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.
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…”
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.