Anna Akhmatova’s “an old portrait” and the Ballets russes

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2 Scopus citations


The unspecified visual art referent in Akhmatova’s enigmatic poem, “An Old Portrait” (Staryi portret, 1910), dedicated to the painter Aleksandra Ekster, has long inspired critical speculation. Scholars (Superfin and Timenchik, Rosslyn, Rubins) have proposed numerous readings, but none has entirely resolved the poem’s mysteries. I will argue that the ballets Le Pavillon d’Armide and Cléopâtre, performed in the first Paris season of the Ballets Russes, provide hitherto unexplored subtexts for the spare but dramatic poem. Considered within the context of the ballets, the poem’s characters and details take on more specific and meaningful contours. By analyzing these ballets’ respective libretti, costume designs and stage sets, it becomes possible to detect in the poem references to the Gobelins portrait depicting the deadly enchantress in Le Pavillon d’Armide, the poisoning of Amoun at the conclusion of Cléopâtre, and Vaclav Nijinsky’s performances as Armida’s servant in Le Pavillon d’Armide and Cleopatra’s slave in Cléopâtre. The poem also demonstrates Akhmatova’s early fascination with portraiture, especially the complex relationship between artist and sitter. In this sense, “An Old Portrait” anticipates the poet’s eventual cultivation of her own image in portraits painted by her contemporaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-93
Number of pages23
JournalCanadian Slavonic Papers
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • History
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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