Léon Bakst’s costumes for the Rite of Spring and Schéhérazade set fashion trends in Paris when Diagilev’s Ballets Russes enjoyed the peak of its success in Paris from 1909 of their first season onwards. His oeuvre is primarily characterised by the costume drawings that have since been treated as art work in their own right. However, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire holds an unexpected collection – a series of oil paintings by Bakst that illustrate Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. The intrigue lies in the fact that the commission has no apparent links to the theatre and the panels are of the monumental scale of history paintings.
The seven oil panels were originally commissioned by James and Dorothy de Rothschild for their London townhouse in 1913. Currently housed at Waddesdon, they are on display in a round tower. The circular shape of the space makes them enter into a sort of conversation with each other. Within this exclusive space, they appear as prized possession of a Renaissance studiolo. Unexpectedly, beyond their artistic merit, they also engage the viewer with the question of identity and patronage.
The attention to detail with which the paint is handled and the jewel-like surfaces place them stylistically between Northern Renaissance and the Pre-Raphaelite masters. Whilst the asymmetrical compositions and sharply receding viewpoints give them a somewhat Modernist looks. Did Bakst also admire the Japanese prints as the rest of the avant-garde crowd in Paris? His panels do not fit comfortably into any art chronology.
As expected, Bakst shows his love for costume, pattern and decoration in the beautifully rendered textures of the clothes in all panels. His characteristic method of depicting costume was by outlining the pattern in flat before adding modelling and texture. The flatness of some of the patterns still strikes the viewer when observed closely.
Similarities with Renaissance paintings are fun to spot. To what extent was Bakst consciously following in their footsteps? As in Northern Renaissance paintings, ordinary objects often disguise meaningful symbols. One wonders at length about the significance of the cat and the brightly painted bowl of milk in the foreground of The Princess Pricks Her Finger on an Old Woman’s Spinning Wheel. Yet, there is probably none. Perhaps, this detail suggests safe domesticity and comfort that lead the princess and the viewer into the false sense of security before the drama breaks out.
Another question that the panels invite is of the meaning that Dorothy and James de Rothschild derived from the subject matter. The images were undoubtedly personal to them, given that members of the Rothschild family and their household posed for the paintings and can be recognised in various scenes. Information about who is who is available in the display room. All we know is that Bakst apparently could not find models in Paris to sit for him and so the family became engaged in what must have been a fun creative process for both sides.
Madame Marion, the head of the household, can be spotted in The Princess Pricks her Finger on a Spinning Wheel. Her portrait, executed by Bakst in chalk is also held at Waddesdon and is a rare insight into Bakst’s versatility as a draftsman.
This relationship forged between the artist and the patron is similar to that between artists and patrons in Renaissance secular courts. Looking at Bakst’s images confined to the chapel-like environment of the tower, the mind wonders to the Sassetti chapel in Florence where the family members are disguised as privileged witnesses to a religious event. Such examples are numerous, but they are of the far-gone era.
The drama, decoration and illusionism of Bakst’s panel bear a strange resemblance to the classic Christian narratives such as the Adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation. The Aged King Pleads with the Good Fairy looks like a strange Adoration whilst the The Prince Out Hunting Sees the Castle Where the Princess Lies Sleeping brings associations with the Magi’s journey. Incidentally, the latter is one of Bakst’s few landscapes. Overall, Waddesdon holds an unlikely mini collection of Russian art rarities.
Matching the scenes of the panels with religious narratives may be a way of reading too much into the subjects and their meanings. However, art works often acquire meanings regardless of the original intention. As Renaissance patrons, who assert and fashion themselves in religious scenes, the Rothschilds and Bakst also appear to fashion their identity by placing themselves in these pan-European narratives. What appears as an outdated idea in the bourgeois society at the turn of the twentieth century, could have been more meaningful to the identity of both the patrons and the artist.
The origins of the Rothschild family start with Mayer Amschel Rothschild in eighteenth-century Frankfurt. He built his fortune within the strict confines to the Jewish ghetto, eventually transcending the social restrictions by the expansion of his business in several European capitals through his sons. Once artificially ostracised from the European society, the Rothschilds in Bakst’s panels are depicted as royalty. Their patronage of Bakst, a Russian Jew, can also be understood in the context of the widespread anti-Semitic culture in Europe at the time. During this encounter Bakst was in a forced exile from St Petersburg caused by the bureaucratic complications that arose from his conversion to Christianity for his marriage.