Portrait of Young Genius – The Mind and Art of Marie Bashkirtseff
Marie Bashkirtseff was of one of the most extraordinary women of the 19th century. Her Journal (originally comprising some 20,000 hand-written pages but pared down to a few hundred for publication) was a cause célèbre after her death and continues to be an inspiration to the Women’s Movement to this day. It also inspired such great writers as Anaïs Nin and Katherine Mansfield among many others.
Born into an aristocratic family in a village in Ukraine the family soon settled in France, first in Nice and later in Paris. Taught entirely by tutors Marie spoke multiple languages, played numerous musical instruments and longed for a singing career on the stage. An illness that affected her throat made her change course and she took up painting for which she had a latent talent. As a student at the Académie Julian in Paris she was soon exhibiting at the annual Paris Salon, the premier venue for artists.
But it was her personality that makes Marie Bashkirtseff such an exceptional individual. At a very young age she was already exhibiting in her Journal the thoughts of a learned philosopher, wrestling with the nature of God, the position of women in society, the politics of men. Having contracted tuberculosis in early childhood she ceaselessly strove to shrug it off in her quest to achieve greatness. In the end, a great tragedy unfolds.
The book is somewhat unique in format. The first part is a biographical section that describes Marie’s unusual and fascinating life. Then a second section, consists of a single Journal excerpt (in English translation from the original French) on each left-hand page, juxtaposed with one of her outstanding works of art on the facing page. In this manner, we learn about her remarkable life and tribulations, enter her restive and brilliant mind via her Journal, as well as appreciate her exceptionally fine works as an artist.
Chapter 1 Early Life in Ukraine
Chapter 2 European Odyssey
2.2 Journal Begins
2.3 The Flirtatious Mlle M
2.4 Ominous Signs
2.9 Return to Nice
Chapter 3 A Star is Born
3.1 Académie Julian
3.3 Artistic Acclaim
Chapter 4 A Life Interrupted
4.1 Pauline Orell
4.2 Gavrontsi Redux
4.3 Epiphany in Spain
4.4 Midnight in Paris
4.5 Nice and Back
4.7 Living with Death
Journal & Art
Joel L. Schiff was born in Chicago and has a PhD in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles. He spent his career at the University of Auckland and has written three books on various mathematical subjects (published by Springer-Verlag and John Wiley & Sons). He has also been a successful part-time asteroid hunter and was the founder/publisher of an international journal on meteorites. Having a lifelong interest in art, he is also an artist who paints in oils and in 2014 had a book published about the New Zealand/ Australian/British artist, Grace Joel. Research revealed that Ms Joel (no relation) studied at the well-known Académie Julian in Paris and it was then that the author discovered another Julian student, Marie Bashkirtseff, one of the most fascinating individuals of the 19th century. He has been obsessed with her ever since, traveling to Moscow, St Petersburg, Paris, and Naples in pursuit of the story of this extraordinary young woman.
"Marie Bashkirtseff was no ordinary 19th century woman. Her aristocratic Ukrainian family moved to Paris, where she was privately tutored and blossomed into a young woman who spoke many languages, played numerous musical instruments, and longed for a stage career, but turned her hand to painting. She soon began exhibiting her work at the notable annual Paris Salon, the premier venue for artists.
As if this weren't enough, she was also a philosopher and writer, and her journal of some 20,000 pages has been pared down here to supplement Joel L. Schiff's survey of her amazing artistic prowess in Portrait of a Young Genius: The Mind and Art of Marie Bashkirtseff.
With such a palette of genius to choose from as far as what to profile, it must have been a real challenge to adequately represent Marie Bashkirtseff's many abilities in the confines of a single book. How many others dream of founding an art school for women (just one limitation of her sex that she railed against) in the 1800s, for just one example?
One doesn't expect fierce rivalries to enter the portrait of a woman of these times, but this, too, reflects Marie's abilities, fiery personality, and determination, fueling a biography that traces more than her genius alone and placing it in historical, social, and psychological perspective.
Given these disparate facets, it would have been impossible to adequately represent Marie's world through standard biographical third-person exploration; which is why Schiff adopts an unusual mode of presentation: he begins with the usual biographical survey of her life, but then allows her own voice to speak in a second section which profiles a single journal excerpt (in English translation from the original French) on each left-hand page, juxtaposed with one of her art pieces on its facing page. (It should also be noted that vintage photos and illustrations pepper the rest of the survey, as well, adding visual emphasis to an outstanding woman's world.)
While Portrait of a Young Genius will undoubtedly find a place in artists’ collections, it would be a shame to see its audience limited to artists alone. Women's history holdings, especially those strong in biographical portraits of extraordinary individuals whose stories have largely been lost over time, will find Portrait of a Young Genius a 'must have' addition, not only capturing this young woman's life, but synthesizing its meaning with a sense of her times and the limitations imposed upon women.
Portrait of a Young Genius is very, very highly recommended for its multi-faceted approach and wide-ranging discussions, designed to keep readers immersed to the end and involved in the life of a woman they likely have never heard of before, but will come to intimately know and deeply admire."
Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review