Thursday January 2nd 1879 — What I long for, is the liberty to ramble alone, to come and go, to seat myself on the benches in the garden of the Tuileries, and especially of the Luxembourg, to stop at the artistic shop- windows, enter the churches, the museums, to ramble at night in the old streets, that is what I long for, and that is the liberty without which one can not become a true artist. Do you believe that we profit by what we see when we are accompanied, or when going to the Louvre, we must await our carriage, our chaperone or our family?
Ah! heavens and earth! that is what makes me so angry to be a woman! I will dress myself like a woman of the middle class, wear a wig, and make myself so ugly that I will be as free as a man. There is the liberty that I want and without which I shall never succeed in being anything.
One's thoughts are fettered by this stupid and enervating constraint; even if I disguise myself and make myself homely, I am but half free, for a woman who roams about is imprudent. And in Italy, in Rome? The idea of going in a landau to visit ruins!
"Where are you going, Marie?"
"To see the Coliseum."
"But you have already seen it! Let us go to the theatre or take a drive, where there will be a crowd."
And that is enough to bind one down to the earth. That is one of the great reasons why there are no women artists. Oh, sordid ignorance? Oh, savage routine! It is horrible to think of it all!
Marie Bashkirtseff, Autumn, 1883
'What I long for, is the liberty to ramble alone' - this has a familiar ring from many recent critiques of androcentric nature writing and male psychogeographers. Marie Bashkirtseff may not have lived to paint the Coliseum, but she did complete the view of Paris in Autumn that I have reproduced here (now in the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg). There is something sad about that empty road, with its litter of leaves and the bench knocked over so that nobody can sit on it. However, what really leaves an impression, assuming this reproduction resembles the real painting, is the intensity of that sunlight in the distance. Perhaps it was affected by her yearning for the brightness of southern Europe. Here is a second entry from her diary, in which she puts down a volume of Gautier to dream of travelling to Spain.
Wednesday June 20th, 1882 — Well! nothing new. A few calls exchanged and painting — and Spain. Ah, Spain! A volume of Théophile Gautier is the cause of all this [...] Ah! how short is life! Ah! how unhappy we are to live so little! For to live in Paris is only the point of departure for everything. But to make these sublime, artistic journeys! Six months in Spain, in Italy! Italy, sacred soil; divine, incomparable Rome! it takes away my reason.This translation is by A. D. Hall (1908). I see that another early translator, Mathilde Blind (1890), rendered the last sentence 'Granada! Gigantic vegetation! pure sky...' Whatever the 'gigantic' thing was that Marie Bashkirtseff longed for, along with the rose laurels (oleander), sunshine and shadows, it was never to be...
Ah! how women are to be pitied; men are free, at least. They have absolute independence in ordinary life, liberty to come and go, to start out, to dine at a restaurant or at home, to go on foot to the Bois or to a café; that liberty is the half of talent and three-quarters of ordinary happiness.
But, you will say, superior woman that you are, give yourself that liberty!
It is impossible, for the woman who emancipates herself thus — the young and pretty woman, be it understood — almost has the finger pointed at her, she becomes singular, commented on, insulted, and consequently still less free than before she shocked idiotic custom.
So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!