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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Marie Bashkirtseff

In the Studio, 1881, Marie Bashkirtseff, the painting for
which she is probably most famous. She is seated
near the center, dressed in black, with her palette.
None of us knows how long we have to live. Some of us don't even like to think about such a morose topic. Those with a terminal illness, when told how long they have left, sometimes have as much trouble dealing with the near certainty of their "dying day" as they do the illness itself. Songwriters, philosophers, and theologians mouth the words, "one day at a time." For the young those words bear little meaning. They tend to think in terms of decades, today maybe even a century of relatively good health thanks to the miracles of modern medicine and public sanitation. Because of those blessings, twice in my own lifetime, I've been given a new lease on life. In today's world, when death does come, it's the province of emergency rooms, hospice homes, and funeral homes. As a result, some people go through all or most of their lives never having been intimately exposed to death. In previous centuries, however, virtually everyone over the age of thirty had been present at the death of a loved one. Life was not taken for granted; old age was the exception rather than the norm. Even babies and young children met with diseases and untimely deaths.
Seen here, young and quite attractive, Marie does not appear
at all to be near death.
Young Lady Wearing
Hat with a Blue Feather,
1878. Marie-Bashkirtseff
The Ukrainian painter, Marie Bashkirtseff was born in 1858. She died in 1884 at the age of twenty-five of tuberculosis. She may not have known the exact date when she would die, but she was painfully aware, during much of her life, that she was destined to die young. She was driven by two parallel goals, to become a famous artist, and if she was destined to die before achieving that end, to at least be remem-bered as a writer. Today, less than sixty of her paintings survive. Many were destroyed by the Nazis during WW II. Her depiction of the women's painting classes at the Acad-emie Julien in Paris (top) dating from 1881, and her The Meeting (below) from 1884, completed just months before her death in October of that year, are her two most memorable pieces. Tragically, most of her best work was done during the final two years just before she died. Had she lived a normal lifespan of the time, she might easily have met her initial goal as an artist before turning thirty.
The Meeting, 1884, Marie Bashkirtseff.
Reading, Marie Bashkirtseff
Despite having acquired the mak-ings of an outstanding painter at an early age, as seen in her por-trait, Young Lady Wearing Hat with a Blue Feather, (above, left), from 1878, and Reading (right), Marie Bashkirtseff did not meet her goal to become a famous artist. In the years following her death, and to some extent even today, Marie is best known for the diary she kept for twelve years, starting when she was only thir-teen. Though the figure at right is not a self-portrait, nor even a por-trait of any individual known today, it stands as a monument to her highly personal literary efforts.

Besides portraits, Marie was also adept and seasonal landscapes.
The 1889 edition.
The journal Bashkirtseff kept is what she is most famous for today. It has been called "a strikingly modern psychological self-portrait of a young, gifted mind." Her urgent words, occasionally become dialogue, remain extremely readable. She was multilingual and despite her self-involvement, she was also a keen observer of those around her and the society in which she lived. She was also gifted with an acute ear for hypocrisy. As a result, her journal also offers a near-novelistic account of the late nineteenth century European bourgeoisie. A consistent theme throughout her journal is her deep desire to achieve fame, combined with an increasing fear that her intermittent illnesses were symptoms of tuberculosis. In a section written toward the end of her life, she recounts her family history, then continues, "If I do not die young I hope to live as great artist; but if I die young, I intend to have my journal, which cannot fail to be interesting, published." In effect, the first half of Bashkirtseff's journal is a coming-of-age story while the second is an account of heroic suffering."

The Umbrella, 1883,
Marie Bashkirtseff
Bashkirtseff's journal was, indeed, pub-lished, first in 1887 some three years after her death. It was only the second diary by a woman ever published in France at the time. Moreover it was an immediate suc-cess. Its style was that of a cosmopolitan confessional. An English translation ap-peared two years later under the title Marie Bashkirtseff: The Journal of a Young Artist 1860-1884. In translation, it was heavily censored and abridged, her relatives see-ing to it that material they considered un-flattering to the family was removed. None-theless, Marie's book remained popular, eventually spinning off both plays and movies based on her life story. In 1938, an Italian language film, The Affairs of Mau-passant, made in 1935 and directed by Henry Koster, was released in the United States. The film focuses on a feud be-tween Guy de Maupassant and one of Bashkirtseff's teachers that led to a highly fictionalized romance between Bashkirtseff and de Maupassant.

A rather strong claim.
In more recent years, the original manuscript of Bashkirtseff‘s journal came to light in the National Library of France, and was found to have been abridged and censored by her family in its first editions. Her date of birth had been changed from 1858 to 1860 by her mother to make Bashkirtseff appear even more precocious. An unabridged edition of the com-plete journal, based on the original manuscript, has been published in French in 16 volumes, along with excerpts from the years 1873–76. Translated into English in 1997 and republished, the title was changed to: I Am the Most Interesting Book of All.

Carnival de Nice,
1882, Marie Bashkirtseff

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