Alexander Benois – Russian artist, art critic and decorator

Soldiers of Catherine II
Soldiers of Catherine II

Alexander Nikolaevich Benois (born 03 May 1870 – died 09 February 1960) was a Russian artist, decorator, critic and set designer. The creativity of Alexandre Benois is striking in its versatility. The artist’s landscapes and historical compositions occupy an honorable place in the largest museums in the world, and his work in the field of book illustration had a strong influence on the development of Russian graphics. The master is known as a talented stage director. The painter was the founder and ideological inspirer of the art community “World of Art”.

Rural landscape. Set design for act I for staging A. Adam's fantastic ballet Giselle. 1910
Rural landscape. Set design for act I for staging A. Adam’s fantastic ballet Giselle. 1910

Biography of Alexander Benois

Alexander Benois was born on May 3, 1870 in a house near the Nikolsky Naval Cathedral in St. Petersburg. He became the ninth and youngest child in the family of the recognized and famous architect Nikolai Leontyevich Benois and his wife Camilla Albertovna. The boy grew up in an atmosphere of creativity, and spent the summer in the park ensemble of Peterhof among alleys, fountains and palaces, which influenced the formation of the artist’s artistic views and preferences.

Peterhof. Monplaisir. Middle hall. 1942
Peterhof. Monplaisir. Middle hall. 1942

From early childhood Alexander Benois was fond of art, and he began to study drawing in another of the private “kindergartens” of that time – “Kindergarten”. After graduating from high school, he entered the university at the Faculty of Law. Benois’s first essay on the history of Russian painting was published in 1894, the artist’s debut in art caused heated discussion and was positively evaluated by critics. After graduating from university, the painter devoted himself entirely to the fine arts.

Peter the Great thinking about the construction of St. Petersburg. 1916
Peter the Great thinking about the construction of St. Petersburg. 1916

The first known series of works by the master is “The Last Walks of Louis IV”, written in 1896.

Chamber compositions performed in watercolor and mixed media attracted the attention of Sergei Diaghilev and Lev Bakst at an exhibition organized by Pavel Tretyakov. Together they developed the concept of the World of Art association, the purpose of which was to protest young artists against the routine demands of the old school. The first community exhibition took place in 1898 and was enthusiastically received by young people.

Peter I on a walk in the Summer Garden. 1910
Peter I on a walk in the Summer Garden. 1910

In parallel with the organization of the exhibition, Diaghilev was actively working on the magazine “World of Art”, and Alexander Benois became the author of the program for the new edition. The first issue came out in 1898 and stood out from the general background due to its thoughtfulness and high quality of execution. A year later, an exhibition was held under the auspices of the publication, where the works of the brilliant masters of that time were presented: Isaac Levitan, Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Nesterov. The magazine has been published for six years.

Parsley's room. Scenery sketch. 1911
Parsley’s room. Scenery sketch. 1911

Since 1901, Benoit has worked hard and fruitfully:

He wrote monographs on the history of art, published critical essays, painted sets, and was engaged in book illustration. One of the most significant works of the master in the field of graphics – drawings to the poem by Alexander Pushkin “The Bronze Horseman”. The customer did not like the laconic and carefully designed compositions, but they were highly appreciated by the art community.

After the October Revolution, Alexander Benois was among the artists who supported the new government – he was in charge of the art gallery of the Hermitage, at the same time he was engaged in the creation of decorations for the Mariinsky Theater, was a director and artist of the BDT, and illustrated literary works. The master was always alien to politics, but in those days it was impossible to be creative and be aloof from the state. Government pressure, numerous bans and fear of arrest forced Benoit to emigrate to France in 1927.

Parade under Paul I, 1907
Parade under Paul I, 1907

In Paris, the artist worked on the design of performances and costumes, collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev, La Scala Theater. Much of the creative heritage of Alexandre Benois during the period of emigration belongs to the genre of book illustration. Departure from Russia did not influence the painter in the best way – despite the high level of skill, all his works look like a repetition of what has already been passed. At the end of his life, the master worked a lot on his memoirs. The artist died on the night of February 9, 1960, the cause of death was the flu.

The most famous paintings by Alexander Benois

The vast majority of Alexander Benois’s paintings are in private collections. The creative heritage of the master consists of small-sized watercolors and drawings, sketches of theatrical scenery. Among the most famous works:

  • “The King Walks in Any Weather” (1898) – a work from a series of watercolors about the French “sun king” was created on the basis of engravings and tapestries of the 17th century, the scenes make a strong impression on the viewer due to the contrast of the majestic landscape and small human figures. Illustrations to
  • “The Bronze Horseman” (1905) – in his drawings the artist managed to convey all the horror of a person’s loneliness in society, and St. Petersburg appears as a cold, terrible and dreary city.
  • The cycle “The Queen of Spades” (1905) – the plots are based on the opposition of images and the sharp drama of characters.
  • The Baths of the Marquise (1906) is an elegant and sophisticated scene from the Versailles Series, in which the boundaries between real life and theater are erased.
  • “Chernomor’s Room” (1911) – one of the scenery for the ballet performance “Petrushka”, these works are considered the pinnacle of Benoit’s work as a theater artist.
Alexander Benois. Ball scene. Set design for Tchaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades. 1919
Ball scene. Set design for Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades. 1919
Alexander Benois. Borotin castle crypt. Set design for the staging of F. Grillparzer's tragedy Foremother. 1908
Borotin castle crypt. Set design for the staging of F. Grillparzer’s tragedy Foremother. 1908
Alexander Benois. House of Anna Mons in the German settlement. 1911
House of Anna Mons in the German settlement. 1911
Alexander Benois. In a gambling house. 1910
In a gambling house. 1910
Alexander Benois. On the embankment. Set design for the staging of Shakespeare's tragedy The Merchant of Venice. 1920
On the embankment. Set design for the staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy The Merchant of Venice. 1920
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