Born in St Petersburg, Konstantin Andreevich Somov (1869-1939) was the son of Andrei Somov, an art historian and curator at the Hermitage. After receiving a general education at K. I. Mai's private Grammar School, Somov attended the Academy of Art for three years where he was taught by Il'ia Repin. In February 1897, Somov left for Paris but returned and settled in St Petersburg in 1899.
Amongst his circle of friends Somov counted Alexandre Benois, Walter Nuvel, Dmitri Filosofov and Sergei Diaghilev - the founders of Mir iskusstva (World of Art); a hetergeneous organisation which embraced Art Nouveau and Symbolism. Somov, a frequent contributor to their periodical, was particularly influenced by the 'cult of beauty' and the Commedia dell'arte. His charming Rococco scenes, featuring Harlequin and ladies in rose-coloured silks create a 'Somovian' world characterised by nostalgia and artifice.
Somov's work juxtaposes the anxiety and decadence associated with the fin de siècle, an age which Sergei Diaghilev assessed with great precision: 'We live in a terrible time of change; we are condemned to die in order that the new culture, which shall take from us what remains of our weary wisdom, should live, history says so, and aesthetics confirms it. We are witnessing the greatest historical moment of stock-taking and ending, for the sake of a new, unknown culture'. In the poetry of Aleksandr Blok, whose work Somov illustrated, we find a possible solution: '...in the embraces of a fool and farce the old world will wax beautiful and grow young, and its eyes will become clear, fathomless'.
The composition of the present work, dated 1918, can be compared to a smaller watercolour also known as Arlekin i smert' painted in 1907 and now held in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (see L. V. Korotkina, Konstantin Andreevich Somov, St Peterburg, 2004, pl. 68). Both works juxtapose Harlequin and the skeletal figure of Death against a backdrop of amorous lovers. In the present work, the skeleton appears with the hair of a woman, further emphasizing the transience of beauty and love.