Leon Bakst produced lavish sets and costumes for the ballet stage. After graduating secondary school, he traveled to St. Petersburg to study at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as an unenrolled student, working as a book illustrator to support himself. In order to help pay the bills, he also taught art to the children of Grand Duke Vladimir. At his first exhibition, in 1889, he changed his surname, Rosenberg, which he was concerned would sound too Jewish and bad for business, to a shorter version of his mother’s maiden name Baxter: Bakst.
He began exhibiting in the 1890’s with the Society of Watercolorists, as he continued his studies at the Academie Julian, making important connections with prominent artists. In the late 1890’s he founded, along with Sergei Diaghilev, the Mir Iskusstva, or “World of Art,” movement. He illustrated many graphics for their publication, drawing him praise and popularity. Until the end of the century, he continued to paint and receive commissions, from as high up as Tsar Nichols II himself.
By 1909, he was mainly producing stage and costume designs, at first for Greek tragedies and then with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, a prominent ballerina group. Due to his Jewish religion, he was exiled from living in St. Petersburg, and was prohibited from living anywhere outside the pale of settlement, and so mainly resided in Western Europe. His set designs, along with those of Alexandre Benois, are recognized as revolutionizing stage design.
Bakst died in 1924 of lung problems, having broken with the Ballet Russes and Diaghilev in 1918, although he continued to paint.