Paris back in the day: A glimpse at childhood in the 1880s

The Meeting by Marie Bashkirtseff (1884)

The establishment of free and compulsory education in France took place in the early 1880s, which could be the reason why Ukrainian painter Marie Bashkirtseff chose this group of six school boys as the subject of her painting. The Meeting was first exhibited in 1884 at that year’s Salon.

As a painter, Bashkirtseff was inspired by the genres of realism and naturalism, but unlike many naturalists that use nature as their source of inspiration, she turned to the urban scene. The Meeting is a depiction of a scene from everyday life, a so-called genre work. The viewer is looking at the scene happening from a distance, as an observer. In the forefront, we see a group of six boys standing in a circle, mesmerised by whatever the tallest boy is holding in his hands and although this object is not visible to the viewer, it is most likely the topic of their discussion. The boys’ expressions are very animated and their own personalities are shown through the painting. The concentration and fascination is tangible.

The painting’s setting is in an industrial French city, judging by the larger buildings in the background and the surroundings that appear grey and foggy. The graffiti and the torn off poster on the wooden fence also imply a working-class area. We cannot see what is written on the poster as most of it is gone, but it could almost be advertising some workplace in a factory. The boys’ clothes are quite timeworn and one of their shoes is missing a shoelace, which indicates them being from poor working-class families. However, these children are most likely school boys, considering the historical context of the painting. The Meeting was painted in the early 1880s when reforms enacted by Jules Ferry, a member of the French government at the time, had inaugurated free, secular and compulsory education for all.

The painting does not necessarily have or need to have any social dimension to it, but knowing that Marie Bashkirtseff was restricted by her gender and committed to the the feminist movement, the little girl in the background could be a social commentary on the status of women in the 1880s – the girl is walking away from the scene, excluded from the discussion. However, her direction remains unknown to the viewer.

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