Sergei Diaghilev
Biography of Founder of Les Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet).

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Ballets Russes (1912) Private Collection
By August Macke.

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929)
Impresario of the Ballets Russes


Early Years
Ballets Russes

More About Russian Visual Arts

For more about Russian art, and its contribution to the impact of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet in Paris, see: Russian Painting of the 19th-Century.

- Russian Medieval Painting (c.950-1100)
- Novgorod School of Icon Painting (1100-1500)
- Moscow School of Painting (1500-1700)
- Petrine art (1686-1725)
- Russian Painting (18th century)



An important influence on early modern art, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev was a Russian impresario who achieved widespread fame in Europe as the founder of the Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet). Visionary, inspirational, but a harsh taskmaster, he had an unusual talent for attracting the greatest modern artists of the Ecole de Paris into his circle. Painters who worked on designs for Diaghilev's ballet company included the famous Cubists Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), the metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the Surrealists Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Max Ernst (1891-1976), the Parisian genre-painter Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), and the Fauvists Andre Derain (1880-1954) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954). In addition to these artists, Diaghilev was especially close to two Russian artists upon whom he relied heavily, when he first launched his ballet company: they were Leon Bakst (1866-1924), who created costumes and sets for ballets such as The Firebird (1910, music composed by Igor Stravinsky), L'Apres-midi d'un Faune (1912, composed by Debussy), Daphnis and Chloe (1912, music composed by Ravel); and Alexander Benois (1870-1960) whose most notable designs were for Diaghilev's production of Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911). Other Russian painters used by Diaghilev included Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) and his wife Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962).

Early Years

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev was born into a wealthy family in the province of Novgorod, Russia. As a teenager he was a gifted pianist, and at the age of 18 he went to study law and music in St Petersburg, where he joined a cultural group, known as "The Nevsky Pickwickians" whose members included the painters Bakst and Benois, as well as art collectors like Savva Mamontov (1841-1918). In 1899, Diaghilev (with help from Mamontov and others) founded the journal World of Art (Mir iskusstva), in order to exchange ideas with artists around Europe. In the same year, he became assistant to Prince Volkonsky, director of the Imperial theatres. This position allowed him significant responsibility over theatrical matters and Diaghilev took full advantage. He quickly found jobs for his friends Bakst and Benois, designing sets for the French drama Le Coeur de la Marquise, and Alexander Taneyev's opera Cupid's Revenge. Unfortunately, within two years, his dramatic creativity and uncompromising manner led to his dismissal.

Using his organizational skills, Diaghilev focused for a while on staging exhibitions. In 1905, for instance, after trawling widely for little known gems of Russian portrait art, he staged a massive exhibition of Russian portraiture at the Tauride Palace in St Petersburg. The following year he went one step further. In fact, it's fair to say that 1906 became a landmark in the history of modern Russian art, because of the giant exhibition of Russian painting at the Autumn Salon in Paris, with decorations by Leon Bakst. (For other important exhibitions of Russian painting, see: Donkey's Tail Exhibition 1911-12; and Knave of Diamonds Artist Group 1910-17.)

Note: For biographies of two other important Russian patrons of the arts, see: Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921).

Ballets Russes

More art shows followed, as well as several concerts of Russian music (composed by Mussorgsky and others). Then in 1909 he bought a ballet company - soon to be christened the Ballets Russes - which rapidly became a huge success, not least because of its dancers (Nijinsky and Pavlova), its colour and fabulously flamboyant costumes and sets, supervised by its artistic director Leon Bakst, and its choreographers Michel Fokine and Leonide Massine. When Diaghilev's Russian Ballet with its exotic performers and its vivid garments arrived in Paris, it had a huge impact on the city. Drapers and haberdashers struggled to emulate the garish fabrics and designs of their Slavonic visitors, and the sheer vitality of Diaghilev's productions rapidly swept Paris clear of dull Edwardianism. Diaghilev toured Europe and America with the Ballets Russes for two decades until his death in 1929. However, the company never performed in Russia and he himself never returned to his native land after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

As well as revolutionizing the performing arts of choreography and dance, the exotic, daring and colourful productions of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet had a significant effect on early 20th century visual art, due to their influence on Expressionist painters and on the Expressionist movement as a whole. They also influenced the emerging designs of the Art Deco style. The Ballet also introduced Western audiences to Russian folk art, tales, music and design motifs drawn from Russian icon painting.

There were failures, however, of which the most notorious was the opening night of The Rite of Spring (April 1913), when Stravinsky's hypermodern music plus Nijinsky's choreography and Nikolai Roerich's sets proved too much for the conservative audience who promptly rioted. Diaghilev's London production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty in 1921 was also a disaster (in this case a financial disaster), despite its magnificent settings and costumes. Diaghilev was also not easy to work with. In 1913 he managed to fall out completely with both his principal male dancer Nijinsky (a former lover of Diaghilev's) and his stage designer Alexandre Benois.

After three decades of success in various different types of art, Diaghilev died in Venice from complications caused by diabetes, at the comparatively early age of 57.


• For biographies of other modern artists from Russia and the Ukraine, see: 20th-Century Painters.
• For more details of performing and performance art, see: Homepage.

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