Theodore Robinson. Part 2 – Naturalism, Realism and Giverny

Theodore Robinson

……………………Theodore Robinson returned with some of his fellow students to the Fontainebleu Forest in the summer of 1878 to carry on with their en plein air painting but probably the highlight for Robinson that September was his trip to Italy with his fellow École des Beaux-Arts student Kenyon Cox.  They visited Turin, Milan, Verona and Bologna on their way to Venice.  In his 1986 book, An American Art Student in Paris, The Letters of Kenyon Cox 1877-1882, H.Wayne Morgan quotes from a letter Cox sent to his family after he had returned to France on December 15th 1878 and from it we have an insight into the physical health of his erstwhile fellow traveller, Robinson.  Cox wrote:

“…Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up.  He caught some sort of fever there and was sick for some days in a little German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…….and almost afraid he should get out alive.   He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come around…”

Suzette (Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Robinson left Europe and returned to New York in late 1879 and rented a studio on Broadway hoping to establish himself as a professional artist but his financial situation became dire and he had to close his studio and return to his family in Evansville where he would paint local scenes but also dabbled with illustrative work.  One such illustration, Suzette, appeared in the August 31st 1880 issue of the Harper’s Young People magazine  in conjunction with a children’s story Viola’s Sketch.   The original black chalk drawing with white heightening, on grayish blue paper, mounted on board can be found at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.   It depicts an outdoor scene with a young girl, turned to the right, in a humble frock intent on sewing.  Her hair is styled in a long braid and she stands in wooden shoes, looking downward wistfully at her work.  The simple depiction of this guileless peasant girl probably harks back at Robinson’s academic training in Paris and the rustic genre imagery we have seen in the works of Jean-François Millet

However, Robinson’s life was at a low point, both physically and mentally as indicated in letters he sent to his friends.  One such friend was Will Low a fellow student at Carolus-Duran’s atelier in Paris.  In his 1908 book, A Chronicle of Friendship, Low wrote that on hearing of his friend’s predicament he had to:

“…extricate Robinson from the surroundings where….he was fast relapsing into a vegetable state…”

And so, Low arranged for Robinson to take a teaching position in New York at Mrs Sylvanus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, a latter day finishing school for young women.  In May 1881 Robinson was elected to the Society of American Artists and following the short spell of teaching he began to work for the muralist and stained-glass window maker John La Farge.  He and his friend Will Lowe worked on a La Farge commission from Cornelius Vanderbilt to decorate his New York 5th Avenue home and following this they worked on Vanderbilt’s Tarrytown residence on the Hudson River.  Robinson then went on to work for the decorative painting company run by Prentice Treadwell and he works on architectural decorations in Boston, Albany and on decorations for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as well as commissions for the well-heeled nouveau-riche industrialists.

Daisy Field, Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

In May 1881 Robinson’s mother died and he returned briefly to Evansville to be with his family but returned to New York that August.   During these periods of employment Robinson still carried on with his own paintings and spent time in the summer travelling around New York State, Vermont and made painting trips to Nantucket with fellow artists in the summer of 1882 painting local island life.

Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

Theodore Robinson spent the summer of 1882 on Nantucket Island and produced several paintings based on local scenes, including the one above.  The depiction of the rider and his mount at rest under the tree is a depiction of tranquillity and serenity.  In the distance, on the horizon, we can just make out the sea which lends itself to the belief that the setting was somewhere on the New England coast, probably Nantucket Island.  The painting can now be found at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Flower of Memory by Theodore Robinson (1881)

He completed a beautiful work in 1881 entitled Flower of Memory which is a romantic (if somewhat schmaltzy) depiction of a young lady in an Empire dress, standing alone in a garden.  This sort of depiction was very popular with folk in America at this time and could well have epitomised the figures he was painting as a decorative artist for the La Farge and Treadwell commissions.

A Poacher by Theodore Robinson (1884)

However, Robinson’s art was not dominated by cloying sentimentality in his depictions as he was very much a believer in the realism portrayed in works such as those by Winslow Homer on of his favourite painters.  This is borne out when we look at his 1984 work, The Poacher.

French Impressionism had permeated towards America and Impressionist paintings had started to become sought-after items.  The influential Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had organised a large exhibition of works of Manet, Monet, Pissaro  and Renoir in Boston in September 1883.  So just as Impressionism was arriving on the American shores in the Spring of 1884, Theodore Robinson, who had saved enough money to buy himself a sea passage, left the country to return to France where he would remain for the next eight years with just the occasional visits back to New York.  During his stay in France he would also make trips Belgium and Holland where he would take in the Flemish and Dutch art scene.

By the end of the 1870’s the leading exponent of the style of art known as Naturalism, which is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.  When Robinson arrived in France in 1884 the popularity and standing of Lepage was escalating, and his works of art were in great demand, a fact that Robinson must have been well aware of and there is no doubt that Lepage’s works influenced Robinson.   Lepage’s popularity and the sale of his artwork increased even more in December 1884 when he tragically died of stomach cancer at the young age of forty-four and this adulation culminated in 1885 with a retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris which proved to be a runaway success.

Le petit Colporteur endormi (The little sleeping pedlar) by Bastien-LePage

Often Lepage’s works depicted rural peasants and urban labourers  and these detailed portrayals lacked sentimentality and yet brought home to the observer an honest if somewhat blunt snapshot of the life of the less well-off. Such was their popularity they appeared regularly at the Salon  exhibitions.

In 1886 Robinson’s good friend Will Low along with his wife arrived in Paris and Robinson was there to greet them as they alighted from the train at Gare St. Lazaire.  Such was his friendship with Low that for the next twelve months he lived with them at their rented accommodation on Rue Vernier in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Robinson’s work during his time in France was diverse.  There was the sentimentality of works like Flower of Memory which as I said earlier probably originated from his time of painting mural decorations for La Farge and Treadwell.  There was his landscape work which derived from his en plein air painting at the Fontainebleau Forest during his summer breaks from the Paris Academy and finally there was his interest in genre painting and the depiction of peasants and urban dwellers at work or at home which he became interested in during his trips to Flanders and the Netherlands.

A Cobbler of Old Paris by Theodore Robinson (1885)

His 1885 painting A Cobbler in Old Paris is a prime example of Robinson’s look at urban life.  The focal point for the work is the woman who leans in through the open window to talk to the cobbler.  One should almost look at this work as a part still life painting with the cobblers workbench littered with still life objects, the tools of his trade, as is the wall in the background filled with the racks of shoes.  This type of scene of tranquil everyday life was popular in Victorian times and Robinson completed many similar works.

Young Girl with Dog by Theodore Robinson (1886)

In his 1886 painting, Young Girl with Dog, Robinson has preserved Bastien-Lepage’s method of honestly and frankly portraying an un-idealized figure seen in a landscape.   There is also an American source of inspiration that would have been well-known to Robinson. This small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is evocative of a series of watercolours produced by Winslow Homer in the summer of 1878 when he was invited to stay at Houghton Farm in upstate New York, the home of his patron Lawson Valentine.

Weary by Winslow Homer (1878)

One such work by Homer was entitled Weary.  Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer’s watercolours, but it is rumoured that he purchased one of the watercolours in 1894.  Robinson first visited Giverny, a small Norman village, which was situated on the banks of the River Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen in 1885 when he and a friend of Claude Monet, Monsieur De Conchy visited the French painter. Claude Monet had moved there in 1883 with his two young sons Jean and Michel.   Pierre Toulgouat who was a descendent of Monet, wrote of the time in his 1948 book, Skylights in Normandy:

“…in 1885, his [Monet’s] friend, De Conchy came to visit him, accompanied by the young American painter, Theodore Robinson – and Robinson, particularly, was to remain a faithful Givernois, until his death, painting there when he could and writing longingly of it when he had to be away…”

In June of 1886 Robinson was in Paris and managed to visit Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away captivated by Monet’s works especially their colour and luminosity

Portrait of Madame Baudy by Theodore Robinson (1888)

In June 1887 Robinson moved out of Paris and went to live in Giverny. He moved into rooms at the newly-opened Hotel Baudy, which lay in the centre of the village and was run by Angélina Baudy.  Giverny and the surrounding area, for Theodore Robinson, was all about the simplicity of the landscape, the colours and the light and he would love to go off and explore and paint.  He loved everything about the area.  He loved the hills and fields, the old buildings, the people and the animals and would immerse himself in the area painting as much as he could in the ever changing conditions of light and weather.

Valley of the Seine, Giverny by Theodore Robinson (1887)

A fine example of this is his 1887 painting Valley of the Seine in which we see a minute figure in white which somehow secures a pattern of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and depict several hillside swaths of yellow and grey, and a triangle of blue sky. For his portrayal of the countryside Robinson has used muted earthen colours, ones that he would use in many of his later paintings.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

During his stay around the Giverny area Robinson depicted many of the residents of the area.  Most of his paintings featured women at work, sometimes seen gathering wood and fruit sometimes tending the farm animals or doing the laundry.  An example of this is his large 1888 painting entitled La Vachère (The Cowherd) 219 x 152cms (86 x 60 ins) which is housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Before us we see a young woman and a cow both surrounded by foliage that glistens in the reflected light.  Look how Robinson has cleverly left an opening between the trees in way of the girl’s head.  It enhances the young woman’s profile and frames her face as well as adding depth to the depiction.  The addition of the cow into the depiction is almost as if the animal is vying for supremacy in the painting but it is completely ignored by the girl.

In The Grove by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

One strange thing about this painting is that shortly after he completed the work Robinson painted the same woman in the same setting but without the cow!  Maybe he thought the animal detracted from the beauty of the female. The picture, which is much smaller, is entitled In the Grove and is also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection.

In my final look at Theodore Robinson’s life in the next blog, I will look closer at his relationship with Claude Monet and showcase more of his later works.


Sir George Clausen. Part 1. Rustic Naturalism and the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage

Sir George Clausen       (Self Portrait)
Sir George Clausen
(Self Portrait)

There is something very intriguing about “–isms” when talking about genres in art.  We are all aware of them common ones such as realism, impressionism, cubism, etc.  In fact I have an art history book about “-isms”.  Today I want to introduce you to another “-ism” which is not mentioned in the knowledgeable tome.  It is ruralism, often referred to as Rural Naturalism, an art genre through which artists pictorially champion life away from the grime of cities and, through their paintings, exalts life in the countryside.   One of the great exponents of ruralism is the subject of my next two blogs, the English painter, Sir George Clausen.

George Clausen was born 8 William Street, Regents Park, London in April 1852, the son of Jorgen Johnsen and Elizabeth Clausen.  His father, an artist and interior decorator, was of Danish extraction and his mother was of Scottish descent.  Up until the age of fourteen and a half, George attended St Mark’s School in Kings Road Chelsea.  In 1867, three months before his fifteenth birthday he started a five year apprenticeship in the Chelsea drawing office of Messrs. Trollope, a firm of interior decorators.  During this period he was trained in drawing by John Cleghorn, whose job title was a copyist and limner, an old term for a painter of ornamental decoration, a book illustrator or somebody who illuminates manuscripts.  Cleghorn had an artistic background having studied at The Royal Academy Schools.  George Clausen had a thirst for artistic knowledge and to supplement Cleghorn’s tuition, also attended evening classes at the National Art Training School, South Kensington, which in 1896, would become the Royal College of Art.  One of the jobs Clausen was involved in was to decorate the home of the English genre, history, biblical and portrait painter, Edwin Long.  Clausen’s boss, an Irish man called Brophy, gave Clausen the task to paint some lilies on the panels of a door in Edwin Long’s house.  Clausen remembered this time and it must have made an impression on him, for sixty years later in his Autobiographical Notes which appeared in the Spring 1931 edition of the Artwork magazine he recalled the time:

“…Long looked at my work and said ‘May I see your sketchbook?’   He gave it back to me and said ‘Did you ever think of becoming an artist?’  I said ‘Yes, but I saw no opportunity of getting the training.’  Long said ‘I think you’d have a chance. And if I were you I’d try for a scholarship at South Kensington.’  Brophy readily agreed.  I had already taken medals in design, and I was worked up in my spare time, and obtained a two years’ scholarship in decorative painting at £50 a year!…”

Clausen was not enamoured by the training he received during the two year course at South Kensington School of Art.  He believed that there was not enough teaching and lacked structure as students were left to get on with things themselves.

The Baylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (1875)
The Baylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (1875)

He did however keep in contact with Edwin Long and did a lot of research work for him with regards some of Long’s large biblical paintings.  Long would pay Clausen for his help and also tutored him.  Long realised that Clausen’s artistic ability needed to be carefully nurtured and believed, for Clausen to receive the best artistic tuition, he needed to leave England and move to Antwerp and attend the Antwerp Academy of Art.

George Clausen accepted the advice and travelled to Holland and Belgium and for a short period enrolled at the Antwerp Academy where he studied under the tutelage of Professor Joseph van Lerius.  His sketches and paintings around this time were heavily influenced by Dutch subjects such as the coastal fishing villages and he exhibited a number of these at the Dudley Gallery, which was originally located in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London.   It  was completed in 1812 and financed by Earl of Dudley to house his valuable collection of pictures during the erection of his own gallery at Dudley House in Park Lane. It was known for its promotion of French and Dutch artists.

High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland by George Clausen (
High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland by George Clausen (1876)

One example of Clausen’s “Dutch period” was his small (47 x 84 cms) oil on canvas painting entitled High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuider Zee, which he completed in 1876 and is part of the Nottingham Castle Museum collection.  The work was the result of a summer holiday Clausen had taken to the island of Marken, in the Zuider Zee, with his friend and fellow artist Dewey Bates.  They had visited the village of Volendam on a Sunday, where there was a celebration of a High Mass.  The mass was so well attended that the church was full and many parishioners were left outside.  In the painting we see into the fully occupied church as well as a group of fishermen with their wives and children kneeling on the cobbled street outside the main entrance door.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, the first work he had ever submitted to the prestigious establishment, and the art critic of The Times, seeing the work of art and Clausen’s name immediately believed he was a Dutch artist painting a scene from his homeland and wrote :

“…a very clever Dutch painter, hitherto only known in this country by two drawings exhibited at the Dudley Gallery…”

The art critic of the Spectator was full of praise writing:

“…a quiet thoughtful picture, in every sense of the word. A work of true art and deep feeling…”

Whilst in Europe George Clausen made many visits to Paris.  His paintings around this time showed that he had been influenced by the likes of Whistler and William Quiller Orchardson, a well loved Scottish portraitist and painter of domestic and historical subjects.  He was also very interested in the rustic natural depictions of the Scottish artist John Robertson Reid and Léon Augustine Lhermitte, a French realist painter, whose primary subject matter was of rural scenes depicting the peasant worker.

La Pensée by George Clausen (1880)
La Pensée by George Clausen (1880)

In 1880 Clausen exhibited his work La Pensée at the Grosvenor Gallery in London.  It was a difficult depiction for an artist with the model seated in an interior.  The figure is not seated parallel to the plane of the picture and the rear wall.  It is a work of art full of detail.  Look at the right background and you can see the edge of an elaborate chimney piece.  In the left background there is a drop leaf table and on the floor a goat skin rug.  The lady sits upright in the chair looking out at us whilst grasping a knot of violets in her right hand which rests in her lap.  This is the key to the title of the painting (Thought).  Here is a lady lost in thought about her lost love.

Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill by George Clausen (1881)
Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill by George Clausen (1881)

Clausen often used this model for his paintings and one I particularly like featuring her was completed in 1881 and entitled a Spring Morning, Haverstock Hill.  It was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition.  This London street scene was an ambitious work featuring not just the main female model, who walks along the street accompanied by a small child, but a number of other characters some at rest, some at work, including labourers digging up the cobbles in the road and, directly behind the main character, a flower seller.

Les Foins by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1877)
Les Foins by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1877)

When Clausen exhibited La Pensée at the Grosvenor Gallery amongst his fellow exhibitors was Jules Bastien-Lepage who was exhibiting nine paintings, including Les Foins (Haymaking), which depicts resting haymakers.  This painting had been exhibited at the Salon in 1878.  Clausen, like the critics, were enthralled by this work of rural or rustic naturalism.  Clausen shortly after moved to the countryside and went to live in the Hertfordshire village of Childwick Green.  He later wrote in his 1931 Autobiographical Notes about his new surroundings and the new opportunity and challenges it gave him as a painter

“…One saw people doing simple things under good conditions of lighting: and there was always a landscape.  And nothing was made easy for you: you had to dig out what you wanted…”

The Gleaners by George Clausen (1882)
The Gleaners by George Clausen (1882)

Soon his sketchbooks were full of sketches and paintings depicting workers in the countryside surrounding his house.  One of Clausen’s first works depicting labourers in the fields was completed in 1882 and was entitled The Gleaners.  The work was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1882.  It was greeted with great acclaim by the critics and art reviewers.  In Vol. V 1881-2 of The Magazine of Art, the reviewer wrote about how Clausen sympathetically depicted the labourers:

“…He shows us a little company of the poor not in picturesque rags but in garments of fact, gleaning modern English fields…”

Pauvre Fauvette by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1881)
Pauvre Fauvette by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1881)

In 1881 Bastien-Lepage completed a work entitled Pauvre Fauvette.  He often painted the peasants from the town he was living in at the time, Damvillers which is situated in north-eastern France. In his painting we see a very small young girl, the ‘little wild girl’ of the painting’s title.  Her job is to patiently and quietly guard a cow, which we see on the other side of the tree.  In a way it is a depiction of isolation in the way the artist has depicted the small child, even dwarfed by the tall thistles.  She stands alone next to a leaf-less tree surrounded by  a very barren landscape.  It is a pitiful depiction and we note her haunted and sad eyes and the way she tries to cover herself up and keep herself warm in a threadbare blanket leads us to believe it could have been a cold winter’s day.

The Stone Pickers by George Clausen (1887)
The Stone Pickers by George Clausen (1887)

The next work I am featuring was also probably influenced by Bastien-Lepage’s work above.  It was one which Clausen began in the autumn of 1886 and completed in 1887.  It was entitled The Stone Pickers.  On completion Clausen sent it to Goupil, the art dealer and in 1887 it was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, London and also appeared at the second New English Art Club exhibition of 1887.  It is now housed at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.  The model for the painting was Polly Baldwin and the setting was at Cookham Dene.  Look how in this work the girl has sacking wrapped around her lower body to keep her warm, similar to the attire of the child in Bastien-Lepage’s painting.  Stone pickers were sent out into the fields to pick up loose stones prior to ploughing.  In Clausen’s painting we see a young girl depositing stones, which she had picked up, on to a pile.  In the background we see another woman bent down picking up stones from the field. One can only imagine what a backbreaking and tedious job the women had to endure.  Many artists of the time liked to depict hard working labourers/peasants at work in the fields,  This was the essence of rustic realism or rustic naturalism.  Look at the expression on the young girl’s face as she looks down at the pile of stones.  It is a sad and almost haunted expression.  Behind her there is a can containing water and a wicker basket containing food for her lunch.  Our eyes are drawn to this area because of the red colour of what could be a table cloth.

In my next blog I will complete Clausen’s life story and have a look at some more of his works of art.


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.