Portrait of Ida Rubinstein

Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov • Painting, 1910, 233×147 cm
Digital copy: 1.0 MB
5155 × 3180 px • JPEG
50 × 31.5 cm • 256 dpi
87.3 × 53.8 cm • 150 dpi
43.6 × 26.9 cm • 300 dpi
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About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait, Nude
Style of art: Art Nouveau
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1910
Size: 233×147 cm
Content 18+
Artwork in selections: 106 selections
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Description of the artwork «Portrait of Ida Rubinstein»

In 1910, Leon Bakst introduced Serov to the dancer Ida Rubinstein. Bakst was a devoted vassal — he designed Ida’s performances even in the days of her obscurity, at the beginning of her artistic career. Now that the Cleopatra and Scheherazade ballets have made Ida Rubinstein a superstar, both were basking in the glory.

According to eyewitnesses, Rubinstein was an extraordinary being. Tall, gnarled, she didn’t have any canonical beauty, she was so confident of her attractiveness that she infected everyone around her with this confidence. She was not a professional dancer, but in competition with such a formidable rival as Anna Pavlova, she brought Paris to its knees in just a couple of seasons. In 1910, she was everywhere there: on posters, postcards, newspaper pages, candy boxes. Serial theatregoers, journalists, feminists, artists, grocers and street shoe shiners were all crazy about Ida Rubinstein — and Serov applauded her along with everyone.

According to a version, Diaghilev commissioned the artist to paint Ida Rubinstein, hoping to repeat the last year’s success (when Serov made a poster with Anna Pavlova for the Russian Seasons in Paris). However, the most meticulous biographer of Serov, Igor Grabar, argued that “Serov was so fascinated by her that he decided to paint her portrait at all costs”.

The artist wanted Ida Rubinstein to pose nude. Humble Valentin Alexandrovich did not dare to voice his request personally, Léon Bakst did it for him. He didn’t have to persuade Ida much.

Serov decided to paint the portrait in the former family monastery, which served as a studio for many Parisian artists; he anticipated the social excitement. Everything Ida Rubinstein did — on and off stage — was saturated with eroticism. Critics wrote about her “voluptuous petrified grace”, about “disastrous sensuality”. Painting her nude, moreover, in a relatively public place, was a very provocative undertaking — as if, say, Damien Hirst took up painting naked Sharon Stone somewhere in Central Park immediately after the first night of Basic Instinct. Serov asked his colleagues to keep their mouths shut and hide their presence during the sessions (of course, every arrival of the actress at the church was accompanied by crowds of onlookers). During his work, he donned a specially purchased rough canvas blouse — to “pacify the flesh” and symbolically emphasize his role in what was happening.

Valentin Serov worked on the portrait of Ida Rubinstein in a manner that was completely unusual for him. Usually averse to posing, he seated his model in a pointedly pretentious pose. He painted unusually quickly: the only pause was due to the fact that Ida flew away on safari, where, according to herself, she killed a lion with her own hand.

She was a hoax master and self-promotion genius, she loved feeding journalists with incredible details of her amazing and adventurous life. Quite possibly that the only Lion killed by her spell was Léon Bakst. However, this does not apply to the case, and even does not cancel the feeling that another artist was standing at the easel.
An unnatural deathly palette instead of the usual liveliness of colours. Decreased geometry of the shoulder blades instead of the traditional portrait likeness. In all respects, it was a naked form instead of the usual meaningfulness, this was absolutely not the Serov, to which the public was accustomed.

Later, art critics would explain a lot, having discerned the emphasis on the artistic profession of Ida Rubinstein in her unnatural pose, a hint of her fatal image in the deathly colours, a connection with ancient Egyptian reliefs and the idea that talent is doomed to exist outside of space and time in the picture perspective pointing to a blank wall. “Neither colour, nor composition, nor perspective — nothing reveals the space in which the figure is placed. It seems that she is sprawled, pressed against the canvas, and with all the sharpness and extravagance of the model, this composition creates the impression of her weakness and defenselessness,” Dmitry Sarabyanov wrote.

The canvas blouse explains much (if not all): Serov tried to distance himself from the sexual connotation that accompanied Ida Rubinstein everywhere, as much as possible. Perhaps it is here, and not in the Egyptian pyramids, that one should look for the reasons for the absolute stylization and accentuated asexuality of the heroine most Europeans lusted after.

As for the contemporaries, they accepted this “decadence game” with hostility. “Poisonous charm” and “the beauty on the verge of ugliness” are the most sympathetic statements expressed at the Mir Iskusstva exhibition and the International Exhibition in Rome, where the picture was shown. Repin called the subject of the Serov’s portrait “a galvanized corpse”. Surikov called it “just a disgrace”.

As it often happens, in order for yesterday’s critics to start talking about the “search for new forms” and “talent ahead of its time”, it took the death of the artist: Serov died a year later. However, the portrait of Ida Rubinstein has long been the subject of ambiguous interpretations. So in 1965, the poet Sergei Petrov wrote:
Competition with the space has ended
on plain canvas of an empty wall.
No, artist, it is not your fault
but the whistling cane calls to surrender
the tough tune of back that you exalt.

Written by Andrii Zymogliadov