Léon Bakst

Léon Bakst

Léon Bakst (Leyb-Khaim Izrailevich Rosenberg) was born in Grodno, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1866. He became a proficient painter and illustrator in his youth, making his living that way once he had finished school. He gained admission to the Imperial Academy to study in 1883.

At the beginning of the 1890s, he exhibited his work with the Society of Watercolorists. He then moved to Paris for further study. He joined a circle of writers and artists formed by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexandre Benois. His graphics for their print publication ‘Mir iskusstva’ made him famous. 


Bakst became an art teacher for the children of the Grand Duke of Russia and continued painting, including creating many famous portraits and working for art magazines.  

By 1909, he was working mostly as a stage scene and costume designer, working closely with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes. 

Bakst designed Asian-style decor and costumes for the Egyptian themed ballet Cleopatre (1909). His dramatic, innovative designs emphasised colour, violence and sensuality, thereby energising the ballet's perceived exotic and fantastical subject matter and characters. Audiences went wild. 


“Bakst was remarkable for his brilliant control of colour, line and decoration. One shade could be used to express both sensuality and chastity, another to express pride and despair. "There are some reds which are triumphal", he said, "and there are reds which assassinate". The changing mood of a scene could be reflected by introducing colours gradually or by suddenly introducing a violently opposing colour, say, in a flash of brilliant skirt lining.” - The Victoria and Albert Museum


He worked with costume maker Madame Muelle to produce his designs for stage. 


Socialites of the day appealed to him to design clothing for them in the style he used for the dancers. In 1910, he wrote to his wife: “Have you heard about Poiret the dressmaker? He is all the rage now. Recently he offered me 12,000 francs for 12 drawings of fashionable outfits. Artists advise me against linking my name to his, they are concerned I would become ‘declasse’. But what a sight it would be if in two years (there is no way it can happen earlier) the public in St. Petersburg will wear my apparel!”


So, in the early to mid 1910s, Bakst was creating designs for wealthy women in Paris and Saint Petersburg. In 1913, he designed many costumes for the attendees of a grand ball in Venice. On this success, he was asked to design again for many balls in 1914. Besides that, houses such as that of Jeanne Paquin and Camille Roger were showering him with orders. Fur trims in the Russian style became popular under his design. 


He became a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1914. 

Outside of his stage work, he was also an interior and textile designer, as well as a writer. 

He became well known in the States in the 1910s, with exhibitions of his work travelling to various cities. 

He broke off his work with the Ballet Russes by 1922, his last work with the company was The Sleeping Princess. 

In 1923-1924, the artist gave a few lectures in the United States and Canada on fashion, costume, and new trends in clothing style. They were a great success. 

He died in Paris in December 1924 from lung problems. His funeral was attended by all the great artists of the day. 

He was portrayed by Igor Dmitrev in the 1983 TV series ‘Anna Pavlova’. 

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