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Marie Bashkirtseff: A woman ahead of her time


Marie Bashkirtseff was born into a wealthy family in Russia in 1858, and spent her childhood travelling around Europe before settling in France. She studied painting at the Academie Julian (one of the few that accepted female students) and produced a considerable body of work before dying of tuberculosis at the tragically early age of 25. 

Marie Bashkirtseff painted in the style of realism and naturalism, which means her paintings can look somewhat conventional to the modern eye.  Figuring that her male colleagues had already cornered the market in painting rural idylls, she turned to urban scenes. Her great skill was in capturing the personality of her subjects, as seen in the paintings below. 

Self-portrait with a palette, 1880
A Meeting, 1884
The Umbrella, 1883

Additionally, from the age of 13 Marie kept a diary, and it was for this more than her painting that she was celebrated into the 20th century. Written in a time when women were expected to be submissive and modest, her diary shows Marie to be hugely ambitious and hard-working, free-thinking and rebelling against social constraints. She mixed in intellectual circles, and wrote articles for the feminist newspaper La Citoyenne. 

The diary was originally published in 1887, edited by her family to portray a positive image of Marie and her relatives. The discovery of the original diaries has allowed more complete versions to be released in recent years. The old version is available online at archive.org.  The new version is rather wonderfully titled I Am the Most Interesting Book of All. 


My first contact with Marie Bashkirtseff's work was in a travelling exhibition of women painters. On seeing her Portrait of Madame X, I had a sudden fashion epiphany (cue heavenly music). Staring at the brilliant eyes and enigmatic expression of the subject it struck me forcibly that clothes are just the frame to the face; that is the personality of the wearer that is most fascinating and important.

I still keep the postcard of this picture on my dressing table. Whenever I find myself fretting over what to wear, I give Madame X a wink, murmur "just the frame", and reach for something simple. 

Portrait of Madame X, c.1884
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