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Portraits of Dancer Rudolf Nureyev by Artist James Wyeth Acquired by Brandywine River Museum
on view beginning September 22, 2006
The Brandywine River Museum recently acquired 20 well-known and fascinating portraits of dancer Rudolf Nureyev by artist James Wyeth. Also included in the acquisition are sketchbooks, costumes worn by the dancer, and many items of Nureyev memorabilia. The paintings and drawings were part of an exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum in 2003 titled Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer.
George A. "Frolic" Weymouth, Chairman of the Board of the Brandywine Conservancy, the parent organization of the museum, said, "These works have been preserved as a collection through the enormous generosity of individuals who love this art, and we are deeply grateful to them."
James H. Duff, the Brandywine River Museum Director, said, "This famous collection of art and memorabilia and the unique cultural history it represents will be seen and enjoyed by the public now and for generations to come."
The portraits of Nureyev were inspired by the close friendship that developed between the two during the year that Wyeth spent observing and painting the dancer backstage, in rehearsals, and in performances. Although Wyeth began working on the portraits in 1977, several were not completed until 2001, eight years after Nureyev died. Larger in scale and brighter in color than the 1977 works, the later paintings depict the consummate performer as he will be remembered, onstage in lavish costumes against dramatic backdrops.
According to Wyeth, Nureyev was one of his most difficult and demanding models, taking an active role in determining how his body, the instrument of the dancer, was to be presented. Over time, they began to understand each other, and the process became a collaborative effort.
Wyeth was granted rare permission to observe and sketch Nureyev in his most revealing and intense moments as he was preparing to take the stage. Wyeth recalled how Nureyev, in the role of the moonstruck clown in Pierrot Lunaire, with his face covered in white paint and his eyes glowing, would immerse himself in the character to the exclusion of all else. "He would get into this frenzy, here was this silent figure in his white makeup with his hair flying. He was completely in his own world." Wyeth was also photographed measuring Nureyev with calipers during his careful recording of his well-toned body. Nureyev commented that Wyeth knew his anatomy better than his tailor. He said, "You could make me suit!"
Nureyev began his career in the celebrated class of Alexander Pushkin and later went on to dance leading roles with the Kirov Ballet. During the 1961 Kirov tour of Western Europe, Nureyev defected in Paris. On the international stage, Nureyev partnered with Margot Fonteyn to become one of the legendary pairings in ballet, attracting new audiences to the theater. He went on to revolutionize and revitalize the 20th-century world of ballet, cutting through the traditions and prejudices that bisected the art of dance by insisting on the widest possible choices of repertory and technique. From 1983 to 1989, he served as artistic director of the Paris Opra Ballet.
Wyeth left school in 1958 at the age of 12 to begin his artistic career. By 18, he had already achieved a measure of prominence, with his paintings hanging in the permanent collections of several notable museums and libraries. By 20, he had his first one-man show in New York, and before the age of 35 he enjoyed a retrospective of his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Wyeth is perhaps best known for his sensitive and illuminating portraits with subjects ranging from his pet pig (Portrait of Pig) to Pop Art icon Andy Warhol (Portrait of Andy Warhol). Like a method actor, Wyeth spends as much time as possible with the subject of a portrait, "trying to get under his skin, trying to absorb his character by osmosis," he has said.
The acquisition of the Nureyev portraits and memorabilia was made possible by generous grants from the Robert Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, the Roemer Foundation, the Margaret Dorrance Strawbridge Foundation of PA, I, Inc. and an anonymous donor.
Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:
and this video:
Capturing Nureyev, James Wyeth Paints The Dancer is a 24 minute video featuring interviews with James Wyeth, and Clive Barnes. Directed and edited by Stephen Labovsky and produced by the Farnsworth Art Museum.
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