Reframing History: Marie Bashkirtseff

Self-Portrait of Marie Bashkirtseff

I recently started reading Jennifer Higgie’s “The Mirror and the Palette” which examines self-portraiture by women artists over the last 500 years. While reading the book, I came across an artist that I was completely unfamiliar with but for a brief period of time was considered one of the most famous women in Europe despite her short life: Marie Bashkirtseff.

Maria Konstantinovna Bashkirtseva was born in Gavrontsi, Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1858 to a wealthy noble family. Her parents separated when she was twelve years old and she spent much of her life traveling throughout Europe with her mother before settling in Paris. Like many noble women during this time, she recieved an extensive private education which included both art and music. After her musical career was cut short due to illness, she was determined to become an artist and she studied painting at the Academie Julian (the Academie Julian was a private art school founded by Rodolphe Julian that welcomed young women and foreign artists excluded from the École des Beaux-Arts). She began exhibiting her work at the Paris Salon as early as 1880 and continued exhibiting throughout the rest of her life.

The Meeting, 1884

Bashkirtseff’s work focused on realism and naturalism and she took her inspiration from city scenes, such as in her best-known work The Meeting (1884). Bashkirtseff created a remarkable body of work during her short life, but a large number were destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. At least sixty paintings still survive, including The Meeting which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

In addition to being a talented artist, Bashkirtseff became famous throughout Europe for her writing. During her life, she emerged as an intellectual in Paris and wrote several articles for the feminist newspaper, La Citoyenne in 1881. Her most famous work was her life-long journal. Starting at the age of thirteen, she kept an extensive journal which offers her personal account of the late nineteenth century European bourgeoisie. The journal touches on her deep desire for fame. As Bashkirtseff became more aware that her life may be cut short due to illness, she writes “If I do not die young I hope to live as a great artist; but if I die young, I intend to have my journal, which cannot fail to be interesting, published.” After her death, her mother indeed had her abridged journal published and it became an immediate success. British Prime Minister William Gladstone referred to the book as “a book without parallel” and it was greatly admired by playwright George Bernard Shaw. An unabridged version of the complete journal has been published in French in sixteen volumes and excerpts have been translated into English under the title “I Am the Most Interesting Book of All.”

Bashkirtseff died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 in 1884 and was buried in Passy Cemetary in Paris. The monument marking her grace is a full-size artist’s studio that has been declared a historic monument by the French government. While her life was cut short, her words and art continue to live on in museums and libraries around the world.

Bashkirtseff’s Grave

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