Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev

Artist: Valentin Serov
Date: 1904
Media: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 97 x 83 cm
Ownership: Russian Museum, St Petersburg
Y. P. Diaghilev collection, St Petersburg; Antikvariat All-Union Export Association (until 1930)
Style: Impressionism
Valentin Serov, Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev, 1904


This unfinished picture belongs to a series of portraits of members of the Russian creative intelligentsia painted by Valentin Serov from the mid-1890s onwards. The artist first made the acquaintance of Sergei Diaghilev in 1897, when the great impresario was just starting out on his illustrious career.

Serov immediately noticed and admired Diaghilev’s clever mind, boundless energy, ability to spot new talent and outstanding administrative skills. A devoted and loyal friend, he supported all of Diaghilev’s multi-faceted projects and readily forgave his bouts of insolence and many other personal shortcomings.

Serov had the idea of painting Sergei Diaghilev’s portrait in the summer of 1904, after seeing Léon Bakst begin work on his famous Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his Nanny. That autumn, he began to paint Diaghilev at his apartment in St Petersburg, which was also home to the offices of the World of Art magazine.

Serov soon lost interest in the project and the portrait remained unfinished. But the unfinished and sketchy nature of the painting helps to romanticise the image – and the sitter’s character is still brilliantly captured in the masterly painted face, the slightly affected gesture and the languid look in Diaghilev’s twinkling eyes.

Exhibitions: Posthumous Exhibition of the Works of Valentin Serov, St Petersburg, 1914, No. 191 (1st Ed.); No. 182 (2nd and 4th Eds.); Moscow, 1914, No. 191

Literature: Neradovsky, Spisok rabot Serova, p. 29; Grabar, Serov, p. 164 (reproduction), p. 291; Ernst, Serov, reproduced between pp. 48–49; Ternovets, Korovin–Serov, pp. 52 (dated “1903”), 67

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