The celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1882-1931) danced in London with Sergei Diaghilev's company for the first time in the summer of 1910. She caused a sensation with her Dance Bacchanal from Pepita's ballet The Seasons. The editor of the Illustrated London News commissioned Lavery to paint a head and shoulders sketch of the dancer, with which the paper advertised her second season at The Palace Theatre the following April. Lavery agreed, but on condition that he be given 'a reasonable number of sittings and some kind of undertaking that appointments would be kept'(Lavery 1940, p.171). During her three-month stay in London, Pavlova posed for Lavery on a regular basis, as a result of which he produced two full-length portraits of Anna Pavlova as a Bacchante, the liveliest version of which is in Glasgow Art Gallery. Sometimes known as The Red Scarf, this work is painted with tremendous freedom in a profusion of artificial pinks, greens and pale blues which capture the colour and energy of the dance.
Pavlova returned to London with Diaghilev's company in October 1911 and sittings began for a second composition. This time Lavery chose to paint the ballerina as the dying swan from Swan Lake, which was the most famous piece in Pavlova's repertoire. The dancer left London for a provincial tour in November 1911, and so the picture was completed using his wife, Hazel Lavery, as the model, dressed in Pavlova's costume. Although there were clear differences between the two women, Lavery believed that, in stage makeup, Hazel could easily pass for the dancer. However, to assist with the portrait, he used two head studies of Pavlova as aides mémoires. Despite this, Pavlova's husband, Victor Dandre, did not consider La Mort du Cygne a good likeness and much preferred the Bacchante.
Neither the ballerina's pose nor the setting is taken from the ballet, but Lavery has aimed in the picture to express the poignant death of a beautiful creature. The ballerina sinks to the floor, the light dancing off her creamy white costume and pink satin pumps. The vast expanse of the Swan Lake traces a graceful parabola behind her and, in contrast to the earlier Bacchante, it is a quiet and contemplative scene. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1912 and received a lukewarm response. One critic described the work as 'daring' and 'unbeautiful' (quoted in McConkey 1993, p.119) Comparisons were inevitably drawn with the work of Degas, although a more important influence is Whistler, from whom Lavery derived his creamy brushstrokes and fluid handling of paint.
John Lavery, The Life of a Painter, London 1940, pp.170-4.
Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, Edinburgh 1993, pp.118-9, reproduced p.119.