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.