THE FORGOTTEN GENIUS
Mariia Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva (Marie Bashkirtseff) was a Russian artist who lived a brief, but extraordinary life. In order to more fully understand her art, it is important to review the significant events of her life which shaped it. Her parents, Mariia Babanina and Konstantin Bashkirtsev “belonged to what was then called the provincial nobility” (Creston, 16). The Babanin’s were proud of their Tartar ancestors “from the first invasion, saying Baba and Nina were Tartar words” (Kernberger, vol. 1, p. 2). Konstantin Bashkirtseff lived with his father, “a ferocious Crimean general” (Creston, 1) and four sisters at Gavrontsy, a country estate with a panoramic view overlooking trees, hills, a river, and a courtyard with nine cannons (which Konstantin would fire when in the mood). It was at Gavrontsy, near the provincial town of Poltava in the Ukraine, that Marie was born on November 12, 1858 and was followed by brother, Paul, in 1859. Unfortunately, the Bashkirtseffs did not have a happy marriage and in 1859 Mrs. Bashkirtseff left Konstantin, taking young Marie and Paul with her to her parents' home at Tcherniakovka. In May 1870, Marie’s mother, her grandfather (Stepan Babanin), her brother, an assortment of other family members, and the family physician, Walitsky, left Tcherniakovka for good. “We left for abroad. Mama’s long-cherished dream was fulfilled” (Creston, 26). During the remaining 14 years of her life, Marie traveled extensively throughout Europe. Residing in major European capitals, she studied with the best teachers, wrote her journal, and created beautiful art in pastels, oils, and charcoal. She also sculpted. Marie corresponded with some of the best known literary figures of the age and contributed several articles to the newspaper La Citoyenne using the nom de plume Pauline Orrel. She was just a teenager in 1874 when the beginning stages of tuberculosis appeared; the disease caused her untimely death on October 31, 1884. The amazing legacy of her short life was recorded in her journals, which contain 106 notebooks of over 20,000 pages, and in her 200 works of art (of which over 60 still exist) .I have selected four examples of Marie’s art which help illustrate her style, her skills and events from her life: L’atelier Julian, Dina Babanine, Le Meeting, and Autumn.
The painter had a culturally rich upbringing. Prior to beginning her formal art studies at Academie Julian in 1877, she studied at home with governesses and private tutors pursuing “English, Italian, Greek and Latin (she mastered Russian and French from birth)” (Marie Bashkirtseff: A Homage). She loved music and excelled in piano, guitar, harp and voice. She also received instruction in grammar, rhetoric, history, mythology, and literature (quoting freely from Dante’s Inferno throughout her journals). Before attending the Academie, Marie had lived in or traveled to Nice, Rome, Vienna, Baden-Baden, Geneva, Munich, Spa, Ostend, London, Schlangenbad, Florence, and around Russia where she visited her father and relatives. Her arrival at the Academie caused a stir when she appeared in corseted dresses and furs, accompanied by a chaperone and with her own samovar. The Academie was “allegedly founded in 1868 to prepare students for the difficult completive entrance examinations of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the official art school of France, which excluded women until the end of the century. Women art students there had access for the first time to the same training as men. They exhibited often in the Salons, and prepared to compete professionally with men” (Weisberg, 3).
At the Academie Mariia was instructed by Tony Robert-Fleury and Rodolphe Julian. “Julian was the source for Marie Bashkirtseff’s Salon exhibit for 1881. ‘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’” ( Borzello, 141).
In L’atelier Julian (The Studio) Marie paints her classroom, “a former dance studio situated in the passage des Panoramas in the second arrondissement” (Weisberg, 59). The viewer’s eye centers on a young woman in a light blue dress, seated in a sunny studio and painting on a canvas,using a long hand support (in German,"Malstock" or "Ruhestab") and a small brush. Our eye moves to the young model, a boy standing on an elevated platform. He is semi-nude. He is wearing a short, knee-length skirt and is holding a long staff. The model is well formed. He has struck a beautiful pose and is clearly visible to all of the students. Our eye moves to the framed picture on the wall, which could be a winning Salon work by a fellow student. The viewer’s eye continues to move counter-clockwise around the studio in continuous and expanding circles, noticing the 16 students at work. Some are working intently, others are resting or talking. Two students in front seem to be discussing something; one of them is holding on to the chair with the lovely red drape. The fabric is rich, perhaps a deep wine color velvet with beautiful folds, an object that shows off Marie’s talent for rendering fabric. The wood planks on the floor bring the viewer’s eye back to the center of the painting. One of the girls in the front row is smiling at the viewers, welcoming them into the class! Every student occupies an assigned place, but there’s still space for one more student. The women artists are dressed individually and the diversity of the student body is evident. The classroom seems to be well organized, despite its relatively small size. The artists close to the model are seated while the ones further back are standing at their easels. There’s a large hanging lamp for evening work, a wall clock to keep the students aware of the time, and a skeleton to help in the study of human anatomy. The large paintings mounted high on the wall may be samples of exceptional student work or examples to emulate. I wonder if Marie painted herself in the far right corner? If so, she has the best seat and the best view of the entire room. L’atelier Julian is a large oil on canvas (154 x 186 cm), currently in the collection of the Dnepropetrovsk State Art Museum. The work is a good example of Marie’s skillful use of color, her ability to paint realistic likenesses and to complete a large complex work acceptable for exhibition at the Salon. The painting was submitted to the Salon in 1881. The Academie “achieved a reputation for excellence in academic figure studies; this particular distinction attracted art students from all over the world…helping to establish and maintain Paris’s reputation as the center of the art world” (Weisberg, 3-4).
Dina Babanine, painted in 1883, shows Marie’s talent as a portrait artist and her expertise with pastels. The subject of this work, Dina, is Marie’s cousin, companion, and life-long friend who suffered an unhappy childhood after her father annulled his marriage, consequently making her and her brother illegitimate. At the Academie, Julian’s “standards reinforced the need to draw correctly, to be able to pose models to the best advantage…all these ideas underscored the value of portraiture… In an 1893 interview published in The Sketch of London, Julian reiterated the concept that portraiture was thought to be a ‘man’s specialty,’ yet women excelled at posing sitters and capturing their psychological depths” (Weisberg, 19). Dina’s face, neck and chest are painted in softly blended light tones, presenting her as a young woman, simply, but beautifully dressed in a décolleté gown of very pale blue with a fine, wide, white lacy collar. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to Dina’s dark blue eyes. They are as deeply dark as her lips are pale. Her mouth is full and her lips are lightly pursed. One can see a small cleft in her chin. Her nose is slightly flat and wide but her youthful beauty is not affected by this imperfection. The viewer notices the simplicity of the hair style. Dina’s hair is parted in the center, pulled behind her pretty, shapely ears, and gathered up on the left side. There are a few stray, charming tendrils and curls around her face. There is no jewelry, no flowers or bows to distract us from her face and plunging neckline. Dina might be in a peignoir with a short stole loosely draped around her upper arms. The lace is delicate and remarkably detailed with a few well-placed strokes of pastel. She has a distant look in her eyes, a little melancholy, perhaps even tearful. She is feminine, youthful but mature, thoughtful, romantic and attractive. Marie has portrayed Dina at her best. The rough, broad sweeping pastel strokes in the background give life, urgency and immediacy to the portrait. The contrast of the rough texture and background color of the paper highlights the smoothness of the model’s skin. The many light shades of Dina’s gown are reflected in her light skin and show the effect of light. “Portraiture…remained the choice of many late nineteenth century painters and sculptors, since the market for likeness was still strong“ (Heller, 101). Dina’s portrait showcases Marie’s ability to capture likeness in a sensitive and artful manner. Two years after Marie’s death, Dina wed the Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec (34 years her senior). They were married for ten years. After his death Dina returned to live with Marie’s mother, until her own death from tuberculosis in 1914.
Returning to Paris from Russia in 1882, Marie discovered that her health was quickly deteriorating. “At the doctor’s, ‘For the first time,’ she writes, ‘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.’ Before the year ended Marie had further revelations from her doctor. ‘I am consumptive,’ she announces, ‘he told me so to-day’” (Creston, 249-51). Also that year, Marie met the artist, Jules Bastien-Lepage. He served as her mentor and they formed a very close friendship that many speculate became romantic. His influence caused her to turn “to naturalist street scenes of the lower classes”…and “to paint exactly what she knew less about -- the lower classes -- in order to present the real world that she felt the writers Honore Balzac and Emile Zola and the painter Jules Bastien-Lepage called upon her to paint” (Weisberg, 91-99). Marie also emulated other painters of this time, including those in the democratic circles who “generally agreed that the duty of the artist was to focus the attention of society on the need for social justice by showing how the common people really lived” (Figes, 229-30).
This ideal is reflected in her work Le meeting. We see a group of six young boys so closely huddled together that it doesn’t seem possible for the viewers to be included - exactly opposite of the impression given by L’atelier Julian. What does the tallest boy have in his hand which is capturing the attention of the others? Is it a slate, sling shot or top? We will never know and that’s part of the painting’s attraction. The viewer’s eye goes round and round looking at the boys’ facial expressions and poses. The boys have dirty hands clasped behind their backs or on their hips. Shoelaces are missing or are untied. Shoes and clothes are worn and ill fitted. After examining the boys, the viewers' eyes move down the boy’s stick and trace the cracks in the dirt up to the disappearing figure of a girl. She is not a part of “the meeting;” in fact, the boys might have “picked” something out of her basket when she walked by! The worn fence with the broken slats, and covered with old peeling posters and graffiti, towers above the boys. There is no sky or evidence of natural beauty. The only pieces of grass or leaves can be seen next to the “hangman” sketched on the lower left of the fence and above the girl’s head on the right. The high fence will keep the boys out of any garden that might be there. Their toys seem to be discarded objects, things we can’t even recognize. Le Meeting appeared in the Salon of 1884, the year that Marie died. “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” (Weisberg, 102).
Autumn, painted by Marie in 1883, is currently in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. In this painting we see a little hint of Impressionism in the use of colors and light, loose brush strokes. The landscape was created en plein air. Bashkirtseva's realist style is evident in the careful depiction of the bench, newspaper, tree trunks, and fences. “The so-called Impressionist group which extended the idea of the commonplace subject of the 1850s and 1860s, gave it a new-found color intensity that was to change entirely the direction of painting. Like the Realists, these men were also chiefly concerned with the appearance of things; but while the earlier painters had idealized their conceptions in many ways, giving them a feeling of permanence, the Impressionists attempted to render subjects in temporary and instantaneous terms. The opposition to what they had to offer would be primarily against their technique rather than subject matter” (Myers, 347).
Autumn is a landscape showing a well traveled, but at the moment deserted road, vanishing in the distance. No one is out at this time of day. The road is lined with a double row of trees in muted fall colors. Upon closer inspection one can see that some of the trees still have a little summer green while others are in different stages of turning yellow. The viewers' eyes travel down the road to a vanishing point of light. Along the way one can notice little details…a sidewalk on the left, ruts in the road, and clumps of leaves blown by the wind. At the end of the road one can continue on into the light or turn to the right and go across the bridge. From the bridge our eye dips down back to the beginning of the road, now noticing the overturned bench and newspaper in the lower left hand corner. The dark brown of the bench balances out the dark brown fence and trees in the foreground on the right. We feel that the colors will soon change as the sun comes up. The small bench seems abandoned and forgotten now that the autumn cold wind has arrived. In the summer the bench would have been the perfect, shady place to rest. Isaac Levitan’s Autumn Day: Sokolniki might have been an inspiration for Marie, although in Levitan’s work there is a prominent female figure walking towards the viewer and the small bench just off the road is upright and in place, telling a much different story. “What Chekhov most admired in Levitan’s art (and Levitan in Chekhov’s) was its spiritual response to the natural world” (Figes, 406). Obviously, the same statement could easily be made about Marie’s Autumn.
In May 1884 Marie wrote in her journal: “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” (Kernberger, 1). One can only imagine how much she might have accomplished if she had lived longer [C.O.].