"I long to see everything, to know everything, to learn everything!" Marie Bashkirtseff
A while ago I wrote about Marie Bashkirtseff's The Umbrella. It turned out to be one of my most popular posts. Let's take a look at some of her other work and life as an artist.
- Bashkirtseff lived a short but prolific life, passing away at 25 from tuberculosis. Her achievements in spite of illness and gender discrimination are inspiring. She lived with a sense of urgency, much like Vincent van Gogh in his later years. Eager to create, live, and experience the world. Imagine what she could have done with more time!
- She was academically trained under Tony Robert-Fleury, a remarkable artist in his own right. You can see similarities between his and Bashkirtseff's work, particularly in the quality of realism.
Tip: Who you learn from will likely influence how you paint. Learn from those who inspire you.
- She also studied at the prestigious Académie Julian. It was one of the few art establishments that welcomed female artists. Discrimination was rife back then. In the Studio (below) depicts life at the Académie. I also found this old New York Times article about the Académie by art critic John Russell (not the artist John Russell—I already went down that rabbit hole).
"To be at the Academie Julian was to be exposed to a kind of white magic that seems to have worked in almost every case. What was learned there stayed forever with alumnus and alumna, and it related as much to the conduct of life as to the uses of brush and chisel." An Art School That Also Taught Life by John Russell
- She exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1880, 81, 82, and 84. In her final showing and the year of her passing, she received an honorable mention for The Meeting (shown and discussed later in this post).
- Many of her works were destroyed in World War II. Only 60 survive, and only a handful of those are publicly documented.
- She was also a prolific writer, keeping a diary from the age of 13. More on that below.
Bashkirtseff's diary is a work of art in its own right, though I'm not sure if that was intended. It's a fascinating look into the life of a girl and aspiring artist. She started when she was around 13 and didn't stop, ending up with thousands of handwritten pages.
It was edited and published a few years after her death in 1887. It made an immediate impact. Few had ever published something like this. Here's a great essay on the topic by Sonia Wilson, “I Am My Own Heroine” How Marie Bashkirtseff Rewrote the Route to Fame.
Today, you can read some of her entries on Gutenberg.org for free, or get a copy of I Am the Most Interesting Book of All (keep in mind there are two volumes). I hand-selected a few inspiring extracts from her diary:
"No one loves everything as much as I. Art, music, painting, books, people, dresses, luxury, noise, calm, laughter, sadness, melancholy, jokes, love, cold, sun, all seasons and weathers, the plains of Russia, the mountains above Naples, snow in winter, the rain of autumn, spring’s follies, summer’s tranquil days, and nights brilliant with stars."
“L’art! If I didn’t have these four magical letters in the distance, I would be dead. But for art I need no one else; I depend on myself. And if I fail, I am nothing and can’t live anymore. Art! I see it as a great light very far away over there, and I forget everything else. I walk with my eyes fixed on this light. I’m a little old to be starting, especially for a woman. But I will try.”
"Nothing is ever so good or so bad in reality as it is in the anticipation."
"I was born to be a remarkable woman; it matters little in what way or how. ... I shall be famous or I will die."
"Art ... is as much a source of happiness for the beginner as for the master. One forgets everything in one's work."
"I want to live faster, faster, faster! ... I fear that this desire to live always at high pressure is the presage of a short existence. Who knows?"
Below is a painting of her brother, Paul Bashkirtseff. It has a Sargent-like feel to it. Clean shapes, simplified values, and confident strokes. It's also an example of chiaroscuro, characterized by the strong contrast between light and dark.
The portrait below is similar. Again, notice the simplified values, especially around the face. She didn't paint every subtle change in value. She simplified the values so that each plane of the face is distinct. Steve Huston talks about this all the time. "Different value = different plane". It's a safe rule for ensuring your painting has a sense of structure and form. It also simplifies the painting process.
The Artist's Sister-in-Law reminds me of Anders Zorn's work. Strong reds with dull yellows and blues. It's not easy to paint with such a dull color palette. It takes a sophisticated touch. Anything less and you may end up with a drab, sickly painting.
Her ability to capture facial features and emotions is impressive. See the painting below. Also, notice how simplified the background is. There's no confusion as to where Bashkirtseff wants us to look.
Bashkirtseff had a particular knack for painting the harsh, gritty streets.
Below is The Meeting. There's so much emotion in this painting, which is particularly impressive given the boys are painted at a distance (it's not a typical portrait where we get to see all the subtle features). One boy looks up, suspiciously at the older boy. Another looks with a cheeky smirk. The boy in the back listens with submissive eyes. What are they chatting about? And notice the different stances. There's a sense that each boy has his own life and personality.
Another key observation is the closeness of the composition. Most of the painting is taken up by the fence posts, rocky ground, buildings, and the children. There's only a sliver of sky. This gives us a sense of involvement in the scene, as if we are there watching the meeting take place.
In the Mist (below) is one of the few pure cityscapes I could find. It's atmospheric and moody. There's a sense of unity throughout the scene, with everything basked in the same light and mist. The distant fire and black street posts are great examples of small but powerful accents. They command attention from the muted surroundings.
Tip: A key challenge of painting is making sure everything works well together. Your goal is to create a beautiful painting, not a collection of beautiful parts.
Below are a few other paintings by Bashkirtseff. Unfortunately, there aren't many. Her life was short and many of her paintings were destroyed.
Spring (below) has a similar feel to Jules Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc, one of her favorite works. Here's a glowing review:
“…Joan of Arc… is perfection. Her head turned to one side, her neck arched, and her great clear eyes that look at nothing; the head creates an extraordinary effect.” Marie Bashkirtseff (via Musings on Art)
Below is a portrait of Madame X. Perhaps the same Madame X that John Singer Sargent painted in 1884.
Boys in the Yard (below) is much more painterly than her other work. Look at that luscious brushwork and the beautiful light defining the fence posts.
- Her paintings are remarkable, but it's her energy and enthusiasm for life itself that I find most inspiring. She had a keenness to live, learn, and experience the world. Time was her enemy.
- Don't limit yourself to just painting. You might find artistic joy in other mediums, as she did with writing.
- Consider keeping a diary to explore and document your thoughts. Bashkirtseff's diary ended up being one of her most famous works, though perhaps unintended.
- Your teachers will likely influence how you paint. Learn from those who inspire you.
- Her stunning realism is a testament to quality education and training. Something few get to experience, but the barriers are gradually being pulled down thanks to technology.
Thanks for Reading!
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