Léon Bakst
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Portrait of Virginia Zucchi, 1917
32.9 x 23.3 cm
Braikevitch Bequest, 1949
WA 1949.376

Virginia Zucchi (1849-1930) was an Italian prima ballerina whose career spanned the years 1864 and 1898, throughout which she danced primarily in Italy and Russia, occasionally appearing in France and Germany, as well.  Sometimes referred to as the Divine Zucchi or even the Divine Virginia because of her skillful artistry and expressiveness, she arrived in St. Petersburg in 1885 under contract to dance for the summer at Kin Grust.  One of the summer theatres in St. Petersburg, Kin Grust served to replace The Imperial Theatre, the official Russian stage that closed during the summer.  However, Zucchi became so popular and highly regarded as a ballerina that by the end of her stay with Kin Grust she had a contract with The Imperial Theatre and would continue to dance there until 1888.[i]  In fact, the dramatic intensity of Zucchi’s expression produced a marked impact not only on the development of ballet in Russia (most notably Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), but the visual arts, as well.  For it was precisely the liveliness and force of her expression that influenced those who would later come together to form the World of Art (Mir iskusstva), an artistic group that included Léon Bakst (1866-1924), Diaghilev (1879-1929), and Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), all three future collaborators on the Ballets Russes.[ii]  Benois in particular had been captivated by what he referred to as “the dramatic intensity of [Zucchi’s] miming.” and he mentioned her repeatedly both in his Memoirs (1960) and Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet (1941).[iii]

At the time that Bakst drew this portrait of Zucchi in 1917, when she was 68, he would have been well aware of who she was.  He had moved to St. Petersburg as a child and was a resident during the years that Zucchi performed in the city, and he thus would have been quite familiar with Zucchi at the height of her fame, especially in regard to the expressive force of her acting.  And even had he not seen a single performance of Zucchi’s, he would have had ample opportunity to read about or see photographs of her in newspapers and magazines.[iv]  Furthermore, he was certain to have participated in a discussion about Zucchi, or at the very least heard something pertaining to her, throughout the course of his friendship with Benois, whom he had met in 1890.  It is telling that upon completion of Zucchi’s portrait, Bakst, according to Valerian Svetlov, entreated the ballerina to sign it.[v]  An inversion of the usual relationship in which it is the signature of the artist which bestows value upon the work for the sitter, here it is the sitter who vouchsafes her signature—“This portrait of myself was drawn by Mr Bhakst [sic] in Paris on 27 November 1917 Humble Virginia Zucchi”—an indication of the admiration that Bakst must have had for the once renowned dancer.[vi]

Indeed, looking at Bakst’s Portrait of Virginia Zucchi, it seems that he must have had Zucchi’s past, as well as her present, in mind.  When she appeared in St. Petersburg, in the mind of Benois as he recalls in his Reminiscences,

she could in no case be called beautiful, but she was mieux que belle et mieux que jolie.  Her eyes had a somewhat Chinese slant, but could widen and sparkle at the proper occasions; her mouth was large, with perfect teeth; her jet black hair was unruly and could not be coaxed into any style of coiffure.[vii]

 Years later, when she sat for this portrait, Bakst was also visited by Valerian Svetlov, who recalled that Zucchi was

a thin, small woman with hair that was getting very gray, but disheveled and wild as in her youth, earning for her the nickname of ‘Rumple Peter,’ (Strepka-Rustrepka) but her eyes sparkled brightly at the recollections of her triumphs and filled with moisture when Bakst spoke of the terrible misfortune that had overtaken Russia.[viii]

 The eyes and hair, which both Benois and Svetlov take pains to single out in their descriptions of the youthful and elder Zucchi, respectively, are also the two most striking features in this drawing.  Bakst has shaded the eyes so deeply that the pupils achieve a rich black color, becoming the darkest and most salient parts of the work.  Flecks of white highlights dot the pupils, and the overall impression is suggestive of eyes that “sparkle,” alluding to the expressiveness for which Zucchi was so famous.  The eyes are further accentuated by Bakst’s exaggeration of her features.  He has emphasized the irregularity of her face, slanting it to such an extent that it appears as if the two halves of her face were two separate entities.  Moreover, Zucchi’s “disheveled” and “unruly” hair frames her expressive eyes, each serving to underline and emphasize the presence of the other.  The graphite of her hair has been blended, creating a shape with no defined boundaries, but which seems to dissolve into the background, itself a surface of blended graphite.  In fact, the entire surface of the paper, with the exception of her jacket and pearl earring, is covered in graphite.  Atop this fuzzy, indistinct coiffure, Bakst has sharply drawn individual tendrils of hair, winding every which way as if they had a life of their own.

The undulating and irregular lines of Zucchi’s jacket echo wavy lines of her hair, and in both cases the visual effect is the same, adding a sense of expressiveness and immediacy to the work.  Characterized by movement, this line quality is one of the defining characteristics of the work for which Bakst is most well known, his stage and costume designs for the Ballets Russes, which are very colorful and very stylized.  However, it is the manner in which Bakst expresses the movements of the dance in these drawings that makes them so striking.  It is evident in looking at his designs that he was thinking not only of the details of the costume as such, but also the impression the costume would create over time; that is, the visual effect it would create as the dancer moved around on stage.[ix]  An enormous contrast thus exists between the style of Bakst’s designs for the Ballets Russes and his style of portraiture, which tends to be realistic and muted in color, as opposed to fantastic and bursting with vibrant colors.  What is so interesting about this portrait is that it straddles Bakst’s two styles.  Readily identifiable as Zucchi because it is realistic to an extent, the portrait at the same time distorts her features and plays with the line, lending the entire work an expressionist edge.  That Bakst has here utilized the same dynamic line quality as in his costume designs is particularly apt, as Zucchi herself, at one time, had danced those very movements that Bakst had in mind when drawing the dancers in costume.

[i] Ivor Guest, The Divine Virginia: A Biography of Virginia Zucchi (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977), 55-120.

[ii] Larissa Salmina-Haskell, Russian Paintings and Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1989), 26-7.

[iii] Alexandre Benois, Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, trans. Mary Britnieva (1941; reprint ,London: Putnam, 1947), 76.

[iv] Virginia Zucchi had already garnered much attention from the St Petersburg media simply for coming to Russia; until her arrival in 1885, an Italian ballerina had not been seen in St. Petersburg for almost twenty years.  Her “exoticism,” coupled with her expressive style that quickly made her a distinct presence from the more academic and technical Russian style, resulted in a plethora of articles written about her in St. Petersburg newspapers and magazines.  These included Novoye Vremya, Petersburgskaya Gazeta, Teatralny Mirok, Novosti, Sanktpeterburgskiye Vedemosti, Journal de St. Pétersbourg, Dnevnik Teatrala, Syn Otechestva, and Birzhevie Vedomosti.  See Ivor Guest, The Divine Virginia: A Biography of Virginia Zucchi (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1977), 55-120.

[v] Louis Réau, et al, Essays on Bakst, (New York: Brentatno’s, 1927), 121

[vi] “Questo ritratto è statto disegnato sopra me stessa dal Signor Bhakst a Parigi il 27 November 1917 Umile Virginia Zucchi”

[vii] Benois 83.

[viii] Valerian Svetlov, “Virginia Zucchi,” Dancing Times (December 1930).  Quoted in Guest 167.

[ix] Irina Pruzhan, Leon Bakst: Set and Costume Designs, Book Illustrations, Paintings and Graphic Works, trans. Arthur Shkarovsky-Raffé (Leningrand: Aurora Art Publishers, 1986), 20-4.  For Bakst’s costume designs, see John E. Bowlt, Theater of Reason / Theater of Desire The Art of Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, exh. cat. (Lugano, Italy: Thyssen Bornemisza Foundation, 1998).

Isabel Suchanek

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