Russian Artworks Painting 20th Century Turn of the Century World of Art Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his Nanny

Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his Nanny

Artist: Léon Bakst
Date: 1906
Media: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 161 x 116 cm
Ownership: Russian Museum, St Petersburg
Received in 1923 from the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade, Petrograd
Style: World of Art
Léon Bakst, Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his Nanny, 1906


Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with his Nanny is widely regarded as one of Léon Bakst’s most outstanding works of portraiture. This painting is probably the most famous image of Sergei Diaghilev, whose Saisons Russes took Paris and London by storm on the eve of the First World War.

Léon Bakst was a close friend of Sergei Diaghilev and spent two years working on his portrait. He began the painting in St Petersburg in the spring of 1904, when he had already known Diaghilev for fifteen years.

While admiring Diaghilev’s talent, efficiency and resourcefulness, Bakst could not stand the impresario’s dictatorial behaviour, conceit and bad manners. The complex relationship between the painter and sitter is reflected in this picture.

Bakst wrote in his diary in spring 1904: “Worked on Seryozha’s portrait for the first time today (at his).” In a later letter to his wife, Lyubov Gritsenko, the artist complains: “Still working on Seryozha’s portrait. He posed abominably today, putting on airs and constantly pestering me to make him look more handsome and thinner. I felt like stabbing him with my brush!”

The following sittings took place in the small town of Salmela in Finland, where Bakst added the head and part of the figure. The sessions ceased when Diaghilev abruptly moved to Moscow and were only resumed in St Petersburg in early 1906, when the artist completed the interior of Diaghilev’s apartment at 25 River Fontanka Embankment and the figure of the nanny in the background.

Léon Bakst’s environmental portrait is typical of the turn of the century. Sergei Diaghilev is depicted in a deliberately intimate setting, personified by the cosy, domestic image of the slumbering nanny in the corner of the room.

Standing with his face turned towards the viewer, Diaghilev’s slightly fastidious pose, raised eyebrows and appraising glance betray a self-confident and authoritative personality. His face, posture and gesture convey his intelligence, will, drive, arrogance and sense of his own importance.

The old peasant woman sitting in the corner was a typical feature of the way of life of the old Russian nobility. The figure of the nanny helps the artist to further reveal the exceptional nature of the sitter – a man from the provinces whose energy and talent were already propelling him to international stardom.

The presence of the old woman introduces a note of warmth and tranquillity, providing a sharp contast to the tempestuous personality of Sergei Diaghilev. The image of the nanny also allows the artist to shed light, from an unexpected angle, on the cultural phenomenon of the World of Art.

This movement grew out of a friendly circle of boys from educated middle-class families – who now continued their childhood games on the Russian art scene. Bakst’s portrait reminds us that the professional interests, aesthetic tastes and personal behaviour of Diaghilev and his friends were largely born in the nursery.

Exhibitions: World of Art, St Petersburg, 1906; Salon d’Automne, Paris, 1906, No. 24; Russische Kunst-Ausstellung, Berlin, 1906, No. 18; Venice, 1907, No. 3

Literature: Zolotoe runo, 1906, No. 6, p. 17 (reproduction); V. V. Stasov, “Nashi nyneshnie dekadenty”, Strana, 25 March 1906

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