“A Study of Marie Bashkirtseff” (1892)

In Jules Bastien-LePage and His Art: A Memoir
Edited by André Theuriet
London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892

[NOTE: of the three essays Blind wrote on Marie Bashkirtseff, this one represents her most sustained discussion of Bashkirtseff as a painter. For Blind’s analysis of Bashkirtseff’s journal, see her “Introduction” to her 1890 translation of The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff.]

“A Study of Marie Bashkirtseff”: pp. 149-86

THE brilliant sunshine of a glorious October morning poured through the tall windows of Marie Bashkirtseff’s studio on my last visit to the Rue de Prony. This mellow light bathing her canvasses brought them out in fullest relief, and I had never had such a favourable opportunity of judging her work in its entirety. I was struck more than ever by the vigour and vitality of these studies, sketches, pastels, and pictures struck off at a white heat of mental production between the ages of seventeen and four and twenty. Hanging above the gallery which runs along one side of the wall were her first studies from life, which astonished Julian so much that he pronounced them phenomenal; here were her numerous sketches showing the sincerity of her efforts to be true to nature; and her finished pictures full of individuality and power.

As the eye rested on these portraits where the [150] key-note of character had been so unmistakably struck, on these bits of city life in their shabbier aspects, on these Paris street children with faces so prematurely sharpened or saddened, you became at once aware that this artist was a naturalist of the naturalists. Her chief object was to seize life — to seize the flying impression as she happened to see it; to render it with unflinching faithfulness to nature without any attempt at arrangement, composition, or beauty of treatment.

“Oh, to catch nature!”’ This is the cry of Marie Bashkirtseff, as it is the cry of Impressionism, as it was perhaps the cry of the primitive artist who with much labour and wrestling of the spirit modelled the first rude image of the lioness or painted the first likeness of an archer, bow in hand. Not quite the same, perhaps. For these early workers in clay or pigments saw nature with the eyes of children — those visionary eyes to which the leaves of the trees, the flowers of the field, the dogs and horses and cats and cows are as much part of the interminable fairy-tale in which they live as the more fantastic figures in more orthodox stories. For these primitive artists looked at the world with the eyes of children, and [151] though they looked at her with clear, wide-open eyes, they could not help seeing her symbolically, seeing the analogy between men and beasts, between beasts and plants, between the articulate and inarticulate phases of nature, so that whatever they produced not only stood for itself but for a host of subtly apprehended affinities linked together by imaginative insight into the mystery of things. And in tracing the development of this primitive style of art a little further, in following it to its legitimate development into the loftiest forms of Greek art, we cannot help seeing that it was the consummate flower of this archaic symbolism. With this difference, that while Egyptian, Assyrian, and Indian artists invented the most grotesque and fantastic forms to express the wonder and mystery of the world, the Greeks tried to find outward expression for that archetype of beauty which has as yet only existed in the mind of man.

. . . the artist’s own mind, unlike a photographic apparatus, would always intervene so as to force him to see life through the medium of his temperament.

And nature, plus the mind of man, plus that master faculty which refuses and chooses, and which reaches its highest results by making fresh combinations from what is widely diffused in nature: that, surely, is the secret of art. This faculty of selection and concentration, within the limits of some more or less conventional form, seems to belong to every manifestation [152] of art, which can never under any circumstances be a simple reproduction of nature. How can it, indeed, since, as Blake so pithily puts it: “A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees”? And we question whether any two people, any two painters would ever see precisely the same thing — the same tree, however hard they might try to free themselves from the bias of personality; or would succeed in giving us an identical pictorial representation of any subject whatsoever. For the artist’s own mind, unlike a photographic apparatus, would always intervene so as to force him to see life through the medium of his temperament. Indeed, will not the circulation of the artist’s blood, the pitch of his nerves, the thoughts he has thought and the emotions he has felt from the beginning of consciousness, have to be taken into account as factors in any individual painter’s picture of a tree or any other object? For this reason a picture can never be truly likened to a window opening on nature unless, indeed, it be a stained-glass window. On the contrary, the artist for the time being lends us his eyes to see nature with. And as the eyes of a Titian or a Turner saw combinations and harmonies of tones and tints whose magnificent effect entirely escapes the eyes of ordinary mortals, it [153] is much wiser to accept their interpretation than to go into hair-splitting discussions as to the precise exactitude of their copy to a reality which is eternally changing.

Take only the painters of the realistic modern French school — can we not tell at a glance, in going through the Louvre, whether it is nature according to Corot, to Rousseau, or to Millet that we are looking at? For whether the realists like it or no, the world will reflect itself in their brains according to the laws of their peculiar individuality, and the preciousness of all art expression seems precisely to consist in this rare flavour which the artist’s self impresses on nature outside himself. This priceless quality which we call style is as inseparable from the genuine artist as the shape of his nose. It clearly differentiates a peasant woman by Millet from any ordinary peasant woman we may chance on in a field, and is as marked in his simple pourtrayal of rustic subjects as in the most sublime compositions by Michael Angelo.

. . . the new scientific spirit which has revolutionized our views of nature, has also penetrated the realms of literature and art . . .

These few inadequate remarks may not be entirely out of place when speaking of the aesthetic views of our day; or of an artist who is peculiarly representative of them. For the new scientific spirit which has revolutionized our views of nature, has also penetrated [154] the realms of literature and art, and impelled artists to attempt a perfectly unprejudiced reproduction of life. For the present this has led them to a grim realism, which loves to dwell exclusively on the material side of existence, scouting the romantic and ideal as figments of man’s fancy to be relegated into the limbo of unrealistics along with the dragons and griffins of the world’s childhood. The same movement which has produced the extremely powerful but one-sided novels of De Goncourt, Zola, and Guy de Maupassant may also be studied in the works of the realistic French painters in their almost fierce insistence on what is natural even to the pitch of repulsiveness.

. . . she had the audacity to speak of the “cardboard pictures of Raphael” and the “stupid if glorious Venuses of Titian.”

Impressionism was in the air when Marie Bashkirtseff entered on her artistic career in 1877. It would amount to a truism to give any fresh account of her birth, parentage, and early life at this time. All the world has read her famous journal. All the world knows that she was born at Poltava, in the south of Russia, in I860. That her parents were separated after a few years of marriage; that her mother and aunt came to the West of Europe with the two children — Paul and Marie, and a cousin Dina; that they travelled about after the fashion of their [155] kind, afterwards settling down first at Nice, and later on in Paris. As Marie often bitterly laments, her education was carried on in a rather desultory fashion. But her faculty for acquiring knowledge was so surprising, her intellect so extraordinary, that she became an admirable linguist, a skilled musician, a splendid singer, a fair mathematician with a rapidity that seemed to amount to intuition. Her powers of observation had probably been much developed by all that she saw and heard on their travels. She had an early opportunity of seeing the master works of all time in Florence and Rome, and was an indefatigable frequenter of museums and picture galleries. At the age of fifteen, her judgment was already so independent that she had the audacity to speak of the “cardboard pictures of Raphael” and the “stupid if glorious Venuses of Titian.” She had never as yet lived in Paris, mixed with artists, or heard the talk of the Studios, yet in many respects she seems already a full-fledged art student, with the last phrase of the hour on her lips. Already she sought in pictures that scrupulous resemblance to nature which was her chief aim when she herself took to painting. But though deeply interested in art, it did not at that time occupy the chief place in her thoughts. Music attracted her [156] more, and the desire to be a singer was her greatest ambition. In fact, she laboured under the disadvantage of an embarras de richesses in regard to her natural gifts, and for several years she found it difficult to make a choice.

“I have sent you a monster.”

However, one day in October, 1877, there entered M. Julian’s now famous life-school in the Passage des Panoramas two very tall ladies, all in black, accompanied by a young girl dressed in pure white from head to foot, as if she were a lily of the field. This strange and striking trio made quite a sensation. M. Julian himself, with his happy picturesqueness of phrase in describing the first appearance of Marie Bashkirtseff in his studio, spoke of her as une blancheur — something bright and startling, which seemed to have little in common with the severe work-a-day routine of studio life. Nevertheless, she had come, accompanied by her mother and aunt, to be entered as a pupil; and in the letter which she brought him from an eminent physician, he found this curt word by way of introduction: “I have sent you a monster.”

All this was very unlike the usual order of things. But it was there and then settled that Marie Bashkirtseff was to attend his classes, and every morning found [157] her duly at place, working away as if her life depended upon it. At first, her master took this wish to paint for the caprice of a spoilt child, which would soon pass when confronted by the difficulties of execution. Before long, however, he recognized his mistake; he felt that she was a power; that there was something which lifted her out of the ranks and placed her apart among her fellow pupils. Something which gave to her first efforts, however crude and tentative, a vigour and spontaneity which were truly astonishing. And he discovered, too, that so far from playing at art she was in deadly earnest. Instead of being less regular in her attendance than the other art students, she flung herself into her work with the passionate zeal of an enthusiast. Morning, noon, and night found her either at her easel, or else taking private lessons in anatomy and modelling, or haunting sales and picture galleries — always, on the alert to improve herself. Indeed, Julian found her a little monster of energy, of talent, of ambition, of concentrated will. Whatever she took into her head to do, she did and accomplished the seemingly impossible.

. . . her characteristic qualities — masterly vigour of drawing, and a vivid and striking manner of painting human faces.

In a surprisingly short time she had mastered the elements of art, and her studies from the nude were considered wonderful by her masters. By the [158] intensity of her attention and fever of work joined to her native endowment she managed after only two years of study to produce a picture of a woman reading, which was hung in the Salon. It evinces all her characteristic qualities — masterly vigour of drawing, and a vivid and striking manner of painting human faces. Her extreme sensitiveness to impressions gave her a peculiar facility for catching likenesses and bringing out the salient and personal traits in her models.

After some few years devoted to painting in the studio, Marie Bashkirtseff began to feel very unhappy about her work as a colourist. It fell so far below her own standard as to plunge her into fits of despair. In the midst of this profound dissatisfaction, in the autumn of 1881, she went to Spain, and there she seemed to awaken to a new sense — for the first time to awaken to the full, glorious significance of colour in the painter’s sense.

Velasquez and Goya opened her eyes, . . .

In reading those pages of her journal which describe the picturesque Moorish palaces, the gloomy Gothic cathedrals, the dark, crooked streets with their groups of gipsies and the treasures of art stored away in museums and churches, it seems as if they were illumined by a mellower light than the rest of the [159] book. Velasquez and Goya opened her eyes, and she “raised herself on tiptoe,” as she says, to master the secret of their unique method. Day after day she steeped herself in those glowing canvasses, and on her return to Paris she began to reap the benefit of this enthusiastic absorption. Soon afterwards she painted The Umbrella, in which she made a great leap forward.

The Plein Air movement of the painters was precisely the same as that which Zola inaugurated in literature.

Her method and style of painting now placed her definitely in the same school to which Bastien-Lepage belonged, or of which he was the master. It was the school which said: “We will let the open air into our pictures. Let us paint light just as it is out of doors, not the artificial studio effects from north aspects and skylights.” The Plein Air movement of the painters was precisely the same as that which Zola inaugurated in literature. It was nature taking the citadel of art by storm — at least, what these particular men and artists understood by nature.

At the head of this school stood Bastien-Lepage, the young painter who so early became what the French call Chef d’École. His pictures taken fresh from the country — his Haymakers, and Harvesters, and Potato Gatherers, and Rustic Lovers filled Marie Bashkirtseff with boundless delight. “He is not [160] only a painter,” she says, “he is a poet, a psychologist, a metaphysician, a creator.” His perfect imitation of nature, the quality which ranked highest in her judgment, was beyond all praise in her eyes.

Many of the French critics called her the pupil of Bastien. But she had of course never been his actual pupil, having been trained in quite a different school, and it always gave her much annoyance to be called so, But in spite of the striking contrast between the origin and early associations of these two young painters they were singularly alike in their love of realism, their early fame, and premature end.

. . . Marie, this offspring of Tartar nobles, with savage instincts lying like half-tamed wild beasts in the background of her consciousness.

Look, on the one hand, at Marie, this offspring of Tartar nobles, with savage instincts lying like half-tamed wild beasts in the background of her consciousness. She was descended from owners of lands and serfs, and the instinct of command, the pride of power, the love of all things splendid became part of her inheritance. She was the idol of two women, her “two mothers,” who, in her master Julian’s incisive phrase, “would have burned down Paris to please her, or had themselves cut into a thousand pieces to satisfy one of her caprices.” Nature had endowed her with such lavish gifts that her very talents turned into a stumbling-block, [161] threatening to divert her efforts into too many channels. Music, literature, sculpture, the stage, were successively the goal of her ambition; and each one of these arts was in her eyes only the means to an end — the one burning desire for fame. However, as the deep meaning of work, of the artist’s simple and disinterested absorption in what he is fashioning, became familiar to her she began to forget herself more and more in the things she did. Her devotion to art, her love and delight in it, grew steadily with her increasing mastery over its technical difficulties. She says truly: “Outside of my art, which I commenced from caprice and ambition, which I continued out of vanity, and which I now worship; outside of this passion — for it is a passion — there is nothing.”

Little by little — with many outcries, it is true, and kickings against the traces — Marie Bashkirtseff had begun to discover that there is no royal road to art. That to him only is given who is ready, also, to give up much. She found out that however great her natural gift might be, it would remain a diamond in the rough, unless she regularly applied herself to the task of acquiring technical mastery. After some years’ intense but interrupted application she would [162] have admitted that no work of first-rate talent can be produced without the expenditure of as much courage, perseverance, and self-control as might have made a hero. For, as Schumann truly says: “The laws of morality are also the laws of art.”

What a widely different lot was that of Bastien-Lepage. He, the son of French peasant proprietors, came of people who are perhaps the most thrifty and industrious class in existence: people punctual to their daily task as the sun himself in his rising and down-going; clinging to the soil they till with the tenacity of rocks and trees; working much and wanting little, asking no joy of life except rest.

Just as Marie’s parents lived apart in painful disunion, those of Bastien were united by the tenderest family affection. The shrewd, caustic, clear-headed old grandfather — a sort of village Nestor — the thoughtful father, the devoted mother, were helpful influences which unobtrusively helped in developing Bastien’s faculties. He began to draw as naturally as another child learns to talk; and his father, noticing his aptitude, very wisely set him to copy some object or other every evening from the age of five. Country life, with its primitive simplicity and its regular succession of daily tasks, sank deeply if [160] unconsciously into the little fellow’s mind: it sank as the seed does, without question or self-analysis, to bide its time in silence and shoot up strong and vigorous when the appointed hour had come. Bastien probably never asked himself whether he should be a painter, a poet, a psychologist, or metaphysician. He became one very likely because he could not help painting. And I suppose he never asked himself whether in his pursuit of art he was sacrificing something that might be more precious. But he was not dazzled and enchanted by the sight of Italian cities and Carnival festivities and ball-room flirtations. Toil and hardship were the rule of life around him, and in his love for art he was willing to undergo any amount of it. Instead of rushing in express trains from Berlin to St. Petersburg and from St. Petersburg to Paris, he remained stationary in his low-roofed country home, seeing the same round of occupation going on year after year: the labourer following the plough ; the haymakers in the mowing grass with the light beating on their sun-burnt faces, or stretched in the shade of full-leaved trees in the luxury of repose; reapers reaping the orange-coloured corn; summer evening in the village, with the cattle coming home to their stalls, as [164] their shadows deepen on the bright green meadows. Such were the impressions which graved themselves always afresh on the lad’s receptive memory, to turn themselves one day into those pictures of rural life which may truly be called “the harvest of a quiet eye.”

Though Bastien-Lepage’s lot — who had to make his living by turning post-office clerk while studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts — may appear so much harder than that of Marie Bashkirtseff, it was in reality more favourable to the development of an artist. For, according to Goethe, “Character is formed by contact with the world, while talent develops in seclusion.” Marie Bashkirtseff, with her penetrating intelligence, was quite aware of this. She, for whom nothing was ever sufficiently fine, would sometimes quite seriously envy her fellow-students’ their poverty, their humble way of life, their cares and hard work shared in common in a Paris garret. A stern necessity seemed to lend dignity to their art work, while hers was so often patted on the back by her fashionable friends as the pastime of a charming young Mondaine.

I was particularly fortunate this year in finding in Marie Bashkirtseff’s studio a picture by [165] Bastien-Lepage, L’Annociation au Bergers, which he painted in 1875 to compete for the Prix de Rome. It was interesting to compare these two artists in their likeness in unlikeness. The same uncompromising realism applied in different ways, and the same power of catching expression and pinning it down as you would a butterfly without losing any of the delicate shades. This picture of a “far-off, divine event” is treated by Bastien-Lepage in a surprisingly naturalistic way, and yet without sacrificing that mystical element which sometimes belongs to the simplest aspects of life. Here is none of that conventional treatment of religious subjects against which Marie rebelled in those “old dusky pictures in the Louvre.” Here was real atmosphere, there were real shepherds, rough, homely, unsophisticated men, brown as the soil; and yet, in spite of the reality, this picture gave you a sense of unfamiliar awe. Sitting there in the twilight before the fire lit in the open air, they seem to have been more or less overcome by drowsiness.

The first, an old man, an expressive, rugged figure, has bowed his head in adoration and is kneeling before the angel whose sudden apparition has taken the shepherds by surprise. Bewildered and amazed the second leans forward with gaping mouth and [166] outstretched hands as if to assure himself by touch of the reality of what he sees. Hardly able to rouse himself from sleep the third one sits huddled together in the distance. It is as true as can be to simple shepherd life. The apparition itself has nothing supernatural. It might be purely human with only the angel light of tenderness beaming from the face. The grace of the figure is suggestive of the “eternally feminine” as the celestial messenger shows the shepherds the way to Bethlehem visible in the distance by the luminous haze encircling it like a halo.

This picture with its effect of gloaming light is an idyl of shepherd life. It breathes that simplicity of nature which invests the calling of the herdsman, the ploughman, the mower, the reaper, with the poetry of primitive existence. I shall never forget the impression once produced on me by a Highland shepherd and his flock slowly winding along the solitary road of an upland moor. The long white line of the wavering sheep with that sombre figure of the solitary shepherd was thrown into relief by the smouldering purple of the barren hillsides. It was a scene which seemed to carry one back to remote ages. Even so in the mythic East might the flocks and their shepherds [167] have passed along similar roads in the vast silence of deepening twilight. This same feeling of nearness given to what is dimly remote appeared to me one of the chief attractions of Bastien-Lepage’s work.

Her pictures were imbued with the atmosphere of Paris — those delicate, pearly greys which strike one as its keynote of colour.

As Bastion by the country, so is Marie Bashkirtseff inspired by the town. The boulevards and squares of Paris became to her what the hay and harvest-fields had been to Lepage. Her pictures were imbued with the atmosphere of Paris — those delicate, pearly greys which strike one as its keynote of colour. She caught that misty light which you see clinging to masses of architecture as you look from one of the bridges along the blue-grey Seine to the picturesque old Cité with the iron-grey towers of Notre Dame outlined against the clouded azure above. Effects of roofs and clusters of buildings half seen through the confusing haze of early morning; drab-coloured walls enlivened by black and white placards and the flashy tints of rival advertisements; narrow streets with masses of shadow emphasizing the value of light on wall and pavement — these became the dominant note in Marie Bashkirtseff’s work as a colourist.

Her subjects, too, are usually taken from the everyday life of the French capital as you may meet it round every street corner. The blouse of the artisan, the [168] cap of the milliner, the rags of the gamin appeared better adapted to Marie Bashkirtseff for pictorial treatment than the thousand freaks of fashion with which society annually delights to astonish the world. As a painter she preferred the Boulevard de Batignolles or Avenue Wagram to the Champs Elysees and the Bois de Boulogne. The faces of weary people sitting on public benches casually seen in passing or caught sight of across the counter of a shop had hints and suggestions of meaning which she missed in the sleek features of the swells whom she met in the drawing-rooms of her friends.

The faces of these little boys and girls, so pathetic in their premature maturity, in their shrewd or sad or pathetic outlook on the world, are extraordinary in their truth to life.

So it happens that instead of painting the pretty, neat, carefully brushed children marshalled by stately bonnes in the Pare Monceaux, she chose in preference the unkempt ragamuffins running wild in the streets. She found more scope there for the exercise of that scrupulous and powerful realism which was the secret of her strength. In the Jean and Jacques, The Girl with the Umbrella, Le Meeting, she has vividly rendered some of the incidents in the town life of children. The faces of these little boys and girls, so pathetic in their premature maturity, in their shrewd or sad or pathetic outlook on the world, are extraordinary in their truth to life. With most of [171] the childhood taken out of their childish features, they look at us, if we consider them well, with eyes where experience has already taken the place of innocence — the experience taught them by the teeming streets, those hooks of the poor, forever unfolding fresh pages before their inquisitive eyes.

They cannot be called beautiful, these pictures, in the sense that fine forms, nobility of outline, charm of expression are beautiful. But they are interesting, vivid, quick with life. Take that little piteous figure clutching the big, gamp-like umbrella, while she draws her battered shawl more closely around her. With what a look of stolid, inarticulate suffering she seems looking through the rain on the life that is dark and dreary as the prospect before her. You see the hair actually blown back from the forehead, and one mesh has got caught round the handle of the umbrella as she meets the force of the wind with tight-shut lips — a humble subject, but remarkable for the solidity of its handling. Indeed there is a Holbeinesque quality in the vigour of the drawing and the truth of the pose.

Jean et Jacques, the picture of two boys, of seven and four years old, is an equally striking work. They stand so naturally on their legs, these little fellows, [172] their attitudes are so unstudied, their expressions so admirably true to life. The eldest has already that responsible look which the offspring of the poor acquire so early. With his cap at the back of his head, a shabby umbrella tacked under his right arm, he steps along in his clumsy boots with the resolute air of a little man; the handkerchief tied cravat-wise, but all on one side, the leaf stuck between the lips as a make-believe cigar, show Marie Bashkirtseff’s close observation of the ways of his kind. With one hand he grips the unwilling Jacques, dawdling obstinately on his way to school, while with the other in his pocket he pensively fingers the seductive marbles that invite him to play.

Le Meeting, her most important work, is a fine, powerfully painted, vividly realized picture. Just a group of Paris gamins met in council at a street corner, discussing the use to which a piece of string is to be applied, with the excitement of stockbrokers buying and selling shares on the steps of the Bourse. It is a triumph of realism. The faces speak, the limbs are informed with life; it seems as if any moment their legs and arms might begin to move quite naturally. There is nothing conventional about these figures, so fresh in their unstudied attitudes and gestures. These faces, bathed in the pale air of a [173] Paris back street, breathe quite as much of town life as the discoloured walls and palings in the background. How pert, how Parisian, how wide-awake they are, with their thin, sharp-edged features and their gimlet eyes which allow nothing to escape them. The biggest of the six, with his back to the spectator, is eloquently holding forth to his intently listening comrades, even as he may one day hold forth to quite a different kind of audience, when, after due graduation in the philosophy of rags, he shall begin to practise the lessons which the stony streets have taught him. Quite a different lesson from that which Bastien-Lepage’s shepherds have learnt on the hillsides of the wooded Meuse. The execution of this picture, hung in a place of honour at the Luxembourg, is extremely good. There is a genuine feeling for colour in the grey and sombre tones in harmony with the nature of the subject. The open-air effect is happily caught, and the faces stand out in brilliant light. The powerful realism, scrupulous technique, and excellence of the painting, make a great success of Le Meeting, and it is a performance which at once secured a wide recognition for Marie Bashkirtseff, not only in artistic circles, but from the general public. Marie loved to recall Balzac’s questionable [174] definition that the genius of observation is almost the whole of human genius. It was natural it should please her, since it was the most conspicuous of her many gifts. As we might expect, therefore, she was especially successful as a portrait painter, for she has a knack of catching her sitter’s likeness with the bloom of nature yet fresh upon it. She seems to me equally good in her men and women and children, the contrast of many of her heads showing the range and variety of her power. Her portraits are noticeable for that absence of family likeness which is often seen even in the works of great painters, as if the artist had some ideal head before his mind’s eye to which he was unconsciously trying to assimilate the faces of his models.

All her likenesses are singularly individual, and we realize their character at a glance.

Marie Bashkirtseff’s impressionable nature was a safeguard in that respect. All her likenesses are singularly individual, and we realize their character at a glance. Look, for example, at her portrait of a Parisian swell, in irreproachable evening dress and white kid gloves, sucking his silver-headed cane, with a simper that shows all his white teeth, and then at the head and bust of the Spanish convict, painted from life at the prison in Granada. Compare that embodiment of fashionable vacuity with this face, [175] whose brute-like eyes haunt you with their sadly stunted look. What observation is shown in the painting of those heavily-bulging lips, which express weakness rather than wickedness of disposition — in those coarse hands engaged in the feminine occupation of knitting a blue and white stocking. Again, take those three heads expressive of different kinds of laughter. And nothing is perhaps more difficult than to paint laughing or singing faces: the open mouth being apt to give a foolish, strained, and unnatural look to the face. But Marie Bashkirtseff evinces great skill in painting a natural effect of laughter. The little smiling boneless baby face is a delightfully realistic study of an infant, and equally good is that of the pert little girl whose mouth bubbles over with a child’s artless laugh. Much more knowing is the wicked laughter of the young woman with the stylish hat and bunch of violets fastened coquettishly in her sealskin cape. She surely must be laughing at somebody — at some lovelorn swain, whose antics make all her features twitch with amusement.

One of Marie Bashkirtseff’ s first portraits, and an admirably painted one, is that of her cousin Dina. It was her first work exhibited at the Salon, and shows a young woman with her elbow [176] resting on a table and her face in her hand. Her loose gown of light bine damask, white muslin fichu and soft, pale golden hair harmonize very happily with the green plush of the table-cover, the white of the book, and the flowers beside the bare arm. The delicate flesh tints of a buxom blonde are admirable in tone, and the face extremely characteristic. It has the unmistakable Tartar type in the low brow, slightly oblique eyes, flattened nose, and broad lips with their expression of sensuous indolence. Here there is nothing of that vivacious charm which is so marked an element in the portrait of Mdlle. de Canrobert. This sketchy portrait looks as if the painting had been done at the first stroke. The round hat, the well-fitting clothes, the plants in the background seem dashed in with the facility of a master. The face sparkles at us from the canvas as if about to utter a witticism. This cleverly-painted figure is all life, all movement, and in its style of treatment and freedom of pose is suggestive of Mr. Whistler’s manner.

Her portrait of herself, palette in hand, painted in the last year of her life, is extremely interesting. It is a three-quarters length, and she is standing looking straight in front of her with a harp a little [177] behind to the left. She is done in that becoming black studio uniform with the broad white frills and jabot which has been so often described, and the gown fits as if moulded on the body. Her deep blonde hair, thickly coiled on the top of the head, ends in a fringe over her forehead. Her features are more refined and spiritual than we know them from the photographs. It seems as if the invisible presence of death had already laid a finger on her fair body and lined it down to a greater delicacy and had given that expression of questioning pathos to the profound wide-open eyes.

It is not possible here to enumerate all her portraits, admirable as many of them are. Her likenesses of Mdlle. Armandine, of a Parisienne, of Prince Bojidar Karegeorgevitch, of Georgeth, and of Mdme. Paul Bashkirtseff, have the same convincing ail of intense realism which she adored in Bastien-Lepage’s works of that kind. The enthusiastic words, full of light and colour, in which she describes his portraits, might in many an instance he applied to her own without exaggeration.

Not to be overlooked are some of her landscapes and townscapes, if one might be allowed to coin such a word. There is an extremely good little picture [178] of a portion of a street near the Rue Ampere. A plot of fenced-in building ground gives it a dismally unfinished look. The houses and walls behind, seen through a pale morning mist, are bathed in an atmosphere, whose grey tones are delicately touched with pink. Two heavy cart-horses are standing at rest in the bit of waste ground, in the centre of which a flame of fire shoots up from a rubbish heap — a spot of brilliant colour amid the general dimness. This is just a finely felt, finely rendered impression.

As characteristic and full of atmosphere is the study of a landscape in autumn — a long, straight avenue, with the look of trees about to lose their foliage. Wan clouds, waning light, withering leaves blending their tones in a harmony of grey in grey. The mournfulness of the misty avenue is like a feeling in the air. A mood of nature has been caught which corresponds to a mood of the human mind. The sense of desolation, decay, and impending death seems to breathe from the canvas, as from some actual presence, which though unseen, is nonetheless there. I cannot help thinking that the artist’s own state must, by some subtle process, have literally passed into her canvas. How intensely Marie Bashkirtseff had identified herself with this picture is shown by [179] Julian’s remark on meeting her just alter she had painted it. Without knowing the subject she had been at work upon, he exclaimed, “What have you been doing with yourself? Your eyes look full of the mists of autumn.”

I have only picked out the most important of her works here, but there are many more — bold designs, original little sketches, studies of all kinds, with always a characteristic touch of expression.

The sardonic humour conveyed by the contrast of this fair young woman in her fresh exuberance of form facing the skeleton with a challenging attitude is an unparalleled piece of audacity for a young girl to have painted.

There is that dare-devil sketch of a nude model sitting astride on a chair looking at the skeleton, between the lips of which she has stuck a pipe while waiting for the artist. The sardonic humour conveyed by the contrast of this fair young woman in her fresh exuberance of form facing the skeleton with a challenging attitude is an unparalleled piece of audacity for a young girl to have painted. It is especially good, too, as an arrangement of colour, and shows perhaps more originality of invention than anything else this artist did. The Fisher with Rod and Line is an interesting study of a brown Nicois with the deep blue sea-water below. And last, not least, there is the unfinished sketch for the picture of The Street by which she was so completely engrossed only a few weeks before her death. The [180] background of houses, the bench with the people sitting back to back in various attitudes expressive of weariness, destitution, or despair — one with his head hidden by his arm leaning on the back of the seat, another with crossed legs staring straight before him with the look of one for whom there is no more private resting-place than this — all these half-finished figures, even when only consisting of a few scratches, are as true to every-day life as can be. But when all the preliminary studies for this characteristic picture were done, when the canvas had been placed and all was ready, the artist found but one thing missing, and that, alas, was herself!

Though all the work accomplished by Marie Bashkirtseff is strictly modern and realistic, the dream of her last years was to paint a great religious picture. The subject was to be the two Maries mourning beside the tomb of Christ. She imagined these women not as they had hitherto been represented by the old masters, but as forlorn outcasts, wayworn and weary, the “Louise Michels” of their time, shunned of all pharisaic, respectable folk. They were to embody the utmost depth of love and grief. Her descriptions of this picture that was to be, as given in her journal, are highly suggestive and [181] poetical. The figures of these women — one standing, the other in a sitting posture — would have shown in their pose and attitude different phases of sorrow. The woman on the ground abandoning herself to the violence of unrestrained mourning; the other as rigid as a statue, as if in confirmation of Mrs. Browning’s line, “I tell you hopeless grief is passionless.” Only a few inadequate sketches, however, are left of this pictorial vision in which the crescent moon was described as floating in an ensanguined sunset sky above a waste dark with the coming night.

This word-picture never took shape in line and colour. But it haunts you with a suggestion of lofty possibilities to be reached by Marie Bashkirtseff as an artist had she only lived to carry out her conceptions. And as the poet declares “songs unheard” to be sweeter than any that we may ever hear, so it is with this unpainted picture as compared to the painted ones; for, remarkable as her work is, it is to a great extent remarkable as having been done by so young a girl after only a few years of study. It is as a promise even more than a performance that it claims our admiration.

There is a marked race-likeness between her work and that of other eminent Russian painters and novelists.

As we already know, Marie Bashkirtseff belongs to the modern French school of naturalists, more [182] particularly to that branch of it of which Bastien-Lepage was the most representative man. But her work is not exclusively French. There is in it also a pronounced Russian element. There is a marked race-likeness between her work and that of other eminent Russian painters and novelists. Matthew Arnold’s definition of the Russian nature in his article on Count Leo Tolstoi might with very little alteration be applied to Marie Bashkirtseff herself. “Russian nature,” he says, “as it shows itself in the Russian novel, seems marked by an extreme sensitiveness, a consciousness most quick and acute, both for what the man’s self is experiencing and also for what others in contact with him are thinking and feeling. He finds relief to his sensitiveness in letting his perceptions have perfectly free play, and in recording their reports with perfect fidelity. The sincereness with which the reports are given has even something childlike and touching. . . .”

This was ever Marie Bashkirtseff ‘s paramount aim, both as a painter and writer, to make a perfectly faithful report of nature, of human nature and what is external to it — to give a living picture of gesture and manner as well as of thought and feeling — in short, to produce human documents. Her mind and [183] temperament, happily for her, were in touch with the times. For the specially Russian alertness to impressions and its genius for recording them has also become the mark of the latest phase of European art. And Marie Bashkirtseff took to it as if to the manner born (as indeed she was), rather than in imitation of the modern French style, or of Bastien-Lepage in particular.

In realizing this dominant quality, one wonders how it had fared with this impressionable artist if, instead of being surrounded by Parisian influences, she had lived in her native land, the South of Russia. Supposing she, with her intense receptivity, had imbibed those primitive aspects of life still to be found amid the remoteness of the Steppe? Faithful to what lay around her, Marie has painted dreary houses blurred by mist, waifs and strays of the Paris boulevards, unlovely children in unlovely rags. The critic who blames her preference for what is ugly and sordid does not do so without cause. But when he asks why she does not paint the elegances by which she is surrounded, she replies on her part, “Where, then, shall I find any movement, any of that savage and primitive liberty, any true expression?”

That natural movement and primitive liberty she [184] could certainly not expect in Paris high-life. But in the Ukraine she might have found it without admixture of ugliness; she might have been inspired by its coquettish villages gleaming white amid orchards; by the robust and handsome peasantry still clad in their picturesque national garb. What splendid models a realist like herself would have had to paint from in those well-shaped peasant girls, whose movements had never been hampered by anything more artificial in the way of clothes than an embroidered chemise and a petticoat reaching no further than the ankles. Here she would still have met something of the “savage and primitive liberty” which her soul longed for preserved in many an old Cossack custom and village rite. Still more so in the aspects of primitive nature — in the boundless expanse of the Steppe, “that green and golden ocean” as Gogol calls it, “variegated by an infinite variety of iridescent tints.” What a virgin soil for an artist in love with nature! What new types! What splendid opportunities for the expression of beauty in form and colour! Perhaps it is idle to speculate on such possibilities, but it seems as if Marie Bashkirtseff might have produced work of a much higher order had her astonishing gift for recording impressions  [185] found impressions more pictorially attractive to record; had she lived in an atmosphere bathed in an ampler light, amid a population still partial to the display of brilliant colours in their dress. However that might have been will never be known now.

There is a passage in her Journal where, speaking of the sacrifices which art exacts, she says she has given up more for it than Benvenuto Cellini when he burn his costly furniture; indeed, it was her life itself which she gave. To quote her own striking words: “Work is a fatiguing process, dreaded yet loved by line and powerful natures, who frequently succumb to it. For if the artist does not fling himself into his work as unhesitatingly as Curtius did into the chasm at his feet, or as the soldier leaps into the breach, and if when there he does not toil with the energy of the miner beneath the earth, if, in short, he stays to consider difficulties instead of overcoming them like those lovers of fairyland who triumph over ever fresh difficulties to win their princesses, his work will remain unfinished and die still-born in the studio. The general public may not understand, but those who are of us will find in these lines a stimulating lesson, a comfort, and an encouragement.”

Marie Bashkirtseff’s work, unfortunately for as, [186] was left unfinished, but it has not died still-born in the studio. It is astonishingly alive. More alive today than on the day it was painted, and resembles that plant of basil which throve so luxuriantly, rooted in a dead man’s brain. For the energies of her glowing vitality are now alive in her pictures.