Bashkirtseff, Marie (1859–1884)
Bashkirtseff, Marie (1859–1884)
Bashkirtseff, Marie (1859–1884)
Rising young painter and daughter of wealthy Russian expatriates in Paris in the 1880s who, before her early
death, produced one of the most notable diaries of the 19th century. Name variations: (Russian form) Maria Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva; (childhood nickname) Moussia. Pronunciation: Bash-KEERT-sev, Bash-KEERT-seva, MOO-sya. Born Marie Bashkirtseff probably on January 24, 1859 (some authorities place her birth as early as November 1858), at her family's estate at Gavronzi outside Kiev, Ukraine, Russia; died in Paris, France, on October 31, 1884; daughter of Konstantin Bashkirtseff (a Russian noble and landowner) and Marie (Babanina) Bashkirtseff; taught by private tutors; trained in art at the Academy Julian (or Julien) in Paris, 1877–84; never married; no children.
Her parents separated (1862); left Russia, along with mother and members of her mother's family (1870); began diary and had love affair at a distance with Lord Hamilton (1873); began to paint (1875); settled in Paris (1877); had her first painting accepted at the Paris Salon (1880); diagnosed with tuberculosis and met Bastien-Lepage (1882); corresponded with Guy de Maupassant; diary published posthumously (1887).
Marie Bashkirtseff died tragically at the youthful age of 24. At the time of her death, she had already enjoyed considerable success as a painter, but her artistic achievements were destined to be overshadowed by the voluminous and revealing diary that she left behind. Covering the last ten years of her life, the journal was soon published, albeit in a shortened and expurgated form by Marie's mother. A sensation at the time, the diary has fascinated readers, including many accomplished women, since it first appeared.
Starting in the 18th century, wealthy families of the Russian nobility spent much of their lives in Western Europe. Settling in resorts like Nice and the great cities, notably Paris, they were a colorful presence on the social scene. Thus, the Bashkirtseffs were part of one of the great waves of aristocratic travelers of the time. The Paris in which they finally settled in the late 1870s stood as the artistic center of the Western world. It was predictable, therefore, that the lively and intellectually gifted daughter of the family should become fascinated with the art world of the French capital and begin to paint seriously. The principal surprise in the situation was the depth of talent and the strength of commitment that she displayed.
In this era, Paris offered female artists a unique degree of freedom to receive training and to exhibit their achievements. Nonetheless, even here, women pursuing an artistic career found themselves facing artificial constraints until long after Bashkirtseff's death. They were not admitted to major schools such as the École des Beaux-Arts until 1896, and they were not permitted to enter important competitions such as the Prix de Rome until 1903. Bashkirtseff expressed her bitterness at the limits placed upon her as a female both in her diary and in her attraction to the emerging feminist movement in France.
Marie Bashkirtseff was born at her noble family's estate of Gavronzi near the city of Kiev, capital of the Ukraine and one of the great urban centers of the Russian Empire. Her birthday is January 24, 1859, although, in the Russian calendar of the time, her birth was recorded as occurring on January 12. Some authorities place her birth as early as November 1858. Her father, the son of a Russian general, was a wastrel and a libertine. At the urging of her family, Marie's mother left him when the girl was only two. Following the death of her own mother, Madame Bashkirtseff left Russia in 1870 to travel in Central and Western Europe. She soon settled in Nice, where Marie grew up. The family was wealthy but not socially distinguished by the standards of the aristocratic Russian community; the marital separation of the Bashkirtseffs detracted further from the family's status.
Her mother, along with other relatives who were part of the family household in Nice, indulged Marie with governesses, lavish clothes, and tutors. Her youthful beauty, obvious intelligence, and flowing energy seemed to confirm a fortuneteller's prophecy to her mother: "Your son will be ordinary, but your daughter will be a star." As if to give credence to this prediction, the young girl proved to be both a talented linguist and a promising musician.
At age 14, Marie started her diary. According to Dorothy Langley Moore , it was here that she initiated the practice of claiming to be younger than her actual years. Throughout her life, Bashkirtseff amplified her accomplishments by exaggerating her youthfulness. The first entries were made in early 1873, beginning a literary effort that eventually filled 84 volumes. These ranged from small notebooks to large, bound tomes. In previous years, she had kept a brief diary, but it consisted of short notes, and she apparently destroyed this earlier record of her thoughts when she began her larger effort. Bashkirtseff wrote mainly in French, but she used her knowledge of Russian, English, and Italian in making some of the entries.
Marie may have been impelled to start recording her innermost thoughts by her wild infatuation with the young Duke of Hamilton. She never met the young Scottish noble whom she gazed on from a distance during his stay in Nice. Moreover, Hamilton's constant companion was a lovely Italian woman known to be his mistress. Nonetheless, she asked God to "give me the Duke of Hamilton and I shall love him and make him happy!" Bashkirtseff's desire to attract Hamilton by being "surrounded with glory and triumph" led her to embark on a program of self-improvement. Indulged as usual by her family, she employed tutors to enhance her education. When one tutor failed to make the course of studying sufficiently demanding, Marie replaced her.
As her teenage years continued, Bashkirtseff had a series of infatuations with young men from the Italian nobility. When laryngitis, possibly an early hint of the tuberculosis that led to her early death, forced her to give up singing, she turned her formidable energies to drawing and painting. Her indulgent relatives immediately claimed to see her obvious talent, but Marie showed a cold and practical understanding of what she considered her meager artistic accomplishments. "I have decided to settle in Paris where I shall study," she wrote in September 1877. She expected, naively, to start making her mark as an artist within two years.
The strikingly beautiful Russian aristocrat enrolled at a prominent Parisian art school run by Rodolphe Julian, and, in October 1877, she joined the group of other young women—most of them also foreigners—studying there. Within a week, the proprietor told Marie's mother that he no longer thought her art studies were "just the whim of a spoiled child." "She has a strong will and is very gifted," he admitted. The 18-year-old Bashkirtseff reciprocated by throwing herself into her classes in drawing and painting. As usual, she stressed her youth, claiming to be only 16. Her fellow students responded with skepticism. Ironically, Bashkirtseff now caught a glance of her earlier love idol, the Duke of Hamilton, on a Parisian street. The young man she had admired from a distance had now grown stout. Bashkirtseff expelled him from her mind, while lamenting the time she had wasted in her infatuation.
The bohemianism of the art student's world gave Bashkirtseff scope to express some of her innermost desires. In 1875, she had written candidly
in a diary entry about her admiration for her body: "I often stay for an hour in contemplation instead of bathing, and I only leave the mirror with difficulty." Now, she enthusiastically removed her clothes for her fellow female art students. As one of them remarked, Marie Bashkirtseff, ostensibly to discuss the aesthetic qualities of her form, "would freely take off her clothes and show us her body, just like a model."
The young woman's diaries have left a vivid picture of her ambitions and the frustrations she encountered as a female art student. She chafed at being barred from the École des Beaux-Arts, and she was outraged at her inability to go unaccompanied to visit the Louvre. "I know that I should become somebody; but with skirts—what can one do?" she wrote. In December 1880, she began to visit the militant feminist Hubertine Auclert and her circle. In the early 1880s, Marie wrote under a pen name for La Citoyenne, a feminist and socialist journal.
In 1880, at Julian's urging, Bashkirtseff submitted a painting to the Salon, the prestigious annual art exhibition in Paris. Little more than 20 years old, she found her artistic ambitions confirmed when her large picture of a woman reading, with a bunch of violets at her side, was accepted by the Salon. At the same time, her doctor had begun treating her frequently for throat ailments. If Bashkirtseff suspected she was in danger, she never told her relatives nor did she note her concern in her diary. One biographer, Vincent Cronin, has suggested that Marie's frantic energy and hunger for new experiences reflected a quiet concern about her health. He notes that two of the young Russian's great-aunts suffered from "consumption," the term then used for the lung disease we know as tuberculosis. By the close of the year of her first great success in the art world, Bashkirtseff's body was showing alarming signs of serious illness. Pain developed below her left ear, and she was beginning to go deaf. A round of visits to medical specialists followed. The diagnosis was, indeed, consumption.
At the urging of her mother and aunt, Bashkirtseff returned to the family home near Kiev in 1881 for a round of church visits and prayer. During her stay, she became aware that the disease had spread from one lung to infect the other. In a second visit the following year, her mother hoped to promote a marriage between Marie and an eligible member of the local nobility. The plan produced no result, and Bashkirtseff returned to Paris in 1882 committed to resuming her career as an artist.
She hoped submissions to the Salon in 1883 would bring her more professional recognition, but one picture was virtually ignored, and she received praise only for a small work she herself disliked. In these years, she began to turn her hopes toward a literary career. Since the age of 14, she had kept the voluminous diary, and she now approached a number of noted French authors for encouragement. The first, Alexander Dumas, the younger, rebuffed her, but in 1884 Marie did begin an extended correspondence with Guy de Maupassant.
With barely six months to live, Bashkirtseff adopted the pseudonym of "Miss Hastings" and told the young French author that she wished to become "the confidante of your beautiful mind." She did not wish to see him face to face, but she informed him that "I am charming." Maupassant received piles of fan mail from female admirers, and he tried unsuccessfully to fend her off. Her response included a satirical sketch of how she thought he looked. This initiated a mutually flirtatious correspondence that Marie finally broke off. In the end, she found the young writer cruel and manipulating in his responses to her, and she rejected his continuing efforts to meet her face to face. Vincent Cronin has suggested that Marie was lucky her flirtation with de Maupassant did not reach a level of intimacy. He was psychologically dominated by his mother, and his relations with prostitutes had infected him with syphilis.
Now here is a girl, the story of whose life as told by herself may be called the drama of a woman's soul.
—Mathilde Blind, on Marie Bashkirtseff
During the last stages of her life, Bashkirtseff developed a close tie to the prominent painter Jules Bastien-Lepage. Although she had admired his work for several years, she met him only in 1882. Soon after they were introduced, she visited Bastien's studio during his absence. In a typically romantic gesture, she removed a small blob of his paint and took it home as if to draw inspiration from this fragment of his work. The two had intense discussions about their work, but, in time, the relationship cooled. An important barrier for Bashkirtseff was Bastien's unimpressive physical stature. She also began to ponder the views of critics who were not impressed with his work. "He's not glorious enough," she wrote. "If he were really an artist-god, like Wagner, it would be different." Ironically, those same critics that were not impressed with his work discounted one of her most accomplished works—the street scene with six ragged boys entitled The Meeting—suggesting that, if not actually the work of Bastien-Lepage, at least it had been done with his assistance. The Meeting was hailed in the Parisian press, despite the innuendo, and led to the sale of several of her other works.
The final months of Bashkirtseff's life were marked by a flurry of artistic success and a shared experience of illness with Bastien. Now approaching the last stages of tuberculosis, she found that he was suffering from what the doctors first diagnosed as rheumatism. Eventually, she learned that he faced imminent death from cancer of the stomach. Bashkirtseff put aside her earlier reservations about Bastien's physical limitations such as his short stature. Feeling close to him as a fellow artist and a cherished soul mate, she devoted much of her energies to nursing him. Her own failing health pushed her to paint in every spare moment in order to leave as much of an artistic legacy as possible. In a memorable diary entry, she railed against dying without leaving something memorable: "To die like a dog, like a hundred thousand women whose names are scarcely engraved upon their tombstones."
In the final weeks of her life, the two spent hours sitting side by side, barely able to speak to each other. Marie Bashkirtseff died on October 31, 1884. She had continued to make entries in her diary until 11 days before her death. Her last words to her mother were: "Life was so beautiful after all." Bastien's own life ended a little more than a month later.
Marie Bashkirtseff left detailed instructions for her family to follow in preserving her memory. These included the erection of a large funeral chapel, an annual memorial service with performances by noted musicians, the commissioning of a full-size statue of herself, and a prize to be awarded in her name to young painters.
The young artist also left a substantial collection of paintings and drawings, the product of seven years of energetic activity. Her best-known works are portraits and street scenes, and critics most frequently define her as a "genre painter," an artist who concentrated on undramatic scenes from everyday life. For example, The Meeting and Jean and Jacques show boys on the streets of Paris. The greatest influence on Bashkirtseff was the Realist School of mid-19th century French painting as represented by Gustave Courbet. Thus, The Meeting, in showing the six young boys gathered in front of a wooden fence, was painted in almost photographic realism. In short order, the brilliance of the Impressionists was to make paintings like hers appear both superficial and overly sentimental.
Although her painting did not leave a lasting mark, Marie Bashkirtseff's writing won her an important place in the world of 19th-century letters. In 1887, her mother followed the dead young woman's wishes in publishing the huge pile of exercise books in which Marie had compiled her diary. The bereaved mother apparently both transcribed the diary and bowdlerized the work to remove the unflattering picture it presented of Marie's personality and to delete frank passages about her sexual longings. Nonetheless, it remained a remarkable psychological portrait of a girl passing to young womanhood, and retained notable elements of frankness and self-analysis. Its picture of the bohemian art world, the wealthy family milieu in which Bashkirtseff grew up, and her dramatically brief life appealed to readers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Some readers and critics found this account of Bashkirtseff's ambitions, flirtations, and infatuations notable because of its arrogance and egotism. Shortly after the book's publication, one particularly incensed critic responded to it by declaring, "What a horrid little pig she was!" More recently, Doris Langley Moore has described Marie as a "brilliant little barbarian."
The most influential response to the book came in 1889 from the distinguished British politician William Gladstone. He noted the unattractive features of Marie's account of herself: "Mlle Bashkirtseff attracts and repels alternatively, and perhaps repels as much as she attracts." Nonetheless, he was struck by her "phenomenal personality," and the book's "commanding singularity as a psychological study." By the turn of the century, the book was attracting even wider attention. The popularity of Bashkirtseff's writing eventually evoked a satirical response: in 1911, the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock wrote Sorrows of a Super Soul: or, The Memoirs of Marie Mushenough. The city of Nice chose to commemorate the young artist and writer in a more conventional manner, naming a street "Rue Bashkirtseff" and building a fountain in her honor.
Interest in Bashkirtseff has remained strong. In 1966, Moore called Bashkirtseff "the most candid of diarists," fascinating as "an egocentric personality." In their introduction to the 1985 edition of the diary, Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock saw the novelty and significance of the book in the following way: "Never before had a woman so urgently proclaimed her ambition to excel, her hunger for public fame." They stressed the constraints she suffered as a female artist, and her role in militant socialist and feminist circles in Paris in the early 1880s.
Over the years, notable women including Paula Modersohn-Becker, Anaïs Nin , and Simone de Beauvoir have expressed their interest in the diary and its author. Modersohn-Becker admired and hoped to emulate the young Russian's accomplishments, explaining passionately, "I say as she does; if only I can become something." In 1905, the rising young German painter studied at the Academy Julian where Bashkirtseff had begun her artistic career almost 30 years earlier. Anaïs Nin was inspired to compose her famous diary by Bashkirtseff's example. As Deidre Bair , Nin's biographer, puts it, in all likelihood "Marie's journal first gave [Nin] the idea that she, too, should write for posterity and, therefore, eventual publication."
Most notably Simone de Beauvoir used Marie Bashkirtseff's diary as a major source for The Second Sex, her study of women's psychology and social conditioning. First, she found the young Russian's writing an important illustration of the narcissistic thinking and behavior society imposes on females. Beauvoir cited diary passages in which Bashkirtseff repeatedly expressed her need to be admired by others, her sense of constantly being on a stage where she would be highly regarded by a surrounding audience. But Beauvoir was equally interested in how Bashkirtseff, once committed to her life as an artist, expressed outrage and struggled against the social and professional restrictions placed upon her by her identity as a woman.
Bair, Deidre. Anaïs Nin: A Biography. NY: Putnam, 1995.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H.M. Parshley. NY: Knopf, 1971.
Cronin, Vincent. Four Women in Pursuit of an Ideal. London: Collins, 1965.
The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff. Translated by Mathilde Blind . Introduction by Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock. London: Virago Press, 1985.
The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker. Translated and annotated by J. Diane Radycki. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1980.
Moore, Doris Langley. Marie & the Duke of H.: The Daydream Love Affair of Marie Bashkirtseff. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1966.
Sutherland, Anne, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists 1550–1950. NY: Knopf, 1976.
Baynes, D.J. [Dormer Creston, pseud.] The Life of Marie Bashkirtseff. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1943.
Cosnier, Colette. Marie Bashkirtseff: Un portrait san retouches. Paris: Pierre Horay, 1985.
Cravens, Gwyneth. "Past Present," in The Nation. December 10, 1990.
Dunaway, Philip, and Mel Evans, eds. A Treasury of the World's Great Diaries. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.
Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
Kernberger, Phyllis Howard, and Katherine Kernberger, trans. I Am the Most Interesting Book of All: The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff, Volume One. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1997.
Lerner, Michael. Maupassant. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975.
Parker, Roszika, and Griselda Pollock. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. NY: Pantheon, 1982.