Marie Bashkirtseff was born on November 12, 1858 in the then-Russian Ukraine. Her parents were of noble lineage, but marital troubles prompted Marie’s mother to take her children and leave the family estate. This initial exit led to an extended traveling lifestyle throughout Europe, with an entourage that included Marie, her mother, grandfather, brother, and a personal family physician.
Through private lessons, Marie excelled at languages and was taught a wide range of subjects, and she also showed talent in music and art. She enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1877, joining the growing numbers of women newly being allowed to take formal art instruction.
From about the age of thirteen, Marie kept a journal of her life’s experiences—a chronicle that would eventually fill over 100 volumes. Though she began the diary as a mere girl, Marie’s intelligence, varied education and cosmopolitan upbringing gave her observations an unusual sophistication. She observed the sociopolitical happenings of her time, while also confiding aspirations and frustrations common to a bright, high-spirited person.
In the Studio
Marie’s diary entries describing her art education are a revealing insight into how female students were perceived by their instructors, and how they perceived themselves at that time. One of Marie’s personal rivals at the Académie Julian was Louise Breslau, later to become a successful, award-winning artist. As Marie noted in her journal: “I am jealous of Breslau, who does not draw at all like a woman.” It is interesting to read Marie’s comment and to realize that female art students of that late 19th century period were judging themselves as having greater talent mainly because of their ability to sketch and paint like men.
Marie’s 1881 Paris Salon entry was a scene from the Académie Julian, wherein female students study a model. They seem pleasant toward each other or engrossed in their work, while we can almost get a sense of the slight awkwardness the boy model feels towards posing, and especially posing for a group of women. In the Studio shows Marie’s skill and eye for detail, composition and setting, and it is particularly intriguing to contemplate after reading her journal entries about her art classes. Initially, the painting has a certain collectively creative appeal. However, upon learning of the tensions among the female students and the pressure to compete against both themselves and men, the women in the scene do perhaps appear more wary of each other.
Last Years and Legacy
Marie worked assiduously at painting and drawing and also took on the study of sculpture, while she continued keeping up her journal and other feminist writing ventures. She began a correspondence and relationship with French author Guy de Maupassant, and her diary entries describing their involvement would inspire a 1930s film called The Affairs of Maupassant. Unfortunately, Marie had contracted tuberculosis—or what was commonly known at the time as “consumption”—because of the gradual deathly course of the disease. Despite her strong spirit, she was not able to survive beyond her twenty-fifth year and died on Halloween of 1884.
Marie’s final Salon entry, Un Meeting, was a scene of a group of ragged street boys and reflected an inclination toward more socially-conscious work. Marie had become close to the naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, who most likely had an influence on her subject matter. Bastien-Lepage was also terminally ill and died shortly after Marie.
Many of Marie’s artworks were destroyed during World War II, but several surviving paintings and sculpture pieces are on view at the Musée d’Orsay and the Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum. Her multi-volumed journal was first published shortly after her death, then was reissued as I Am The Most Interesting Book of All: The Diaries of Marie Bashkirtseff by Chronicle Books in 1997.