Self-affirmation is common theme among several women artists, most of them have chosen to claim their status by a self-portrait with the tools of the craft; some have preferred to paint a kind of vicarious self-portrait. This painting by Marie Bashkirtseff presents both.
This painting is in my opinion a perfect representation of the female art education in the 19th century. Here we can see a studio full of women art students, probably during a semi-nude class.
The artist is showing us the Académie Julie, one of the most important places to history of women in the art, since it was one of the only places in 19th century Paris where women could receive a proper training, which is the reason why women from all over the world went to Paris.
In Académie Julien women could study with live models (males and females) semi-nudes, to study the anatomy of the human body. Since it was considered that men and women artists attended these sessions together, the author depict an all-female class painting a semi-clothed boy, probably posing as St. John the Baptist.
Bashkirtseff was a one of the first to defender and insist that women should be allowed to paint from nude models. She also defended the idea of women working in the studio alongside the men, she believed that women deserved the same conditions; but when they allowed women to make studies from nudes or semi-nudes in separate classes of male students, she stopped with the insistence, as according to her there was no further advantage in it.
As I commented before, the painting shows us a self-portrait that is direct and indirect claim for self-affirmation as a professional artist. The author depicted herself in the foreground, as one of the students, she is with the tools of the craft. But her intention is not only show herself as an artist, it is not a self-affirmation. In my opinion she also wanted to show that women can be an artist, can study and create art. And she did it perfectly, giving us a great testimony of how women studied art in 19th century.