A Closer Look at the Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff

In this post, I take a closer look at Marie Bashkirtseff’s The Umbrella. A subtle yet powerful painting. Bashkirtseff painted it in her early 20s, just a year or so before she died at 25. I cover:

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883
Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883

Who’s the Girl?

There’s little information surrounding this painting; I picked it based on technique rather than any behind-the-scenes meaning. But there are some clues in the many diary entries left by Bashkirtseff. She was a prolific writer, completing thousands of pages during her short lifetime. A condensed version of her diary can be found in I Am the Most Interesting Book of All.

Her diary entries suggest the painting is of a little girl from a local orphanage. On 23 August 1882, she wrote, “I’ve been out walking, looking for pictures. I’ve gone twice to the orphanage. The director is already a friend, and the children crowded around me on the second visit for the bonbons I was handing out.”

She began painting The Umbrella shortly after, per her letter dated 29 August 1882, “I’m painting a little girl with her black skirts over her shoulders and an open umbrella. I work outside and it rains constantly.” (Source)

This interpretation makes sense, with the dull colors, the girl’s dormant expression, and her thick, black clothing. There’s a sense of hardship about it. An innocent girl in a harsh world.


Simplification plays an essential role in this painting. Notice the pleasant contrast between the detailed face and the rest of the painting. There’s no mistaking what the focal point is.

The umbrella, clothing, and background are nothing more than simple color shapes. They fall back, allowing the girl’s face to command your attention.

However, these background areas are no less important. They just play a different role in the painting, one of setting the scene, pulling your attention towards the girl’s face, and creating abstract patterns.

Also, notice the use of simplification for the girl’s hair. Bashkirtseff didn’t try to paint every strand of hair. Rather, she painted the hair as clusters.

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883 (closeup 1)

Value Structure

The painting is built upon a strong value structure-like a house is built upon a solid foundation, walls, and frames. Below is the painting in grayscale. This reiterates the contrast between the delicate facial features and the comparatively brash style used for the rest of the painting.

Pay close attention to the use of small, dark accents around the eyes, nose, and lips. They help these delicate features stand out from the rest of the face.

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883 - Grayscale

The painting is comprised of several value groups (areas of similar value). The darks make up part of the umbrella and the clothing. The mid-tones make up the background, parts of the umbrella, and parts of the face. And there are some highlights on the face, most notably the forehead.

Using Photoshop, I created a 3-value notan to show you the general value massings:

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883 (Posterize)

This is an extreme-abstract version of the painting. No detail, no visible brushwork, no edges; just three value groupings.

Notice the asymmetry of the design, despite the girl being positioned directly in the center. The background and umbrella play an important role in disrupting the symmetry of the girl.

Another key observation is how the umbrella and clothing form a solid dark shape. This is simplification using value-taking two distinct objects and merging them into one shape. We know where the umbrella and clothing stop and start; we don’t need to be shown.

Dull Colors and Subtle Changes

In terms of color, it’s a dull painting, with mostly grays, blacks, and weak skin tones. This suits the moody atmosphere. As Bashkirtseff wrote about this painting, “I work outside and it rains constantly.” You can feel that through the dull colors.

It’s difficult to work with such restrained use of color. You have less room to work and any overstatement of color stands out (a bit too much red in the lips or pink in the cheeks would be jarring to look at). Bashkirtseff demonstrated remarkable skill and control for such a young artist.

Attention is again drawn towards the face with relatively more color being used. In the image below, on the left are some of the colors used for the face, and on the right are some of the colors used in the rest of the painting.

Pay close attention to the subtle changes in color on the girl’s face. Each change in color marks a significant change in structure. And the girl’s rosy cheeks, lips, and nose are suggestive of her youth. Her lips being the most saturated color in the painting.

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883 (Color)

Edge Variance

This painting is a masterclass in edge variance. Edges are what allow your eyes to transition throughout a painting.

I indicate the different hard, soft, and lost edges in the image below.

Soft and lost edges help merge the dark clothing and umbrella into one shape, even though they are distinct objects.

Most of the face is painted with soft edges, giving a soft, youthful, and feminine appearance. However, there are some hard edges used around the eyes, lips, and mouth to help accentuate these features.

Soft edges allow the girl’s hair to flow gently into the darkness of the umbrella. This provides an important link between the background and the girl’s face (the focal point).

Hard edges keep the abstract shapes (umbrella, clothing, and background) sharp and distinct.

Marie Bashkirtseff, The Umbrella, 1883 (Edges)

Key Takeaways

  • Life’s short. Figure out what you want to do and take steps to achieve those things.

“I am resolved to be a great artist and I will be one.” Marie Bashkirtseff (Source)

  • What is the big idea of your painting? Focus your attention there and simplify the rest.
  • Realism is closely linked to accurate values.
  • You can make a powerful statement with dull colors.
  • Contrast is everything in painting. Simplified/detailed. Soft/hard. Colorful/dull. Organic/geometric.

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.

104 comments on “A Closer Look at the Umbrella by Marie Bashkirtseff”

  1. Thank you for such a useful, informative and interesting look at an artist work. Often one just looks and sees the overall picture without appreciating what it is that makes it so clever in the composition and the way the picture is made up. Certainly makes you look more now at how artists have achieved the paintings and what has actually gone into it.

  2. Thank you Dan!
    In each of your posts, I learn something that I need to pay attention to. Today, it’s “soft edges”.

  3. J’apprécie beaucoup cette analyse d’un tableau , cette démarche que j’essaie d’appliquer m’aide dans mon travail. Merci encore pour votre engagement .

  4. Another masterful critique on a painting that thoroughly deserves comment but at the same time would, without your insight, probably not warrant more than a cursory passing glance on a visit to an art gallery.
    Thank you for highlighting yet another lesser known artist and bringing her work to our attention.

  5. oh, this is really beautiful..and I’m learning things I’ve never paid attention to, before, in paintings. thank you, Dan, for providing so much priceless information free of cost to us.

  6. Thank you so much for continuing to send me most helpful information about painting. I
    do mostly Flowers and plants, and don’t attempt people.

  7. Just one further comment after viewing the collection of her works on “bing” it indicates this painting twice. This suggests she completed the image twice and varied the background colours or that the images are two photos of the same painting with differing colouration in the development of the image.
    I can recommend your subscribers to check out her amazing collection of work on her the “Bing” page.

    • I am 70 years young! I am still excited about learning, especially about painting! Thank you for teaching! Love this painting, even more since you pointed out the details!!

  8. Thank you Dan. I really enjoy reading all your emails which are always so interesting, informative and so helpful. As a beginner I sometimes feel overwhelmed with so much to remember but am enjoying experimenting and basically having fun.

  9. Thanks Dan…the painter was able to withdraw such emotion from a young face. You have such generosity with all your teachings…we appreciate you!

  10. Thank you again for generously sharing this useful information. I love the range of work you are sharing and how much detail you provide with your analysis. So helpful. Interesting to see artists I have had no awareness of. This is an amazing portrait, atmospheric and chilling.

  11. This artist was able with withdraw so much emotion from a very young face.
    Dan, thanks for all your generosity in your teachings…much appreciated!

  12. Thank you Dan! To see a work of art as beautiful as this, then be guided by you through the finer aspects, color, contrast, soft and hard lines, makes me feel i was there watching Marie paint. I had never heard of of Marie Bashkirteff, she is a great artist and i will seek out her work for further inspiration. You truly have a gift Dan! Thank you for sharing and introducing artists that haven’t gotten the recognition they should.

  13. Excellent painting of a very simple subject. Love the feeling she envolked: sullen, dramatic, atmosphere and balance! The lesson for me was: keep it simple!
    You are an amazingly giving person to share this information about the artist and her painting with us! Thank you.

  14. Thanks once again for your help. There is nothing like continued reinforcement of an idea to help it become a part of my understanding of how to paint well. I hope you can keep the lessons coming. They are invaluable.

  15. 1883 wearing black was the only color for the poor. I took a snap shot and will enlarge it, then frame it. There is not enough words to describe that girl. Iam 88 have enjoyed art or many years. Thank you Scott, for a job well done.

  16. Dan, your posts and teaching are invaluable.
    Thanks for what you share with us so freely and unselfishly.
    So glad I discovered you


  17. Thank you for this information…I can appreciate especially the lesson about values and edges…I love doing Portraits…(…and I thought I knew a lot about value and edges…!!!)


  18. It is early in the morning and I took the time to follow along on your wonderful commentary on the painting, The Umbrella, by Marie Bashkirtself . What a great description of the painting. It touched me so much that I am on my why to our library site to see if they carry her works. A fine way to start my day.
    I plan on reading it again at lunch time.

  19. Thank you. I must admit that as a novice, soft and hard edges was not something I had considered
    and yet quite important – now I understand.

  20. Thanks Dan a most poignant picture. Most importantly the choice of values and hues shows how important it is for an artist to understand the essence of the subject you are looking at and how you wish to express it.

  21. Thank you,Dan.What a talent for someone so young.It was very helpful the way younbroke down the painting.Your hints are very helpful.Look forward to your eye opening hints.

  22. I’m a novice and always looking for suggestions. I’ve tried many places and they end up taking me down some vortex towards a subscription with regurgitated advice. This sounds like the real deal, and I read each daily update with interest and enthusiasm

  23. I hate colors I am mad about the minimal palette painting. The hardest thing ever. I do not give up, fighting to achieve.
    Thanks for the precious adviceses.

  24. i really appreciate the way you do a painting analysis. They really help me with my paintings and the way I look at other artwork.

  25. Thank you for the great lesson and thank you for my introduction to Marie Bashkirtseff.
    I always look forward to your email with great anticipation.

  26. Thank you , I enjoyed this lesson and your teaching style , I am beginning to understand some of the principles you taught and this lesson brought clarity for me. The little girls face shows so much emotion with so little drama, amazing . I want to make her smile , give her a bin bon too, give her a hug . Who were her parents , why is she alone , what was her life , what happened to her .

  27. Your dialogue over all the lessons has been so helpful. It has made me pause and think about the significant differences in style, subject and techniques of different artists and the value of examining the many tones and variations that can be achieved by the use of a limited pallet and concentration on what it is one wants to bring attention to when painting. I am very grateful for your guidance over the weeks.
    Now to tackle the big problem of starting to paint on a completely blank sheet of paper.

  28. I am 70 years young! I am still excited about learning, especially about painting! Thank you for teaching! Love this painting, even more since you pointed out the details!!

  29. I love this painting! Thank you for sharing your insights, very helpful, as always. Yes, life is short, and painting helps us express ourselves, in a unique way. This painting arouses emotion and empathy, and brings us closer to the world of that period. Your tutorials are remarkable, thank you for sharing your love of painting with us.

  30. Until you pointed out all the various aspects of this painting, I would have just passed it over if it were in a gallery. You have made me more receptive to the artistic skills of this artist, (whom I’ve never heard of), thus I continue to gain more knowledge about art and artists. Again, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and understanding of all things ART.

  31. What a great article. Your observation is so skilled and makes that painting so much more to appreciate and study. I am desperate to learn more about portraiture and painting in general, and I leant so much from this article. Thank you

  32. What an interesting painting thanks to your wonderful notes Dan. At first glance it just looks like a sombre scene but you made it come alive. The girl’s face is painted so beautifully. Thank you Dan.

  33. I’m enjoying these blogs looking at works in detail, and learning a lot from them to incorporate myself. My main problem has always been overworking, too much detail. These tips are helping evolve myself. Thank you.

  34. Merci pour faire la connaissance avec une petite russe Masha. Beaucoup de talents et peu de temps à vivre. Elle nous a laissé quand même 150 tableaux! Merci pour un super analyse.

  35. Hi Dan, I’m consistently amazed by the forensic way you expose the details of a painting in all its simplicity or complexity. I need to work on my patience.

  36. It is a privilege to read all these viewers’ comments, but above all to read this valuable blog, so readable using an example that resonates. You are a clever, talented teacher, thank you very, very much for these insights, only hope they sink in!
    Best wishes Martin Williams from Sydney

  37. This painting by Marie is striking – thoughtful and makes you want to know more of the story behind it.
    It draws you into the world of the subject both by the soft yet almost empty look on the girls face. You realise that there is pain too great to speak of and thus the emotions are pushed down so far that it seems there is none. Its easier to numb oneself than to feel the pain. That numbness is also felt as cold, damp. Also the black of the umbrella draws one is as a shadow would.

    I also felt that this was a girl who met Maria’s eyes only for an instance before she looked away. It captures a split second where eyes meet and an acknowledgement is shared without a spoken word.

    ITs brilliant ! Thank you so much for sharing this !

  38. I am sure “Marie” would be thrilled, that her painting was being studied, in such a positive manner, so many years on. Thank you Dan.

  39. What a fabulous painting, especially by such a young (and female) artist.
    I have learnt a lot from your analysis of the painting.
    Appreciate your work and your generosity.
    Cheers from Oz.

  40. Thank you for a very inspiring analysis and breakdown of this picture.
    Interesting how you bring the explanation of the tones and ‘colours’ to bear in the overall composition and emotion of the picture.
    Many thanks

  41. Moltes gràcies per mostrar aquesta obra i acompanyar-la amb el vostre comentari. M’ajuda a fixar-me en els diferents aspectes que la formen. Molt interessant.

    • Hi Dan, thank you! Gorgeous painting and super clear and to the point breakdown. Great use of the image software as a tool to simplify the process. Please do more.

  42. Thank you for the best article I have read yet! The painting is superb and your explanation is perfect. I really enjoyed reading this, it all makes perfect sense.

  43. It’s so lovely to have found your site… you explain in language I understand and leave the creativity up to me. I find your “anything goes” approach so freeeing and yet I realise I really do need to understand before I can really paint with abandon. THANKYOU

  44. Dan … thank you so much for your careful attention to your teaching… you have a very distinct style and offer great insight that, at least, helps me direct my attention to subtleties in different works that I am intrigued with but may not be able to put my finger on why… I look forward to receiving your emails and although I am slowly moving through the lessons I am enjoying them all!!

  45. love the analysis. Couple things…well questions.
    when making decisions in a painting… like value changes or soft edges- not making the cheeks more rosy or making more of a distinct difference in coat color to inner umbrella- How and when does it become a difference in skill or a choice. Im not sure how to say what I mean. (as per usual) Sometimes I can look at a painting and just know its great even, if I don’t like it. if I were trying to paint the girl I feel like my tendency would be to try and do more color in her cheeks or more differentiation in coat to umbrella. (even if it was rainy). Also the umbrella, though probably looked that way -at first look, the hard edges seem a wonky shape – I might have tried to make it more “perfect looking” or the angles more pleasing. I think possibly that painters today have a harder time with such subtle choices, especially the only way people are viewing your work is on instagram and filters etc.

  46. I love an opportunity to learn something new. I shall apply this new knowledge -this analysis) to other works of art too.
    Thank you Dan.

  47. I read lots of blogs and other articles online and every one and a while I am inspired, by another artist I didn’t know about.
    Thank you Dan for introducing Marie Bashkirtsteff to me.

  48. Thanks, Dan, for your generous sharing of artistic insights, techniques, and inspirations. I’m 70 and finally have time to devote to art. I’m learning a great deal from your courses and blog posts.

  49. Thank you so much for these insights ! I learned so much ! I wish you would do this again . I’m not educated in art but I love learning !

  50. I found this to be an arresting painting as soon as I saw it, but your backgrounder on the artist & subject enhanced the charm, enigma, & pathos. This was also a great lesson that truly enabled us to see the use of various techniques in the painting. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge, Dan!

  51. What a magnificent painting and person this woman must have been. May she be smiling upon us all from Heaven! Thank you for your very interesting daily emails about painting. Awesome! God bless you!


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