Natalie Papamichael. Part 2.

At work in my studio

During her first pregnancy, Natalie and her husband became increasingly unhappy with where they lived in London. They believed it was not a safe place to bring up children and so, decided to move. The problem for them, as it still is for most people, owning an affordable property in a good area in London is almost impossible. As they had had their wedding ceremony in Brighton, they knew something about the area and one of her friends from Paris who had previously lived in the seaside town told her that it would be a good place to bring up children. Knowing that it was a commutable distance to London and her beloved art galleries, the couple moved out of the capital in 2002 and relocated to the south coast town. In 2004 Natalie gave birth to her second child, another son, Tadhg. Now having two young sons, who were not great sleepers, put a lot of pressure on Natalie as she tried to continue with her art.

A collage of her life

In 2007, motivated to focus on combining her research with her studio practice, she went to Florence for a short Intensive Painting Course at the Angel Academy of Art, a private institution, founded by the English artist, Michael John Angel, in 1997, where one is taught drawing and learns the classical painting techniques of the Old Masters.

See the source image
Phoenix Art Space, Brighton.

In 2009, finding it difficult to work from home, Natalie took a studio in the Phoenix Art Space, a five-storey building in the centre of Brighton close to her where she lived. There are four floors dedicated to a diverse community of artists. It was originally started as an artist-run space and a charitable organisation offering affordable studios. Initially Natalie had to share a space but eventually she got her own studio on the second floor.

Casting Call by Eleanor Antin (2007)

One of the artists who influenced Natalie was Eleanor Antin.  She had created a body of work that explores history, contemporary culture, and identity from a feminist perspective.    In 2007 Antin produced photographic tableau entitled Casting Call and from that work evolved Natalie’s 2016 painting, The Masquerade.  Antin’s tableaux was based on the story of the Greek painter, Zeuxis. He was considered the greatest artist of the era and was asked to do a painting of Helen of Troy, considered to be the most beautiful woman. Claiming that there was no such thing as a perfect woman, Zeuxis took the five most perfect women from the town of Croton and took a different characteristic from each. In Antin’s photography, the women appear as if at a casting call for a movie.

The Masquerade by Natalie Papamichael (2016)

In The Masquerade, Natalie replaced Antin’s women with her own performance stills, which she made whilst at college, in different masquerades and at various stages of her pregnancy. She is rewriting the narrative from her own perspective whilst inserting herself into an artistic historical discourse.

The Society of Outsiders (1) (after Eleanor Antin) by Natalie Papamichael (2017)

In 2017, Natalie completed two large works (200 x 170cms) entitled The Society of Outsiders (after Eleanor Antin) I and II.   

The Golden Death from the Last Days of Pompeii by Eleanor Antin (2001)

These were again based on the photographic tableaux by the conceptual artist, Eleanor Antin, entitled The Golden Death from the Last Days of Pompeii by Eleanor Antin (2001).

The Roses of Heligabalus by Lawrence Alma Tadema (1888)

One of the original photographs by Antin was based on the Lawrence Alma Tadema’s 1888 painting, The Roses of Heligabalus. In this painting the decadent Roman Emperor, Heliogabalus, kills his guests by smothering them to death with rose petals.

The Society of Outsiders (II) (after Eleanor Antin) by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

There is an unusual story behind these two large works of art.  In late 2016, Natalie had been invited to create two paintings for an exhibition in Central London for a charitable event.  She was shown where the paintings would be hung so that she could tailor the canvases to fit neatly in place.   She worked on the paintings up until the end of 2018 in preparation for the exhibition which was due to take place in January 2019. She eventually completed the two works but a month prior to the exhibition the Charity organisers baulked at the depictions and said they did not want them in full view and allocated her an alternative space on the back staircase.  They then said they did not want them at all and later excluded more of her paintings, deciding that it was best not to show any of her work.  Who said the life of an artist is easy !!!

In her painting, Self-Portrait at La Salpêtrière, Natalie is once again reimagining an original work of art. 

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A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière by Andre Brouillet (1887)

This time the artist is Andre Brouillet and the painting is A Clinical Lesson at La Salpêtrière which he completed in 1887.   La Pitie-Salpêtrière is a famous hospital for the mentally ill in Paris. The original work depicts the renowned neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, giving one of his regular Tuesday lectures in how to treat an hysteric. It depicts the ‘queen of hysterics’ swooning and being caught by the nurses.

Self-Portrait at La Salpêtrière by Natalie Papamichael

In Papamichael’s painting the hysteric is replaced by Natalie’s own Self Portrait. Instead of passively swooning like Brouillet’s hysteric she is actively reading a book entitled ‘The Science of Woman’ and defiantly challenges the gaze of the male doctors.  Of the depiction, Natalie comments:

“…In my paintings I am both performing as the ‘male artist’, but also as the traditional, passive, female subject of the painting, thus challenging the binary opposition inherent in Art History. It is a way of inserting myself into the narratives and combining the past with the present to illustrate the similarities as well as to subvert the meaning…”

Anatomical Venus by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

Another of Natalie’s works featuring the science of medicine is her 2018 oil on aluminium panel, Anatomical Venus, which is based on the wax model which was created in 18th century Florence and displayed as part of the city’s public science museum, La Specola. It was used for instruction in anatomy. The models were also entitled ‘Slashed Beauties’ and ‘Dissecting Graces’. The doctors in the painting are from the 1931 black and white Frankenstein film. The painting juxtaposes the grotesque with the beautiful.

Herstory Rhymes by Natalie Papamichael

One of Natalie’s works which she considers as being of great importance is her painting entitled Herstory Rhymes which she feels encapsulates everything that is relevant to her practice and shows the most development from her early stages. There is reference to the film ‘Fahrenheit 451’ as the setting. She has changed the book titles so that each book is important in terms of censorship as well as her personal story. The poster which is about to burn in the background is ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. This references the deep recession of the 1980s and suggests the notion that ‘history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’  Of the painting she said:

“… My self-portrait is again a reflection of the apathy of people ignoring what is happening around them whilst looking at their mobile phones …”

Docile Bodies by Natalie Papamichael

Natalie Papamichael’s painting entitled Docile bodies is a re-imagined painting adapted from a still from a Karl Lagerfield fashion show.  The original image resembled an old Masters setting with the futurist models walking forwards. Natalie explains:

“… I wanted to integrate the absurdity and the futuristic look of the models walking forward in a regimented style and integrate this with a reference to the setting of the Old Masters and integrate this with my performance stills from the LSHTM (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine). In this performance I reference the poses of models from 16th and 17th century medical dictionaries and had misogynistic quotes from throughout history in which woman is subjugated because of her body and her bodily functions. Relating the historical subjugation of women through their bodies to culture today. The last model at the top of the staircase, is overtly referencing an eating disorder by pointing as if she is about to put her fingers down her throat. All the models also have a bar code on their wrists which references the commodification of people and is somewhat more pertinent than I realised it would be...”

Although the writing on the “shields” held by the three women is probably not visible in the picture they were three quotes:

Woman’s sexual needs have less of a mental character because generally speaking her mental life is less developed’ ( Emile Durkheim 1858-1917)
Every woman would prefer to be a man, just as every deformed wretch would prefer to be whole, and every idiot and fool would prefer to be learned and wise”. (Torquatto Tasso)
‘For 15 or 20 days (one could say almost perpetually) women is not only ill but wounded’ Jules Michelet 1798-1874
The Hydra by Natalie Papamichael (work in progress)

Natalie’s “work in progress” is her oil painting depicting the mythology of The Hydra. It is an allegorical piece based on contemporary world events. It is a pendant piece to ‘Herstory Rhymes.’  She explains her thoughts about the depiction:

“…For the beginning of the piece I used a still from a Percy Jackson film with the mythical creature, The Hydra. The Hydra is a monstrous serpent with nine heads and when a head is cut off another one simply grows back to replace it, thus the evil continues.  In my painting I have replaced the heads with politicians and people accused of orchestrating the constraints emerging on civil rights around the world. I am in the forefront of the painting looking at a mobile phone.  I have on my Marie-Antoinette wig and I am oblivious of what is happening around me. I have used one of my performance stills, as Salome, and I am about to strike one of the serpent heads. In the background there are screens depicting the widespread propaganda prevalent in the major media outlets around the world…”

She said that as she worked on it, it has evolved in its references and meanings. It also referenced the poem Jerusalem by Blake:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

Dress made from the painting.

Around 1620 Artemesia Gentileschi completed her famous painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes. She portrays the moment that Holofernes is killed by the hand of the determined and formidable Judith. The overall effect is both powerful and frightening: the drunk corpulent general is lying on the bed, his head grasped by his hair and the sword plunged into his neck.

Judith Beheading Holofernes. by Artemesia Gentileschi (c.1620)

Furthermore, Artemisia did not shy away from adding the gory detail of blood spurting so profusely as to stain Judith’s breast.

Below we can see Natalie’s version of the famous painting.

Judith beheading Holofernes (after Artemesia Gentileschi) 2009-2011

Natalie has been continuing to teach herself using the methods she learnt in Florence. She has exhibited widely including exhibitions both within her studio as well as at Gallery Different and at the Society of Women Artists in London. Her practice has evolved in recent times to become more overtly political and she has started turning her paintings into merchandise to try to reach a wider audience.

The artist and I in her studio (Brighton 2021)

It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Natalie with these two blogs featuring her life and works of art. I wish her well in the future.

Natalie Papamichael. Part 1.

Natalie Papamichael in her studio

I have told you on a few occasions that I tend to write about artists who have passed away and steer clear of living artists as they may take offence about what I have written!  My featured artist in the next two blogs is a living painter who I was fortunate to meet and talk to her about her art.  She is an utterly fascinating person, as are her works of art.  She is strong-willed and holds very strong opinions with regards feminism and things that face us with twenty-first century living.  Her works, which I will show you, are hard-hitting and thought-provoking and although they may not be liked by all, I am amazed by them and of course you all well know that I like paintings with a background story. My artist today, Natalie Papamichael, who is based in Brighton on the south coast of England where she has her own studio, which I was fortunate to visit.  However, let me start this story before she was born and as we meander along her life’s path, I will introduce you to some of her paintings.

Natalie Papamichael in her studio with some of her paintings

Natalie was born on September 5th 1971 in Slough, Berkshire. She has one sister, Helen, who is three years older than her. Her father Nicholas came from Greek and Cypriot parentage and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. He and his brother left Egypt to study in UK in 1956. Natalie’s mother, Nicole, is French and came from Paris. She moved to the UK in order to study English and it was in London that the couple met. They married in Athens in 1965 and had intended to live in Greece but a far-right military junta overthrew the caretaker government that ruled the country in April 1967 and the couple decided that it would be safer to stay and live in England. They settled in south-east London. Natalie’s father, a mathematician, worked at Brunel University in the Uxbridge area of west London, and her mother worked at the French Consulate in central London. Natalie was born on September 5th 1971. Her only sibling, a sister, Helen, was born in May 1968.

Self portrait as Medusa by Natalie Papamichael (2016)

Natalie started her schooling, aged five, at the Seer Green Church of England Primary School in 1976, and in 1983 she moved to the Chesham High School, Buckinghamshire where she remained until the age of sixteen. In 1987, having achieved good grades in nine GCSE subjects, she attended the Further Education establishment of Amersham College where she attained her A Levels in French, English Literature and Art. Natalie left the college in 1989 and applied for a place on an Art Foundation Course but was rejected. Subsequently she was offered a place on the “Reserve List” but still feeling aggrieved that they had turned her down initially, she rejected the place and decided to spend her “Gap Year” in Paris, where she had some friends and relatives. There she began working as an au pair, an occupation her sister had undertaken years before.

Self portrait as Marie Antoinette by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

Natalie returned to the UK where she had a place at Leeds University to study French and Brazilian Portuguese. Her reason for choosing this combination of subjects was less to do with future career ideas but more to do with the fact that she would get to spend time in Brazil and France. However, her university plans were abandoned when she became very unwell. Her illness was due to her excessive alcohol consumption combined with a debilitating eating disorder. Her weight at that time was down to below eighty pounds. Around this time, her parents had taken the decision to leave England and settle in Greece.  But in the meantime her father accepted a visiting professorship in Portugal . Natalie’s father was a Socialist and the re-election of Margaret Thatcher was more than he could bear !!! Her father eventually was offered a temporary teaching post at the University of Braga, near Porto and he and his wife travelled to Portugal. Later, due to her illness, Natalie joined them.

Watercolour pencil sketch on paper of Lily Cole by Natalie Papamichael (2005) with pencilled notes of her life at the time

At this time, her sister was living in Paris and so Natalie decided to leave Portugal and join her in the French capital. Initially she lived with her sister but later lived on her own in many different arrondissements around Paris. She loved Paris and continued with her painting. She would often visit the Musée d’Orsay where she would sit for many hours sketching. She loved films and would regularly go to the cinema. Another pleasing pastime was reading and she loved to while away the time sitting and reading in the many city parks. Natalie took on a variety of jobs such as working in some Irish pubs. She also had part time jobs at Chicage Meatpackers, Habitat, Galleries Lafayette and finally she got a job which she stayed at for several years as a receptionist at KPMG. At weekends she would sometimes visit and stay with relatives who lived in the suburbs of Paris.

Totem 01 by Natalie Papamichael (2019)

But all was not well and she began to have health problems due to her continuing high alcohol consumption exacerbated by her constant partying and this coupled with an eating disorder soon took its toll. She had made many friends and went to parties but as her drinking got worse, she became much more isolated and began to self-harm. Finally, she was admitted as an in-patient at L’ Hôpital Sainte Anne. She recalled later:

“…I did not realise at the time that it was a psychiatric hospital. I discovered that it was a famous psychiatric hospital in 2006, when I was sitting in a lecture at the Courtauld Institute. My tutor was talking about Nancy Spero and Antonin Artaud. She mentioned that Artaud had been in Hôpital Sainte Anne in Paris. I nudged my friend (who was also half French, half Greek) and told her I was in that hospital. She said did I realise it was a psychiatric hospital! I then looked into the history of the hospital and realised it had really interesting links to another artist, Unica Zurn. What was also very interesting about this was that Unica Zurn had lived a few doors down from where I lived with my sister in Rue Mouffetard…”

Massacre of the Madwomen by Natalie Papamichael (2019)

The narrative behind Natalie Papamichael’s 2019 painting entitled Massacre of the Madwomen resonated with her own story and her time spent in L’hopital Sainte-Anne in Paris. The characters that she used are pertinent for the stories that they are taken from. The women she enacts are the typical ‘hysterics’.  Her work is based on a black and white print of the event entitled Massacre at la Salpêtrière, 3 September 1792.

La Salpêtrière was a famous asylum in Paris, which, during this period, was operated more like a prison, housing women who were prostitutes, the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled. The Massacre was part of the bloody September massacres in Paris during the French Revolution. On the nights of September 3rd and 4th 1792, La Salpêtrière was stormed with the intention of releasing the detained women. However, out of fear that the inmates would join the foreign and royalist armies, thirty-five of the women were dragged into the streets and murdered. Natalie’s painting is a re-imagaing of the Massacre once again using her own performance still images as well as characters from other sources, such as her favourite films, The Red Shoes and Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.

Self Portrait with her painting *Society of Outsiders” by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

When Natalie was finally released from the Paris hospital she began to concentrate on her art and plan for the future. She created many paintings whilst in hospital which she exhibited at Finnegan’s Wake. Her excessive drinking became worse and after a progressive mental and physical descent, she managed to stop drinking. She has not had a drink now for twenty-seven years!. Natalie knew the only thing she really wanted to do was art. She had hoped to apply for entrance to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but they did not recognise her English qualifications and so in 1996 she returned to London. She gained employment as a receptionist at Talkback TV Production and it was whilst working there that they allowed her to work part time so she was able to enrol on a part-time Foundation Course at the prestigious London art school, Central Saint Martins. In 2000 she married Mark, an English teacher and musician, at a civil ceremony at Brighton Registry Office, followed by a small wedding in Agios Dimitrios, a small church at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. Having completed the Foundation Course at CSM, she went on to do a full time BA in Fine Art at the school. During her final year at Central St Martins, she became pregnant with their first child. She used her pregnant body for performances at a time when she was looking at the feminist performance artists of 1979’s. She became involved with the Women’s Art Library, researching feminist performance artists of the 1970s and creating her own performances. In 2002 her first born, Ziggy, was born. Four years later, in 2006, she studied for a MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, a degree she attained the following year. It was at the Courtauld that she explored the exclusion of women from academic training and how art history had recorded the struggle of female artists to gain deserved recognition.

Self portrait with Ziggy (as Madonna and Child) by Natalie Papamichel (2013)

One of her most beautiful works is her 2013 painting, Self portrait with Ziggy (as Madonna and Child) which she completed in 2013.  She used the Madonna and Child painting by Artemisia Gentileschi as the direct reference and re-interpreted this to show the reality of motherhood.  It is such a tender depiction of Natalie and her first-born son.  Did the baby sit still for the portrait?  Actually she used a teddy bear !! (She said that she collaged two photos together, the calm pose was the one with the teddy bear and the other was the one with Ziggy crying).

Madonna and Child by Artemesia Gentileschi (c.1612)

Maud Allan, born as either Beulah Maude Durrant or Ulah Maud Alma Durrant in August 1873. She was a Canadian dancer, chiefly noted for her Dance of the Seven Veils.  She was a favourite of the music hall and popular theatres, where a population from diverse social backgrounds went to watch a variety of plays, sketches, comedy and songs- much like a modern variety show.

Maud Allan

As a tribute to Allan, Natalie has crafted her oil on aluminium painting Self-portrait as Salome (after Maud Allan).

Self-portrait as Salome (after Maud Allan) by Natalie Papamichael

……………………….to be continued

The idea to write about Natalie Papamichael came from an interview I read in Natasha Moura’s excellent art blog:  Women’n Art

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.