Marie Bashkirtseff, a precocious writer and artist, died 150 years ago today (probably) in Paris. Her most important legacy is a collection of remarkable diaries, out of which her personality - vivacious, self-obsessed, ambitious - shines so brightly they are still re-translated and reprinted regularly. They also show her to have been an early advocate for women’s rights.
Bashkirtseff was born in Ukraine, although exactly when is not clear. (Wikipedia’s short biography fixes on 11 November 1858, and explains why). As a young girl she travelled widely in Europe with her mother, before settling in Nice, and then Paris, where she studied painting at the Académie Julian, one of the few establishments that took on female students. In just a few years she produced a large number of paintings, among the most famous of which are The Meeting (a portrait of slum children) and In the Studio (a portrait of fellow artists at work). But, in October 1884, aged only 25, she died of tuberculosis.
Bashkirtseff is also considered to have been an early feminist. This is partly because of the way she pushed herself into the art world, then dominated by men; and partly because of several articles she wrote under the name Pauline Oriel for a feminist newspaper, La Citoyenne. However it is her diary that provides most evidence for the way she struggled against the gender stereotypes of the age. This was published in France only three years after her death, and in England and the US in 1890. It caused a sensation. An article in the New York Times in 1900 (available online) begins as follows.
‘Most of our readers are probably familiar with the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff - that published diary of a young Russian woman which a dozen years ago was the talk of all Europe and America. Sensitive people were shocked at the freedom with which the girl’s soul was apparently laid bare. Cynics scoffed at her vanity, her egotism, and her conceit. Psychologists found in her a unique specimen for examination. Sentimentalists went raving over her strange cravings for the realisation of a sublime passion, which sometimes took the form of an ideal love and sometimes that of great fame. Men like Gladstone and Charles Eliot Norton, the statesman and the art critic, were among the first to recognise that Miss Bashkirtseff had been a most remarkable young woman. They saw revealed in the journal, as part of herself, a never-ending, never-satiated struggle against the commonplace, the inartistic, and the dwarfing provincialism that is too often mistaken for repose and dignity.’
This particular article goes on to explain how Marie’s mother censored the original diaries for publication, and to give some examples of ‘suppressed extracts’. A few days later, the New York Times published a further article about Marie, from a literary correspondent in London, William L Alden. He, it seems, did some research among those with whom Marie had studied at Académie Julian. She had great talent, and unlimited ambition, he says, but was ‘decidedly unpleasant’ in her attitude towards fellow students, and was even called an ‘hysterical minx’. Twenty years later, a further article in the New York Times records the death of Marie’s mother, and the finding of another diary in an old casket, and provides yet more extracts.
Bashkirtseff began writing her diary as a young teenager, and continued until 11 days before her death. There are over 106 notebooks. José H. Mito, in Argentina, who maintains a website lovingly devoted to her, gives a good history of the diaries and their publication (as well as much else besides). He says the complete manuscript was only discovered in 1964, in the French National Library, and that much had been left out of the earlier editions. Between 1991 and 2001, a complete version of the diaries were published in French in nine volumes and more than 3,000 pages. New editions of the diaries keep appearing in English also. One of the most successful in recent years was I Am the Most Interesting Book of All: The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. This was published by Chronicle Books in 1997 as a first volume, but there’s been no sign of a second volume (as far as I know).
The earliest editions of Bashkirtseff’s diary fell out of copyright many years ago, and some are available online - see The Diary Junction for links to these. Here, though, are some short samples from the diary, starting with a preface written by Bashkirtseff herself (they may, however, read very differently from modern translations).
‘Of what use were pretense or affectation? Yes, it is evident that I have the desire, if not the hope, of living upon this earth by any means in my power. 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. Perhaps this idea of publication has already detracted from, if not destroyed, the chief merit that such a work may be said to possess? But, no! for in the first place I had written for a long time without any thought of being read, and then it is precisely because I hope to be read that I am altogether sincere. If this book is not the exact, the absolute, the strict truth, it has no raison d’etre. Not only do I always write what I think, but I have not even dreamed, for a single instant, of disguising anything that was to my disadvantage, or that might make me appear ridiculous. Besides, I think myself too admirable for censure.’
20 November 1878
‘I looked all of a sudden so beautiful, after I had taken my bath this evening, that I spent fully twenty minutes admiring myself in the glass. I am sure no one could have seen me without admiration; my complexion was absolutely dazzling, but soft and delicate, with a faint rose tint in the cheeks; to indicate force of character there was nothing but the lips and the eyes and eyebrows. Do not, I beg of you, think me blinded by vanity: when I do not look pretty I can see it very well; and this is the first time that I have looked pretty in a long while. Painting absorbs everything. What is odious to think of is that all this must one day fade, shrivel up, and perish!’
25 June 1884
‘I have just been reading my journal for the years 1875, 1876, and 1877. I find it full of vague aspirations toward some unknown goal. My evenings were spent in wild and despairing attempts to find some outlet for my powers. Should I go to Italy? Remain in Paris? Marry? Paint? What should I strive to become? If I went to Italy, I should no longer be in Paris, and my desire was to be everywhere at once. What a waste of energy was there?
If I had been born a man, I would have conquered Europe. As I was born a woman, I exhausted my energy in tirades against fate, and in eccentricities. There are moments when one believes one’s-self capable of all things. ‘If I only had the time,’ I wrote, ‘I would be a sculptor, a writer, a musician!’
I am consumed by an inward fire, but death is the inevitable end of all things, whether I indulge in these vain longings or not. But if I am nothing, why these dreams of fame, since the time I was first able to think? Why these wild longings after a greatness that presented itself then to my imagination under the form of riches and honors? Why, since I was first able to think, since the time when I was four years old, have I had longings, vague but intense, for glory, for grandeur, for splendor?’