Much has been written about the lives of artists – sometimes in quasi-mythical terms. It’s important to remember that, despite the pedestals we place them on, the talented, visionary people we read about in art history books were, first and foremost, people, not mythical beings. They struggled with depression and poverty, abuse and injustice, illness, isolation, feelings of inadequacy and their own character flaws – and these struggles were often quite relatable, as you can see below.
- Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884)
Marie Bashkirtseff was born in a wealthy Ukrainian noble family. After her parents separated, she followed her mother on her travels through Europe. Eventually, the family settled in Paris.
More than anything, Marie wanted to leave her mark on the world. Her diary, started when Marie was about 13 years old, and continued until her death at only 25, expands over thousands of pages and documents a rich inner life, a brilliant and eccentric young mind, as well as a tragic, obsessive wish to matter, to make a difference.
She was determined to become a great artist, but could not apply to study at the Ėcole des Beaux-Arts, which was reserved for men. Instead, she studied at the Académie Julian, where women students were accepted. She pursued her goal with great ambition and dedication, producing a great number of works during her short lifetime. About 60 of Marie’s paintings survive to this day, but she painted many others, which were, sadly, destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
When her health began to decline, Marie expressed her anxiety about not having enough time left to achieve her goal of becoming a great painter in her diary, and decided that she would leave her written work to speak for her after her death. She succumbed to tuberculosis in 1884. By a strange coincidence, Marie’s friend and mentor, artist Jules-Bastien Lepage, died the same year, also of tuberculosis.
Marie Bashkirtseff’s diary was first published in 1887, being only the second diary by a woman to be published in France. It was, however, heavily edited by Marie’s mother, who eliminated some of her daughter’s more radical opinions and falsified her date of birth, to make her appear even more precocious.
Lauded for its uniqueness, the book has had many editions, more recently including a few complete and unabridged ones. Marie Bashkirtseff is one of the women diarists Simone de Beauvoir quotes in “The Second Sex” to document the inner lives of women.
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. His parents were first cousins and, as a result of this, Henri suffered from several congenital health conditions. When he was 13, he fractured his right thighbone and, the following year, his left. The fractures did not heal properly, and his legs ceased to grow.
Unable to take part in the activities enjoyed by young men his age, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec turned to art, encouraged by his mother, who hoped her son would become an academic painter. In fact, Toulouse-Lautrec’s early works reflect his classical training.
While he made a group of friends who remained by his side for the rest of his life, the artist was a social outcast, constantly ridiculed for his stature. Driven to alcoholism, he found refuge in the Parisian underworld of cabaret shows and brothels.
He began documenting the lives of women involved in sex work, including the intimate relationships many of them had with each other. What is worth noting is that Toulouse-Lautrec’s depiction of lesbian scenes completely lacks the element of fetishism (which was present, for instance, in the way Gustave Courbet portrayed women involved in same-sex relationships).
Coming from a family of anglophiles, Toulouse-Lautrec also spent some time in London and was a vocal supporter of his friend, Oscar Wilde, during the writer’s trial.
In 1899, the artist’s physical and mental health began to decline rapidly, as a result of alcohol consumption and syphilis. He died at age 36, in September 1901, at his mother’s estate in Albi. After her son’s death, the Comtesse Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec continued to promote his artwork and contributed funds to the creation of the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.
8-9. Suzanne Valadon (1865 –1938) and her son, Maurice Utrillo (1883 –1955)
In 1883, 18 year-old artist’s model Suzanne Valadon gave birth to her son, Maurice. She never revealed who was the father of the child, but rumors emerged claiming it was one of the artists Suzanne modeled for. The names mentioned included the much older Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
In 1891, Spanish artist Miguel Utrillo y Molins signed a legal document stating that he was Maurice’s father, but it is unknown whether the claim was true. In fact, Mexican artist Diego Rivera is rumored to have told a cruel joke about the situation, saying that Utrillo was proud to “put [his] name to the work of either Renoir or Degas.” Very classy.
Born in poverty, having quit school at 11 and a single mother, Suzanne Valadon was nevertheless determined to become an artist in her own right. In 1896, after her marriage to Paul Moussis, a bourgeois, she was able to dedicate herself entirely to her craft. In 1913, she divorced her husband to marry the painter André Utter, who was 21 years her junior and a friend of her son. The pair worked and exhibited together until their divorce in 1934. Suzanne Valadon died at age 72, in 1938.
Self-taught, Valadon worked constantly for over 40 years, producing over 450 oil paintings, and was one of the few women artists to depict female nudes. Interestingly, besides the Place Suzanne Valadon in Montmartre, an asteroid and a crater on Venus were named after her.
Suzanne’s son Maurice Utrillo was a troubled, rebellious child, who became an alcoholic in his teens. In 1904, at age 21, he began exhibiting signs of mental illness. His mother encouraged him to turn to art and soon, it became evident that the young man was talented in his own right. Utrillo’s favorite subject was the quarter of Montmartre, with its establishments and everyday scenes. By 1920, he had achieved critical success and, in 1928, he was awarded the cross of the Légion d’honneur. However, he continued to struggle with mental illness and alcoholism throughout his entire life and was repeatedly interned in mental asylums.
In middle age, Maurice Utrillo became fervently religious and, in 1935, he married artist Lucie Valore, a friend of his mother’s, who was very supportive of the marriage. Lucie was very devoted to her husband and encouraged him to work constantly and remain sober.
The pair moved outside Paris, to Le Vésinet. By that time, Utrillo’s afflictions had taken their toll. Too ill to work in the open air, he painted landscapes from the window, as well as scenes from memory and from postcards. He died in 1955 of a lung disease. In 1963, Lucie Valore founded the “Association Maurice Utrillo,” which houses extensive documentation on the couple’s work and that of Suzanne Valadon and André Utter, as well as an impressive art history library.
- Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)
Born in a wealthy English family, Leonora Carrington became familiar with the work of the Surrealists in 1936. While the discovery signaled the beginning of her own artistic career, it also opened the path to an ill-fated love, which left her devastated. In 1937, 20 year-old Leonora met artist Max Ernst, 46 at the time, and the two began an affair.
After Ernst divorced his wife, they moved to the South of France and the relationship was happy for a while. When World War II broke out, German-born Ernst was arrested by the French authorities for being a “hostile alien.” He escaped prison with the help of his friends, only to be arrested again by the Gestapo, after the Nazi troops occupied Paris, for being an author of “degenerate art.” This time, he was helped to escape by American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and fled with her to the United States, leaving Leonora Carrington behind.
Heartbroken, Leonora fled to Spain, where she had to be hospitalized, as she experienced crippling anxiety and delusional episodes. Sadly, the “treatment” involved electroshock therapy, as well as the use of drugs that are now banned. She eventually escaped the care of the nurse who had been assigned to accompany her to Lisbon and sought refuge at the Mexican embassy. In the meantime, Max Ernst married Peggy Guggenheim. While the marriage was short lived, he and Leonora never reunited.
Wishing to leave Europe, Leonora Carrington married Mexican ambassador Renato Leduc. She spent the rest of her life in Mexico City, with a short interval in New York in the 1960s. As her marriage to Leduc was one of convenience, it did not last long. She eventually married again. Her second husband was Emerico “Chiki” Weisz, a photographer born in Hungary, with whom she had two sons. Leonora Carrington was also involved in the feminist movement, famously stating “I warn you, I refuse to be an object.” She died in 2011, at the age of 94.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.