It is all about the female.  There is no jewellery, no flowers attached to her simple but revealing dress with its plunging neckline.  The artist wanted nothing to divert our attention from her cousin’s beauty and in that she has unquestionably succeeded.

In my next blog I will conclude her life story, look at some of her most famous paintings and reveal more about her diary.