Sir John Lavery

Le Mort du Cygne: Anna Pavlova


Not on display

Sir John Lavery 1856–1941
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1981 × 1467 mm
frame: 2290 × 1770 × 130 mm
Presented by F. Howard through the National Loan Exhibitions Committee 1914


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 performing The Dying Swan, a dance created for Pavlova by the choreographer Mikhail Fokine in 1906 to the music of the composer Camille Saint Saëns. 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.

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 behind her, which appears to be the pool of a fountain, creates a quiet and contemplative scene, in contrast to the earlier Bacchante. 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.

Further reading
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.

Frances Fowle
October 2000

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Catalogue entry

Inscr. ‘J. Lavery’ b.l. and on the back ‘J. Lavery Anna Pavlova Le Mort du Cygne.
By John Lavery 5 Cromwell Place London 1911.’
Canvas, 78×57 3/4 (198×146·5).
Presented by Francis Howard through the National Loan Exhibitions Committee 1914.
Exh: R.A., 1912 (415); Liverpool, autumn 1913 (78); (?) Grosvenor Galleries, June–July 1914 (19, as painted 1912, 72×48 in.); International Society, autumn 1914 (among works purchased for presentation to the Tate Gallery, p.56).
Repr: Royal Academy Pictures, 1912, p.4; Hesketh Hubbard, A Hundred Years of British Painting 1851–1951, 1951, pl.60.

Anna Pavlova (1882–1931), the famous ballerina, danced with the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Diaghilev Ballet, but her greatest fame was achieved with her own company, founded, after a number of temporary groups, in 1913. Lavery had already exhibited at the Society of Portrait Painters, 1910, another picture of Pavlova in a different ‘Dying Swan’ costume (Mr and Mrs Kenneth Graham; repr. Lavery, 1940, after p.267). Neither the pose nor the setting of N03000 are in fact taken from ‘The Dying Swan’, which, arranged by Fokine in 1905, was the most famous work in Pavlova's repertoire. Lavery also exhibited ‘Pavlova as a Bacchante’ at the Paris Salon, 1910 (now at Glasgow; repr. in colour, Shaw-Sparrow, n.d., facing p.108).

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I


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