Alexander Nikolaevich Benois

Alexander Nikolaevich Benois

1870 —1960
Alexander Benois is one of the most recognisable and prominent figures on the artistic scene of the Russian art of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. He was not only an accomplished artist, but a prolific art critic and art historian, enthusiastic preservationist, and an innovative designer for the theatre and, particularly, the Ballets Russes. During his life, Benois was extensively writing and documenting his life in details and his views of art and general observations on what was going on around him as well as describing people and scenes that seemed essential to him. As a result of these diaries, memoirs, articles and art reviews, endless lists and notes on every subject, we can have a coherent picture of this great personality and a talented, distinguished artist.

The artist was born on May 3 (Old Style: April 21) 1870 in Saint Petersburg as the youngest child in the family of nine children. Later, he often mentioned with a sense of self-satisfaction and bravado, that his Russian intelligentsia family does not have a drop of Russian blood. Indeed, his roots go deep in the French and Italian ancestry with his grandfather, Louis-Jules Benois, serving at the court of the emperor of Russia, Paul I. It is not surprising that Alexandre Benois had this attraction to the arts and culture, and especially theatre. His grandfather on the maternal side, whose name was Alberto Cavos, was the son of a celebrated Venetian composer and conductor, Catterino Cavos, who settled in Russia in 1797. He chose the career of an architect and was praised in Russia for his designs in theatres. The father of the artist, Nikolai Benois, also was an acclaimed architect, fulfilling the imperial commissions in a Classical and a Neo-Gothic style, which later will be so influential for Alexandre Benois' art. In general, his artistic and intelligent family had quite conservative preferences in art, for instance, such as the rejection of the Wanderers' Exhibitions, an admiration for the Old Masters and particularly Raphael, a great fondness of strictly classical style of architecture and a predilection towards, what Benois later called, 'the international language of classicism' on the contrary to a national style. Two of his brothers, Albert and Leontii, also dedicated their lives to art: one being an eminent watercolourist and serving as an instructor in the Academy of Arts and another, following his father's steps, becoming an architect and taking a position of a rector in the Academy of Arts. This environment, in which the artist was brought up, was a highly significant factor in the formation of Benois' artistic path.

Benois studied art independently as he graduated from Saint Petersburg Imperial University in 1894 from the Faculty of Law. The artist explained the absence of any formal training by his personal attitude, as he was repelled by the academic discipline and the typical methods that it applied, which, in his opinion, were destroying pure creativity, imagination and freedom of choice. He was never tired of mentioning this fact, that intuitive learning and self-education were the only right choices for successful artistic development. Benois has always been drawn to the epoch of Versailles. He was very fond of the great French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau and the German artist Adolph Menzel. In 1893 in the letter to Charles Birle, Benois included Watteau amongst the greatest artists of all time, including Millet, Botticelli, and Rubens. In 1897, together with a distinguished art collector and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov, he exhibited a series of watercolours representing Last Promenades of Louis XIV. Benois' early watercolours, presented at the annual exhibitions of the Russian Society of Watercolourists, were enthusiastically perceived by Ilya Repin. During the years 1896 - 98, Benois with his family settled in Paris and entered a new phase in his artistic career. He was working as an art dealer for Princess Tenisheva in the pursuit of buying works for her watercolour collection. Benois was fervently absorbing this acquaintance with Western European art of recent decades and encountering the essential artistic experiences that Paris could offer to him: Luxembourg Museum, the Durand-Ruel Gallery, The Carnavalet Museum and the Bibliotheque National.

Benois' impulsive, open personality was crucial in the formation of his opinions on art and his role in the World of Art group. After a successful entry into the art world with his outstanding watercolours, Benois participated in organising the World of Art group (Mir Iskusstva) in November 1898 along with Leon Bakst, Konstantin Somov, Dmitri Filosofov and others. When he was pondering to what extent a work of art is grounded on the natural, private urge of the artist, Benois was confident that what truly matters is the personality of the artist. An artistic expression of unique, individual psyche, according to Benois, is of much greater importance than how 'right', how precise and academically correct the drawing is. Thus, as one of the ideological leaders and founding members of the World of Art group and the journal of the same name co-founded in 1899, Benois reflected the group's doctrine of the power of artistic personality and individual experience perfectly. Benois admitted that it is challenging to describe the World of Art regarding style that it represents: 'not this, that, or the other in isolation, but everything together.' (p.170) The journal was co-founded with Leon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev as the Chief Editor. In Benois' work of that period, there is this rigid, architectonic linearity of Art Nouveau style, extraordinary concentration on line and, at the same time, a kind of light, airy, and playful aspect. There were book illustrations (the most famous one, probably, for a Pushkin's poem The Bronze Horseman), watercolours, prints, miniatures, and graphic designs (such as Alphabet in Pictures). Benois did not forget about his scholarly ambitions, and during the first decade of the century, from 1900 to 1910, he was extensively publishing his art historical articles and reviews in various art magazines as well as monographs on the nineteenth-century Russian art.

Benois's artistic career made a new turn to stage design when he was appointed as a scenic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 1901. During this period, Benois was continuing his career as an artist, art critic, illustrator and graphic designer for the World of Art journal. He actively participated in the World of Art exhibitions from 1898 to 1903. The artist moved to Paris for his second stay in 1905 and remained there until the spring of 1907. In 1908 Benois started to collaborate with the Ballets Russes, producing grand stage designs and spectacular costumes for productions such as Les Sylphides (1909), Giselle (1910), Petrushka (1911). Later, in 1913 to 1915 he worked as a head of the art section and a director at the Moscow Art Theatre. He was a curator of the gallery of Old Masters in Hermitage from 1918 to 1926 and was actively participating in the preservation of artistic monuments and restructuring museum work. Benois' artistic life during these years was scattered around several directions. Being very prolific and creative, Benois simultaneously was working on his theatrical designs, studies of landscapes and the Saint Petersburg suburbs, and paintings of historical subjects. In 1919 Benois was heavily involved in theatrical productions in the Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet and The Bolshoi Drama Theatre in Petrograd. From 1922 to 1925, Benois' career was focused on travelling for various theatrical productions and making business trips on behalf of the Hermitage museum. From 1926 and until his death in 1960, Benois and his family lived in Paris. The artist was mostly occupied with the commissions for book illustrations and the theatrical designs for Diaghilev, the Paris Opera and Ida Rubenstein.

Benois, A. (1964). Memoirs. London: Chatto & Windus.
Bowlt, J. (1982). The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the 'World of Art' Group. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners.
Kennedy, J. (1977). The "Mir iskusstva" group and Russian art, 1898-1912. New York: Garland Pub.
Makovskiĭ, S. (1906). Stranit︠s︡y khudozhestvennoĭ kritiki - Kniga vtoraia: Sovremennye Russkie khudozhniki. St. Peterburg: Izd. "Sodruzhestva.."
Rosenfeld, A. (1999). Defining Russian graphic arts. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.