1. Beauty and talent.
Friend of writers and painters, a talented painter herself, prolific writer, sculptress, singer, avid and indefatigable reader, a woman of the world who mastered five languages and dazzled everybody at ballrooms, the Slavic virgin – as she was called - has been one of the most romantic figures in the most intense cultural period of the 19th century because of her beauty, artistic talent, and tragic life.
Being inevitably feminist, in a time of submission for women when there were not many other options than marriage, she protested bitterly and fought against all obstacles to keep her artistic vocation. She lived and wrote passionately, and the pages of her Diary express the same passion, and transmit empathy, and congeniality. At present, her pictures are exhibited in several museums of Europe and the monumental work she wrote has been compiled for the first time to bring out a complete edition. She died prematurely during her first flirtations with artistic success while being still a great promise. Which summits would have she reached?
This precocious Russian (Ukrainian)-French artist died prematurely before reaching her 26th. birthday, on October 31st., during the Parisian autumn of 1884. The pages of her Diary would posthumously describe to us her intricate existence. Based on the autobiographical notes she wrote, we will try to sketch her profile which is unfairly weakened at present by the artifices of modernity.
Marija Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva was born in a provincial minor nobiliary family on November 24, 1858 (*), in Gavronzi, a rural town of Poltava, in an Ukraine that was the most European province of all the Russias for a long time. As her parents got separated, she spent her childhood in the province of Kharkov, her mother's homeland. At the age of twelve, after temporary stays in Vienna, Baden, and Geneva with her migrant family (grandfather Babanine, mom Marie, aunt Nadine, uncle Georges, her younger brother, Paul, cousin Dina, including an old friend, a doctor) they settled in a village they acquired in Nice. There, in the French Riviera and at the foot of the Mediterranean Alps, she sketched the first flirtations with literature. At the age of fourteen, she would begin to write her Diary that would show, without modesty, her particular psychology.Marija Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva was born in a provincial minor nobiliary family on November 24, 1858 (*), in Gavronzi, a rural town of Poltava, in an Ukraine that was the most European village of Russia for a long time. As her parents got separated, she spent her childhood in the province of Kharkov, her mother's homeland. At the age of twelve, after temporary stays in Vienna, Baden, and Geneva with her migrant family (grandfather Babanine, mom Marie, aunt Nadine, uncle Georges, her younger brother, Paul, cousin Dina, including an old friend, a doctor) they settled in a village they acquired in Nice. There, in the French Riviera and at the foot of the Mediterranean Alps, she sketched the first flirtations with literature. At the age of fourteen, she would begin to write her Diary that would show, without modesty, her particular psychology.
She would then define her Diary: "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...".
She decided to study English, German, Italian, Greek and Latin (she mastered Russian and French from birth), and together with curricular courses, she devoted methodically to music. She played the piano, the harp and learned to sing. Reaching adolescence, she aimed to the world of opera and tested some audiences. What she really wanted was to exceed the small circle of the Russian colony in France. She felt irresistibly attracted to the grande monde but, being a daughter of foreign and separated parents, she saw its lights too distant: "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!" When an acute laryngitis ruined her mezzo-soprano voice and destroyed those projects, painting would replace singing in her horizon.
(*) At that time the Russian calendar was delayed by twelve days. In Russia, she was born on November 12, 1858..
When she was nineteen years old, she urged her family to sell the village in Nice and to move to Paris in order to begin her fine arts’ studies. As she was suffering an irreversible tuberculosis, it was also the time of the first visits to the curative bathing resorts: "If we would know what we will find farther on!..., but we don't know. On the other hand, this curiosity is what makes death less dreadful to me…".
From such moment to her premature death, she definitively consolidates her preference for painting, under the supervision of teacher Rodolphe Julian and of painters Tony Robert Fleury, Gustave Boulanger, and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, at Rodolphe Julian’s Academy: "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." A proof of that would be the admiration -and painful jealousy- that she would not hide from her schoolmate Louise Catherine Breslau with whom she would compare her talent at the Annual Salons of Paris. Breslau would survive Marie for more than forty years and would be able to consolidate her own career as a painter.
Jules Bastien-Lepage, devoted to the French countryside, was the artist that painting outdoors, led somewhat the naturalistic movement. She perceived the calm charm of nature and followed the path of this painter who would be her last love and also her great inspiration. One morning, however, walking through the hidden neighborhoods of Paris, she discovered new, dynamic and amazing people. They were the humble people of the suburbs; the workers that started the industrial revolution in Paris; the ragged children with vivacious look and roguish expressions. In short, the poor people that Marie’s sensibility would not allow her to ignore. "I say nothing of the fields because Bastien-Lepage reigns over them as a sovereign; but the streets, however, have not still had their... Bastien".
Not even pleurisy could stop her. Despite a cold could destroy her, with almost suicidal audacity, she walked through the Parisian streets during the wet and freezing dawns drawing with carbon pencil the images that would then give life to her canvas and cardboards. "What’s the use of crying? Tears will make no good for me. To be unhappy is my destiny; this and being a famous artist".
Her works were exhibited after her death: a hundred of oils and pastels, most of them portraits, in an almost photographic style. France acquired two pieces ("Le meeting" and "Una parisienne") for the Luxembourg museum. Amsterdam museum acquired the portrait of Alexandrine, her sister-in-law. Her atelier also witnesses her experiences with sculpture during the last years of her life.
Private Academy Julian, that still exists at present, was the only place where women could receive an excellence artistic education, comparable with the official schools of Fine Arts that did not admit women until 1897. During year 2000, the Dahesh museum of Manhattan organized an itinerant exhibition visiting several museums of the United States, precisely referring to such topic. It was entitled: "Overcoming All the Obstacles: The Women of Academy Julian", with works of Marie Bashkirtseff and her schoolmates.
Even though many of Marie Bashkirtseff's paintings were destroyed during World War II, more than sixty of her works are being exhibited in the most important museums in Europe. Our section "Virtual Gallery" is a file that contains images and information about each work. (*).
She began her education at Academy Julian when she was nineteen years old and astonished her professors with her innate qualities. She devoted only seven years to artistic work and after that period she began to enjoy some success at the Annual Salons of Paris. Her studies were continuously interrupted because of her illness and the curative trips. How much success would have she attained if death had not mutilated her story?
Lets see who were her contemporaries and observe comparatively how much time had each of them to develop their career.
(1830-1903) Camille Pizarro
(1832-1883) Ëdouard Manet
(1834-1917) Edgar Degas
(1840-1926) Claude Monet
(1839-1906) Paul Cézanne
(1841-1919) Auguste Renoir
(1848-1903) Paul Gauguin
(1853-1890) Vincent Van Gogh
(1864-1901) H. Toulouse Lautrec
(*) The official Web Site of
the Circle of Friends of Marie
Bashkirtseff by Jean-Paul Mesnage has a complete listing of the works of
M.B. and their actual localization (look at "Peinture" Section).
Look also the Site Marie Bashkirtseff, by Philippe Carrette, section Visits of Musées.
In the face of death her spirit would not weaken: even with her forces exhausted she would not allow herself to stay in bed until her last days. Only once, defeated by anguish, she would cry in her mother's lap. Later, she would feel embarrassed at her weakness. As fever developed, she faced work with more passion ignoring the burns in her back and hiding, under a nosegay of flowers, the yellow mark of the medicines that would tear her chest apart.
was still impotent and was only preparing its resources to fight such illness,
as Dr. Moorman Lewis describes in his work "Tuberculosis in great geniuses"
Condemned to illness, she continued painting and writing up to her last days leaving us, together with her monumental work, an unforgettable lesson of iron will and integrity. She would never allow her family to speak about her illness at home. Only maid Rosalie would know about her daily torture. "I die, it’s logical, but horrible. There are so many interesting things in life!".
The tuberculosis, that firstly affected her voice and then her hearing, finally attacked her lungs and inflicted endless suffering on her. I addition, she had to undergo the tortures of the medicine of that time; although... "when reaching a point, the soul elevates over everything; considers the previous suffering insignificant and continues fulfilling its destiny, with dauntless courage, as old martyrs".
Being excessively narcissist, she lived so in love with her own beauty that regretted not having her body sculptured. In her notebooks, however, she can also leave space to other guests: "There are times when one would reject all the intellectual pleasures of the world, glory, and even art in order to live a life with sun, music and love in Italy".
Because of the overwhelming passion of her artistic determination her daily emotions remained relegated. Anyway, already at the age of fourteen she was crying for the duke of Hamilton and, since then, she would long for a definitive love. As she always desired greatness, loving would obviously imply for her an almost religious devotion... and it would be necessary to find a god: she and Maupassant (1850-1893) wrote to each other, but these contemporaries would not be meant to meet. "There is something really beautiful: it is the absolute disappearance of the woman before the superiority of the beloved man. It should be the greatest enjoyment of self-esteem a superior woman may experience".
Thus, flirtations would always be ephemeral:
first count Pietro Antonelli, nephew of the most powerful cardinal, in Rome,
and then count Larderel, in Florence.
Paul de Cassagnac would be the one who would arouse in her the most burning passion. Ignored by this impetuous Bonapartist, the wound would take a long time to heal. Out of spite, certainly, she would imagine a marriage with a renowned Republican of that time, León Gambetta and, simultaneously, she would devote eagerly to achieve artistic success.
In 1884, her young teacher and friend Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884) being thirty-five years old returned from Algeria, almost dying, with a stomach cancer. Marie Bashkirtseff was also dying. These were her last months of life but anyway, she crossed Paris once and again to alleviate him with her presence. Needing much comfort, she would show happiness, however, of spending her few remaining days in this idyll.
Two weeks before dying she would long for everything she loved and she was prepared to abandon: "I cannot go out anymore, but poor Bastien-Lepage does go out. He has made someone take him here, he lays in an armchair with his legs extended on the cushions. I am very close to him in another armchair and we spend time together like this until six o'clock. I am dressed with a lace and velvet outfit, completely in white, but in several white tones. Bastien’s pupils dilate with pleasure. -Oh, if I just could paint!-, he says... And me, too!".
Marie Bashkirtseff passed away on October 31, 1884, a few days before her 26th birthday. Jules Bastien-Lepage, her friend at twilight, would survive her only for five weeks.
In her last stages, reviewing her notes, she would put her hopes on these letters because of the glory that singing denied her or because of the glory that painting promised. But writing would demand from her a dedication that she did no longer have. Some months before dying she prefaced her Diary: "What’s the point in lying and assuming positions? If it is evident that I have the desire, the hope for remaining in this land by any means. If I don't die young, I hope to remain as a great artist; but if I die young, I will permit my Diary to be published that will, at least, be interesting".
While being still alive, she wrote to Edmond Goncourt, offering him her notebooks for edition but he, being already sixty years old, decided not to pay attention to her. Curiously, Goncourt and his brother Jules were also devoted to writing a Diary which was published in 1958 and had twenty-two volumes. She also attempted, unsuccessfully, to offer her notebooks to Guy de Maupassant, whose correspondence (see this site by Thierry Selva) is still preserved, and also to Alejandro Dumas junior. Unfortunately, André Therieut, the playwright and poet to whom her mother entrusted, posthumously, Marie’s bulk of manuscripts (one hundred and six notebooks with about twenty thousand pages), suppressed extensive passages which were too rude for that time or too long for edition. Only a few years later, under the supervision of editor Pierre Borel, some suppressed texts were published adding six more volumes to the two initial ones. On the other hand, her Lettres were published, an epistolary book.
In 1964, the complete manuscript of the Diary was found at the French National Library, where her mother had left it eighty years before. At that moment, it was discovered to what degree the old editions had been softened and falsified in order to create a digestible and consumable product for the society of that time. In 1985, professor Colette Cosnier published "Marie Bashkirtseff, Un portrait sans retouches", an excellent illustrated biography whose prologue showed a precise picture of such circumstances (view).
In France, however, the
Circle of Friends of Marie Bashkirtseff* has finished the complete edition of
Marie’s work, a monumental compilation carried out by Ginette Apostolescu.
From 1995 to 2005, sixteen volumes of the Diary were published at an average
of one or two volumes per year, with a total of more than five thousand pages
printed that begin with the annotations dated January 11, 1873 (when Marie was
fourteen years old). The last of such volumes, containing three hundred and
twenty pages, covers from August 8, 1883 to October 20, 1884, four days before
On the other hand, under the direction of Lucile Le Roy, the first volume (an edition of one thousand pages) of an Integral Edition of the Diary** has been published, also in French language, with annotations that cover from year 1877 to year 1879. This work begins four years later than the previous one and still lacks the last five years.
In 1997 the first volume of a new edition (464 pages) of the Diary was published in English language***. It was prepared by Phyllis and Katherine Kernberger, and at the moment the second part is being translated.
Thus, the patient work of editors is revealing
to us, after more than a century, the final image of a spirit that existed in
this world devoted to work almost exclusively for us, her posterity. Because
of a congeniality that exceeds time, these works allow us to know the intimate
evolution of Marie’s artistic determination, her feelings and, simultaneously,
the indefatigable battle this young lady fought against illness. She considered
herself so special that she thought it was natural to write a binnacle notebook
where to witness, step by step, her path to celebrity.
*Cercle des amis de Marie Bashkirtseff
(5 rue Jean-Claude Besanier, 78360 Montesson, France)
**Journal. Edition intégrale, établie et annotée par Lucile Le Roy. Ed. L'Age d'Homme.
***I am the most interesting book of all: The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff, Vol. 1. Phyllis Howard Kernberger and Katherine Kernberger, translators, Chronicle Books, 464 pages.
From March 7, 2008 to January 11, 2009, her 150th-birthday
anniversary was celebrated in the French city of Nicd. In order to celebrate
this occasion, the Museum of Fine Arts of Nice organized a wide variety of cultural
activities as well as conferences. You may consult the Bulletin of the Circle
of Friends of Marie Bashkirtseff, October 2008 (view)
On the other hand, from March 15 to 17, 2008, in the city of Poltava, Ukraine, where she was born, an important homage was paid in her memory (View the Bulletin of the Circle of Friends of Marie Bashkirtseff, June 2009)
Simultaneously, in recent years, in Paris and other European cities, there appeared an important movement which revalues the figure of Marie Bashkirtseff, mainly through theatre activities. About this topic, you can consult the Web page of Cercle des amis de Marie Bashkirtseff (Marie et le Téâtre) or "Site Marie Bashkirtseff" (Téâtre inspiré par Marie). In our section "Testimonies" French actress Elsa Saladin tells us one of such experiences.
To return to the past is a very curious experience: we do not read over those centennial paragraphs without suspecting that, beyond time, the spirit of the facts that took place continues living among us. She herself, that had begun to write a "Story of illustrious women" and planned a "Story of the Caesars", had experienced the mysterious seduction of past things. The fact is that, when reading her pages, we sometimes seem to discover vestiges of circumstances we experienced some time ago... "The sea was indescribably beautiful this night: before going to listen to the Patti, I went to listen to the music of the waves. It had rained and the air was delightfully fresh and pleasant. What a relief for the eyes to allow them to rest on the deep blue of the skies and of the sea, at night!" ...setting our look, a little in the transparent darkness of the night, a little in the velvet of her gray eyes; we go for a walk on the wet stones of a coastal sidewalk, while, with vehemence, the evanescent sound of her voice reveals us that... "art, even among the humblest beings, elevates the soul and makes one have something more than those who don't belong to the sublime brotherhood".
And in the end, centuries are nothing but pulsations in the universal mechanics: fashions lapse, science and civilization evolve; we abandon ways of life and of society, styles and customs, but everything is just a mere change of skin. The spirit of man advances, from Altamira up to present, always steel and luminous, reaching milestones that demarcate its path. And it is in this way, in the quintessence of time, that this young girl of clear eyes and golden hair comes to us. Already condemned to illness, at some time of eternity, she wrote: "I am at an age in which even death is pleasant. I believe that nobody loves everything more than me: arts, music, painting, books, society, dresses, luxury, noise, calm, sadness, melancholy, farce, love, sun; all seasons, all atmospheric conditions, the calm plains of Russia and the mountains that surround Naples; the snow in winter, the rains in autumn, the spring and its madness, the calm days of summer and the beautiful nights with shining stars... I admire and love everything. Everything appears before me with interesting or sublime aspects; I’d like to see everything, to embrace everything, to merge myself with everything and die; and, since it is necessary, to die in two or thirty years, to die in ecstasy for experiencing that last mystery, the end of everything... or the divine beginning".
(This web site's autor).
Buenos Aires, Argentina
This work does not intend to be a biography. It is a simple homage to the talented painter and writer but, mainly, to the great woman that Marie Bashkirtseff was.
The texts and images included in this site were only inserted for illustration purposes. In case they may affect the rights of their respective owners, please inform us and they will be removed. Thank you.
We want to thank the following links to our site:
Autopacte. Par Philippe Lejeune
Linfield College. Oregon (USA) Thanks, prof. Katherine Kernberger.
Women painters - Dr Kathleen L. Nichols
Guy de Maupassant (ver: Enlaces - Album) - Un sitio de José M. Ramos
Escritoras y pensadoras europeas. Dra. Mercedes Arriaga Florez, Univ. de Sevilla.
Translation into English by Paola Prodan, Sworn Translator. Buenos Aires.
We will thank any comment, questions, cooperation,
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