While Léon Bakst's innovative approach to theatrical design ensured his influence extended far beyond the stage, he has always been best known for the stage and costume designs he created for the Ballets Russes, the pioneering company founded by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. The present work is a 1922 variation of a costume Bakst originally designed in 1909 for the first production of The Firebird, which made its debut in Paris in 1910: Igor Stravinsky provided the score, Michel Fokine the choreography. The production met with tremendous success and marked the commencement of the phenomenally fruitful pairing of Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would result in Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
Diaghilev had initially appointed Alexander Golovine (1863-1930) to design the costumes as well as the sets but unsatisfied with his creations he subsequently turned to Bakst. In the 1920s Diaghilev commissioned Bakst to design new costumes for the Ballets Russes revival. When working on these variations, Bakst often developed and sometimes copied his earlier designs. Moreover, the artist was so enchanted by the magical image of a Firebird, drawn from Russian tales, that he created numerous costume designs for this character. The present design is one of three versions of the costume that Bakst executed for Stravinsky's ballet. Critics of the day noted the remarkable use of colour in Bakst's work and his wondrous ability to harmonise primary hues. The brilliant orange of the present costume design, touched with silver and gold, enhances the magical nature of the Firebird, while the feathers symbolise the woman's metamorphosis into a bird. In the search for inspiration, Bakst drew on a myriad of sources. In 1890 he joined The Society for Self Education, which had been set up by Alexandre Benois and his friends while students so that they might keep abreast of European culture. In direct contrast to the parallel Slavophile movement, Bakst sought to explore and embrace a variety of cultural references, the rich tapestry of which combined in his designs to reveal the influence of artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Moreau and Jean-Léon Gérome as well as Aubrey Beardsley's line and the palette and vitality of the Fauves. This ability to synthesise his source material is another instance in which the spirit of the first incarnation (1898-1904) of the Mir Isskustva [World of Art] pertained in his later work.
A fascination with the Ballets Russes has proved pervasive since its inception, a unique moment of creation bathed in the light of pre-war Europe. The longevity of its appeal and more specifically that of Bakst himself is inextricably linked to the tangential nature of both any specific moment in time, and more concretely, the theatrical performances themselves. Impossible to truly capture and preserve, Bakst's beautifully executed costume design for The Firebird allows collectors to achieve the impossible and take possession of a fleeting moment, part of an inimitable movement that began now over a century ago.