Leon Bakst was a painter and a costume and scene designer. He was born Lev Samoylovich Rosenberg in April 27, 1866 in Belarus.
Bakst was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Tsarist Russia. His grandfather was a tailor of great renown and won from the Tsar a house in St. Petersburg that impressed Bakst very much, so even after his family had moved out of the city, he continued to visit his grandfather and his large home on Saturdays.
At age 12, he won a drawing competition and decided to become a painter, going against his parents’ wishes.
After graduating from elementary school and even though having failed its admission exam, Bakst began attending the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a student without credit, until his second year, in 1883, when he managed to pass the exam on his second attempt.
At the academy, he met and became friends with artist Valentin Serov, a friendship that would last until his death.
While still at the academy, he entered in a competition a work of a Pietà in which it was possible to see images of Mary portrayed with red weeping eyes and of Jesus’ disciples as poor Jews. School officials were scandalized and dismissed him.
At the same time, he also started working as an illustrator for books and magazines.
Despite being proud of his family’s Jewish origins, Bakst lived at a time in history when there was a wave of anti-Semitism in Russia. It is believed that the reason Bakst changed his name from Rosenberg, a Jewish name, to Bakst, his mother’s maiden name, was for fear that the Jewish name would hinder his business.
In the early 1890s, Bakst began to exhibit his works with the Society of Watercolorists.
Between 1893 and 1897, he lived in Paris, where he studied at the “Académie Julian”, and despite the distance, he didn’t stop making visits to his grandfather’s house in Saint Petersburg.
After the mid-1890s, Bakst became a member of the group of artists, writers, and art related people know as the “Nevsky Pickwickians”. As a member of this group he met the ballet critic and businessman Sergei Diaghilev, and the artist Alexander Benois, who would be very important in Bakst’s professional life. Both were known for creating the artistic movement “Mir Iskusstva” (“World of Arts” in English) and the art magazine of the same name. In this magazine, Bakst was responsible for helping with the graphics, work that brought him great success and fame.
In 1898, he exhibited his works in the exhibition “First Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists”, organized by Diaghilev, in exhibitions of the “World of Arts”, the “Munich Secession”, the “Union of Russian Artists”, among others.
He also worked on portraits of people such as the Russian painter Filipp Malyavin in 1899, writer and philosopher Vasily Rozanov in 1901, writer and poet Andrei Bely in 1905, and writer and poet Zinaida Gippius in 1906.
Another job he held at the time was as an art teacher for children in the family of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia.
In 1902, Bakst accepted the commission made by Tsar Nicholas II to make paintings about a meeting between Admiral Avellan and Russian sailors, which took place in Paris. He started the work during the October 17th to 25th celebrations of that year, and was only able to finish it 8 years later.
During the Russian revolutions of 1905, Bakst worked for the magazines Zhupel, Adskaja, Pochta, Satyricon and Apollon.
In 1908, Bakst began working with the media that brought him most success, designing ballet sets and costumes.
In 1909, he became involved in set design for some Greek tragedies.
It was with his friend Diaghilev’s dance company, the company “Ballets Russes” (“Russian Ballets” in Portuguese), that Bakst achieved international renown. He became involved in ballet stage and costume production as “Cleopatra” in 1909, “Scheherazade” in 1910, “Carnival” in 1910, “Narcisse” in 1911, “Le Spectre de la Rose” in 1911, “L’après-Midi d’un Faune” in 1912 and “Daphnis et Chloé” in 1912.
It was through the Ballets Russes that Bakst met two of his most important friends, the ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Ida Rubinstein. Both ended up starting their own dance companies and invited Bakst to work with them.
During this period, Bakst lived in eastern Europe because of a Russian decree not allowing Jews to live permanently outside the settlement zone, which was demarcated in part of Russian territory and part of some eastern European countries.
He began teaching painting classes at the “Zvantseva School of Drawing” school, run by painter and art teacher Elizaveta Zvantseva. One of his favorite students was the painter Marc Chagall, who, according to Bakst, was a good student who listened attentively to the instructions in the proposed lessons, and as soon as he picked up the paints and brush, he did something completely different.
During the period known as Art Deco, it was very common among British families to commission paintings to decorate their homes. And, despite being best known for his work on the ballet stage, Bakst was hired to work on paintings such as of the story of Sleeping Beauty, commissioned in 1913 for James and Dorothy de Rothschild’s “Waddesdon” mansion in Buckinghamshire County , in England.
In 1914, he became a member of the “Imperial Academy of Arts”.
Also in 1914, Bakst met American art connoisseur philanthropist Alice Warder Gerrett in Paris while she accompanied her diplomat husband in Europe. The two quickly became friends, and Bakst began to treat her as a confidant and agent.
When the Gerretts returned to the US in 1920, Mrs Gerrett became Bakst’s representative there. She organized two exhibitions at the “Knoedler Gallery” in New York, as well as some traveling exhibitions.
Returning to Baltimore where the Gerrett family owned a mansion called “Evergreen”, Bakst decorated their dining room using a combination of acid yellow and Chinese red. He also transformed the property’s small gym into a colorful and modern small private theater. It is believed that this was the only private theater in which Bakst worked.
In 1922, Bakst ended his friendship with Diaghilev and the “Ballets Russes”.
Shortly after designing the costumes for the ballet piece “Jeux” by the “Ballets Russes” company, Bakst collaborated with Jeanne Paquin’s couture house Paquin in 1913, and since then became involved in dresses and textile production until the end of his life. He often used oriental, neo-classical, and Russian ethnic aesthetic motifs in his works.
Due to her symbolist artistic education, personal taste and financial circumstances, Bakst did not fulfill his dream of dressing the woman of the future within the commercial world of haute couture. Instead, his clothes, made during the period from World War I until his death, were created as one-of-a-kind pieces for a select group of extravagant and very wealthy women.
Still, Bakst was a great defender of modernity, the fashion phenomenon and the concept of the new and emancipated woman.
He died on December 27, 1924 in a clinic in Rueil Malmaison, near Paris, of pulmonary edema.
On the day of his funeral, family, friends and many admirers, including the most famous artists, writers, critics, poets, musicians and dancers of his time, formed a large and moving procession that accompanied the body to its grave.
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Bibliography: Callan, Georgina O’Hara; Enciclopédia da moda de 1840 à década de 90 / Georgina O’Hara Callan ; verbetes brasileiros Cynthia Garcia : tradução Glória Maria de Mello Carvalho, Maria Ignez França – São Paulo : Companhia das Letras, 2007.