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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.