Exhibit reflects artist's enduring fascination with ballet dancer

— Jamie Wyeth was so fascinated with Rudolf Nureyev that he asked the ballet dancer if he could paint his portrait.

At their first meeting at a party in 1974, Nureyev said no. A year later, he reconsidered.


AP Photo

Artist Jamie Wyeth, who is standing by one of his paintings at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, was so fascinated with celebrated ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev that he created hundreds of drawings and paintings of the famous dancer over a quarter-century span.

The dancer's change of heart led to a lasting friendship and hundreds of drawings and paintings that stretched over a quarter century.

The passion and excitement Nureyev brought to the stage helped spread an appreciation of ballet in the West before he died in 1993. Wyeth, 55, developed his talents under the guidance of his famous father, Andrew Wyeth, and went on to achieve fame in his own right.

Their bond is reflected in the exhibition, "Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer," which opened this month at the Farnsworth Art Museum.

Besides more than 35 paintings and drawings � most of them from Wyeth's personal collection � the show includes more than 60 black-and-white photographs of Nureyev in performance and a sampling of costumes he wore on the stage.

Realistic proportions

Wyeth found Nureyev to be a difficult and demanding model who was quick to second-guess the artist at every step if what appeared on canvas or the drawing board failed to conform to the dancer's self-image.

Nureyev had ugly feet, an occupational hazard in ballet, and Wyeth recalled the time he was in a dressing room drawing his subject's foot.

"He jumped up, looked at the drawing and said, 'My foot more beautiful,"' Wyeth recalled, mimicking Nureyev's Russian accent.

Wyeth, who worked at a morgue in Harlem as part of his training to sketch the human form, was exacting in his quest for accuracy. He took notes on proportions � "one nose equals so many cheekbones" � and even resorted to calipers to ensure accurate measurements.

"One time, (Nureyev) turned to me and said, 'You measure me so much you could make me suit,"' the artist said.

Wyeth sought out Nureyev because he found the dancer's appearance so remarkable, with prominent cheekbones and other strong features that became more pronounced toward the end of his dancing career.

Nureyev was short, 5 feet 6 inches or so, "but on stage he looked enormous," the artist said. The exhibit's selection of tunics and jackets that Nureyev wore in such ballets as "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "Raymonda" are so tiny that one wonders how anyone could fit into them.

An animal-like force

Wyeth suspects that Nureyev agreed to be painted after a groundbreaking exhibit of works by three generations of Wyeths � Jamie, Andrew and grandfather N.C. Wyeth � was shown in the then-Soviet Union. It was the first exhibit by prominent American artists in the homeland on which Nureyev turned his back when he defected in 1961.

Nureyev did not pose for his portrait.

Instead, Wyeth followed the dancer over the course of a year in rehearsals, performances and in his dressing room. They even traveled together overseas, to France and England. They enjoyed each other and became close friends.

"He never would really sit and pose," Wyeth said. "Most of these drawings were done rather quickly, backstage."

He continued to draw Nureyev during the dancer's occasional visits to the Wyeths' farm in Chadds Ford, Pa., where Nureyev loved to rummage through the family's collection of old uniforms and try them on for fun.

"Unlike so many performers, offstage he was as interesting as he was onstage," Wyeth said. His presence and movement projected an animal-like force, and "having him in your house was like having a panther in your house."

Nureyev adored Wyeth's wife, Phyllis, who went on to accompany him on his return to Russia in 1989.

Recent paintings

In 2001, eight years after Nureyev's death, Wyeth completed large, brightly colored paintings of the dancer on the stage. Using costumes and music in his studio to create the appropriate mood, Wyeth had plenty of drawing books filled with sketches of Nureyev's hands or ears to help refresh his memory.

The new exhibit, which includes the paintings completed last year, was set in motion when Wyeth was approached by Catherine Stevens, a board member of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and wife of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Russia's Kirov Ballet, where Nureyev got his start, had made a 10-year commitment to perform at the Kennedy Center and Catherine Stevens suggested the Wyeth exhibit coincide with the troupe's February visit. The exhibit then moved on to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

It will remain at the Farnsworth through January and make its last stop at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, where it will be displayed until next May.

Like Wyeth, a longtime resident of Monhegan who has a studio on another island near the Maine coast, Nureyev enjoyed island living and ended up buying an island off Italy.

But during the years of their friendship, the dancer never was able to visit Wyeth's Maine retreat.

"So I think that bringing this show to Maine is like finally bringing Rudolf to Maine," he said.


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