Turning the pages back...
November 11, 1860
As the writer Vincent Cronin put it, a "Romantic" (class 19th century version) was someone who was "imaginative by temperament and given to seeing life in terms of poetry and, particularly, novels ... which extol adventure, energy, struggle, genius and love with someone of another land or class."
Maria Bashkirtseva (more widely known as Marie Bashkirtseff) was one of four women Cronin used to cast his mold, in his neo-Victorian tract "The Romantic Way." For her part, Simone de Beauvoir, in her feminist treatise "The Second Sex," condemned Bashkirtseva as a "narcissist."
Maria Bashkirtseva was born on November 11, 1860, on an estate in Havrontsi, near Poltava, to a family of Russified Ukrainian gentry - a general's effete son and a mother (related to the ruling Romanov family and thus fabulously wealthy) whose "three passions in life [were] cigars, roulette and Marie," as Cronin wrote. The date of birth is a matter of some confusion. Some contend she was born November 23.
At some point in the mid-1860s, Maria's mother tired of her husband's infidelities and moved off with her two children to her parents' estate near Cherniakhivka in the Okhtyrka district near Kharkiv. In 1870, upon the death of her maternal grandfather, Madame Babanine (as Maria's mother sometimes preferred to call herself) left for the Crimea with her daughter and then, by way of Odesa and Vienna, to Nice, France, where they settled (or at least set up residence) in a villa on La Promenade des Anglais.
There, raised in a house hung with Italian masters and afforded expert tutoring, Maria read Plutarch, Dante, Ariosto and Shakespeare, as well as novels by Dickens, Dumas, Hugo and Walter Scott.
At the age of 12 she began to keep a diary that would make her famous - she recorded her thoughts, moods, loves, flirtations, as well as impressions of the music, art, architecture, customs, dress and cuisine of the many cities and environs she visited - including the Poltava region of her birth, as well as Kyiv and Kharkiv. Unabashed and full of life, she wrote, "I am my own heroine."
In 1920, H.L. Mencken wrote his essay "In Defense of Women": "it is very rarely that a Marie Bashkirtsev ... lets down the veils which conceal the acro-amatic doctrine of the other sex."
Precociously realizing she could not marry into Europe's elite without her father by her mother's side to keep up appearances, Maria returned to Ukraine in 1876 to retrieve him, and was aggressively courted by the Ukrainian magnate Hryts Myloradovych, but rebuffed him.
Back in Nice in 1877, Count Larderal, a roué object of Marie's affections offered to marry her (greedily seeking her dowry), but her mother blocked the match. Thus discouraged, Bashkirtseva turned to drawing in her journals, and prevailed upon her mother to acquire an apartment on the Champs Elysées in Paris and enroll her at the prestigious Atelier (later known as the Académie) Julian.
Rudolphe Julian became her mentor, even a substitute father figure. In 1880, he encouraged her to submit one of her paintings to the Salon, the main annual exhibition in Paris. When finished, it was accepted, and in her ecstasy Bashkirtseva wrote in her diary that she wanted to become "the Balzac of painting." Tragically, later that year she contracted tuberculosis.
In the chronology of her translation of Bashkirtseva's diary, Katherine Kernberger notes: "1880 Prince Soutzo asks Marie to marry him [declined]. Exhibits at the Salon, 'The Divorce Question.' Cure at Mont Doré. Open air studies. Becomes a republican and feminist."
When doctors' cures for the lung ailment proved unsuccessful, the entire family embarked on a pilgrimage to Kyiv in July 1881, with even the usually feckless father joining the group in prayer, but unfortunately a visit to the Pecherska Lavra likely made her condition worse.
Back in Paris, doctors forbade her to return to the Atelier, and suggested that she winter in a warmer climate. A brief sojourn in Spain brought Bashkirtseva face to face with the works of Velázquez, which made a strong impression on her. It also improved her health. She returned to work at the Atelier and painted a self-portrait that currently hangs in the Musée de Nice.
In January 1882 set another profound influence - the rough-hewn painter Jules Bastien-Lepage. She also boldly began to correspond with writers - Alexandre Dumas, Fils and Guy de Maupassant. Cronin laughingly dismisses her efforts, writing that they dramatize "the dilemma of the Romantic living in the age of realism."
In 1883, both her new friend and mentor and she fell gravely ill. Maria's consumption caused partial deafness and her coughing grew much worse. Bastien Lepage, whose works were destined to hang in the Louvre, was stricken with stomach cancer.
Maria soldiered on, earning still greater acclaim. "Le Meeting," a painting of a group of street urchins was widely praised in the press in early 1884. By September however, she had grown too weak to sit at an easel, and on October 20 she recorded her last entry in her diary. Maria Bashkirtseva died at her family's apartment in Paris on October 31, 1884.
She was buried in the Passy cemetery in the City of Lights, and the Byzantine dome on the chapel in her memory, designed by Emile Bastien-Lepage (Jules's brother), stands there to this day.
Respecting her daughter's wishes, Mme. Babanine-Bashkirtseva arranged for a selection of the diaries to be published in 1887, with a collection of the departed artist's letters appearing in 1902. A comprehensive, unexpurgated version has yet to appear in print, and none has in Ukrainian.
She influenced the writings of Maurice Barres, Pierre Borel, Anatole France and Guy de Maupassant. Even Mr. Cronin conceded: "Perhaps no one since Boswell had so bared motives and longings... It was not the paintings which had cost her much effort, but the words that had flowed so easily which won her survival in the pure, unchanging form of art."
Sources: "Bashkirtseva, Mariia," Encylcopedia of Ukraine, Vol. 1 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984); Victor Cronin, "The Romantic Way" (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1966) "The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff," Vol. 1, transl. by Phyllis Kemberger with Katherine Kemberger (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997); Irena Knysh, "Try Rovesnytsi" (Winnipeg: National Publishers Ltd., 1960).
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 10, 2002, No. 45, Vol. LXX
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