Leon Bakst

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Signed in Latin and dated 1924 l.r. oil on canvas. Leon Bakst was commissioned to make this portrait of Rachel Strong, an American debutante from a wealthy Cleveland family, in 1924 on the occasion of her betrothal to the French nobleman, Comte Henri de Boisgelin. Henri de Boisgelin (b.1897) was the cousin of Count Etienne de Beaumont (1883-1956), a wealthy socialite and patron of the arts, who was passionate about contemporary art and music. De Beaumont was a pivotal figure on the Parisian cultural scene and most famously inaugurated a series of ballet performances, the Soirees de Paris, on 17 May 1924 at the Cigale Theatre involving many contemporary artists, including Cocteau, Picasso and Massine. Although the Soirees only lasted a year they were seen to rival those of Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. De Beaumont certainly knew Bakst and it was through him that Bakst would have met Henri de Boisgelin and his fiancee. The marriage took place at the end of the following year on 30 December 1925, but Bakst had died on 27 December 1924 so this elegant and haunting depiction of a fragile American girl about to be catapulted into the sphere of the French aristocracy must have been one of his last works. The monochrome colours, so favoured by Bakst for his portraits, of black and white for his subject's dress, and brown and white for the dog, suggest an air of melancholy which is emphasised by the sunset sky and the leafless trees. The only hint of colour breaking this mood is the small bright patch of blue between the tree trunks. It is a strange painting to make for a betrothal but in Bakst's inimitable style it is riveting in its mysteriousness. Leon Bakst began his career as a portraitist having been trained in several academies including the Fine Arts School. He realised early on, as he wrote to Alexandre Benois on 11 May 1896, that he could make portraits 'which would please the sitters' and that he had the talent for easily achieving a likeness. All his portraits also give the unmistakable impression of truthfulness. His portraits in pastel and oil were generally in an 'academic post-impressionist' style perfectly observed. Bakst's portrait painting was eclipsed by his work for the theatre especially for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russses. Between the first productions of the Ballets Russes in 1909 and the outbreak of the First World War Bakst designed more ballets for Diaghilev than any other designer. Like all great theatre designers he was able perfectly to adapt his style to the needs of the particular ballet: from classical Greek, to Cleopatra's Egyptian, Persian exotic, Siamese oriental, or Viennese romantic. By 1910 Bakst had fulfilled his own stated ambition of becoming 'the most famous painter in the world'.