Léon Nikolajevitj Bakst, born Leyb-Khaim Izrailevich (later Samoylovich) Rosenberg, 10 May 1866 in Grodno, Russia, dead 28 Dec 1924 in Paris, was a Russian painter and scene and costume designer. He was a member of the Sergei Diaghilev circle and the Ballets Russes, for which he designed exotic, richly coloured sets and costumes.
Léon was born in Grodno (Now Belarus), in a middle-class Jewish family. His grandfather's being an exceptional tailor, the Tsar gave him a very good position, and he had a huge and wonderful house in Saint Petersburg. Later, when his parents moved to the capital, Léon Bakst would visit his grandfather's house every Saturday, and he said that he had been very impressed as a youngster by that house, always returning with pleasure. At the young age of twelve, Léon won a drawing contest and decided to become a painter, but his parents did not really take a shine to it. After graduating from gymnasium, he studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a noncredit student, because he had failed the entry, working part-time as a book illustrator, though, he would eventually be admitted into this institution in 1883.
At the time of his first exhibition (1889) he took the surname of "Bakst," based on his mother's maiden name. The surname "Rosenberg" was thought to be "too Jewish" and not good for business. At the beginning of the 1890s he exhibited his works with the Society of Watercolourists. From 1893 to 1897 he lived in Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian while still visiting Saint Petersburg often. After the mid-1890s he became a member of the circle of writers and artists formed by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexandre Benois who in 1899 founded the influential periodical Mir iskusstva, meaning "World of Art." His graphics for this publication brought him fame.
Bakst studerade vid konstakademin i Sankt Petersburg och Paris. Han tillhörde det år 1899 bildade sällskapet Mir iskusstva (Konstvärlden) tillsammans med Alexandre Benois, Ivan Bilibin, Mstislav Dobuzjinskij med flera. Han medverkade i sällskapets tidskrift, liksom i andra ryska tidskrifter som Zolotoje runo och Apollon. Bakst var fram till 1908 verksam i Sankt Petersburg och Moskva, då han flyttade till Paris. 1909 anslöt sig Bakst till Serge Diaghilews Ballets Russes, för vilken han utformade dekoren för baletterna Cléopâtre (1909) och Schéhérazade (1910). Bakst förenade balettdräkter och scenografi till en visuell enhet.
Bakst gjorde även dekoren till Le Spectre de la rose (1911). I Paris utförde Bakst även på uppdrag av ryska staten en stor målning Amiral Avellans ankomst till Paris.
1922 återvände Bakst till Ryssland, men hans tid där blev inte långvarig.
He continued easel painting as well producing portraits of Filipp Malyavin (1899), Vasily Rozanov (1901), Andrei Bely (1905), Zinaida Gippius (1906). He also worked as an art teacher for the children of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia. In 1902, he took a commission from Tsar Nicholas II to paint Admiral Avellan and Russian sailors meeting in Paris, a painting he started there, during the celebrations from the 17th to the 25th of October 1893, but that he only finished after 8 years.
In 1898, he showed his works in the Diaghilev-organized First exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists; in World of Art exhibitions, as well as the Munich Secession, exhibitions of the Union of Russian Artists, etc.
During the Russian Revolution of 1905, Bakst worked for the magazines, Zhupel, Adskaja Pochta, and Satyricon, then for an art magazine called Apollon.
Beginning in 1909, Bakst worked mostly as a stage-designer, designing sets for Greek tragedies, and, in 1908, he made a name for himself as a scene-painter for Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes. He produced scenery for Cleopatra (1909), Scheherazade (1910), Carnaval (1910), Narcisse (1911), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), L'après-midi d'un faune (1912) and Daphnis et Chloé (1912). During this time, he lived in western Europe because, as a Jew, he did not have the right to live permanently outside the Pale of Settlement. During his visits to Saint Petersburg he taught in Zvantseva's school, where one of his students was Marc Chagall (1908–1910), of whom he said that he was his favourite, because when told to do something, he would listen carefully, but then he would take his paint and his brushes and do something completely different from what he was asked.
In 1914, Bakst was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1922, Bakst broke off his relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. During this year, he visited Baltimore and, specifically Evergreen House - the residence of his friend and patron, art philanthropist Alice Warder Garrett (1877–1952). Having met in Paris in 1914, when Mrs. Garrett was accompanying her diplomat husband in Europe, Bakst soon depended upon his then new American friend as both a confidante and agent. Alice Garrett became Bakst's representative in the United States upon her return home in 1920, organizing two exhibitions of the artist's work at New York's Knoedler Gallery, as well as subsequent traveling shows. When in Baltimore, Bakst re-designed the dining room of Evergreen into a shocking acidic yellow and 'Chinese' red confection. The artist subsequently went on to transform the house's small c. 1885 gymnasium into a colorfully Modernist private theatre, which is currently believed to be the only extant private theatre designed by Bakst.
Bakst died on the 27th of December 1924, in a clinique in Rueil Malmaison, near Paris, from lung problems (oedema). His many admirers amongst the most famous artists of the time, poets, musicians, dancers and critiques, led him to his final resting place, in the Cimetière des Batignolles, in Paris, during a very moving ceremony.
In late 2010, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London presented an exhibit of Bakst's costumes and prints.