The sitter of the portrait, as noted through an inscription on the stretcher, is Sergei Diaghilev (often referred to outside of Russia as Serge Diaghilev). Diaghilev was an art critic, patron and ballet impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes.
Luke Jennings from the Guardian has noted that ‘in the tangled narrative of 20th century art, there is no more colourful or influential figure than Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev’. Indeed, Sergei Diaghilev took early 20th century Europe by storm with his modern dance company, the Ballet Russes. The company rapidly became known, not just for their ballet, but also for their sets and costumes and the impact of Diaghilev’s artistic vision can still be felt today in both the art and dance worlds. Charming, ruthless, and powerful, Diaghilev identified and nurtured talent across a range of genres from design to composition and choreography, bringing household names such as Stravinsky to prominence and launching the careers of a number of highly influential dancers.
He also worked with more established artists and designers including Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and André Derain giving them an outlet for new ideas. In doing so, he ensured that the Ballet Russes remained at the forefront of the avant-garde for two decades through a turbulent period of history.
A French painter and writer, Blanche had both talent and charm, and he enjoyed a great vogue in his day. His work was much influenced by such contemporaries as James Tissot and John Singer Sargent. The loose brushwork and subdued colouring of his portraits are also reminiscent of Edouard Manet and English 18th-century artists, especially Thomas Gainsborough.
Except for a few lessons with Henri Gervex and Ferdinand Humbert (1842–1934), he had no formal training. He worked best on a small scale, and some of his less ambitious oils and small sketches.
As much at home in England as in France, Blanche visited London every year from 1884 with great success. His chief patrons there were Mrs Saxton Noble and Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland. Among the many portraits he painted of English sitters are those of Mrs Holland (1885; untraced) and the Saville Clark Sisters (c. 1890; Leeds, C.A.G.), both of which have a panache worthy of Sargent. His ability to capture a sitter’s personality is particularly apparent in his portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1895; London, N.P.G.), for whose novel, Under the Hill, Blanche wrote the preface. He also painted the artist Charles Conder (1904; London, Tate), James Joyce (1934; Dublin, N.G. and 1935; London, N.P.G.), Violet Trefusis (1926; London, N.P.G.) and Virginia Woolf (1927; Providence, RI, Sch. Des., Mus. A.).
Blanche regularly spent his summers at his family house in Dieppe, playing host to many of his artist friends, including Walter Sickert and Sargent, and popularizing Dieppe as an artistic colony. There he painted his masterpiece, the large group portrait of the Norwegian landscape painter Frits Thaulow and his Family (1907; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). He made a generous bequest of his own paintings, and those he had collected, to the nearby Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen.
Blanche’s closest connections, however, were with Paris. He exhibited at the Salon from 1882 to 1889 and at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts from 1890. Although he quarrelled irrevocably with his patron Comte Robert de Montesquiou in 1889, he remained part of the social and cultural life of Paris. Many of his friends were painters—among them Edgar Degas, Paul Helleu and Giovanni Boldini. He painted portraits of the composer Claude Debussy (untraced), the poet Anna de Noailles (1912; Rouen, Mus. B.-A.) and the dancer Vaclav Nijinsky (1910; London, priv. col.), depicted life-size in Diaghilev’s production Les Orientales.
His portrait of Marcel Proust (1892; Paris, priv. col.), whom he had met in the salon of a fashionable hostess in 1891, depicts the author as a young dandy on the threshold of society. The two became good friends; Proust helped Blanche with his writing and corrected the proofs of his Cahiers d’un artiste, a series of letters about the activities of their mutual friends (under pseudonyms) during World War I. Proust also wrote the preface to Propos de peintre, a group of essays in which Blanche discussed many painters from Jacques-Louis David to his own time.