She was born in Smolensk, Russia to a prosperous family who encouraged her to study medicine. However, her natural instincts were for the arts and in 1903 she switched to the study of art at the Academy in St. Petersburg. 1905 she visited the artistic capital of the world, Paris, France. Two years later, she moved to Paris, taking a job as a correspondent for several Russian newspapers while studying painting under Henri Matisse and attending classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
However, what Marie Vassilieff is most remembered for is her cantine. During World War I, she volunteered as a nurse in the French Red Cross and at the same time saw how things had gotten worse financially for many of the already struggling artists of Paris. Because many of her artist acquaintances frequently had little or nothing to eat, in 1915 she opened a cantine, that really amounted to a soup kitchen, offering a full meal and a glass of wine for only a few centimes.
While her cantine provided a valuable service, during the War it became a popular hangout for the artistic community. During wartime a government curfew was in place and the restaurants and cafés of Paris were all obliged to close early. However, Marie Vassilieff’s place was licensed as a private club and not subject to the curfew. As a result, very quickly her place was jam-packed and the nights were filled with music and dancing.
In January of 1917, Georges Braque, who had been wounded fighting the war, was released from military service. Marie Vassilieff and Max Jacob decided to organize a dinner for Braque and his wife, Marcelle. Among the guests was Alfredo Pina with his new companion Beatrice Hastings who had recently ended her two-year relationship with Amedeo Modigliani. Knowing Modigliani’s penchant for causing a disturbance when he drank, and he drank often, Marie Vassilieff did not invite Modigliani to Braque's party. However, the art community was small and word of the get-together soon reached Modigliani and the uninvited and very drunk Modigliani showed up, looking for a fight. A scuffle ensued, a pistol appeared, and Marie Vassilieff, all 5 feet of her, pushed Modigliani downstairs while Pablo Picasso and Manuel Ortiz de Zarate locked the door. Marie Vassilieff made what is now a very famous drawing depicting the events of the evening.
Her own artwork was primarily in the Cubist style, her most interesting paintings were those of portraits of dancers as well as those of her friends Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Matisse. Known too for her decorative furniture pieces and her doll-portraits, Vassilieff’s works are still very popular. Although they never gained the lofty stature or astounding prices of some of her renowned contemporaries, today they can be found in museums and private collections worldwide.
As artist and friend, Marie Vassilieff was an integral part of the great creative community of Montparnasse where today one can still see her ornamental panels made in 1927 for the pillars in the dining room of the La Coupole. After several exhibitions in London, England in 1928 and 1930, and in 1929 in Italy, she opened the Vassilieff Museum. Friends with Alfred Jarry, she organized a homage to him.
In 1998, the Musée du Montparnasse was opened in Marie Vassilieff’s old studio.