At Baltimore’s Evergreen Mansion, artist Leon Bakst left the mark of modernity

August 23, 2013

If HGTV had been around in 1922, surely some enterprising producer would have filmed Extreme Home Makeover: Evergreen Mansion Edition. A pitch for the reality redecorating show, complete with photogenic rich people and an eccentric artist, would have gone something like this:

The homeowner with a decorating crisis: Alice Warder Garrett, a former Washington socialite turned arts patron and ambassador’s wife.

The designer: Leon Bakst, a renowned ballet scenery and costume designer whose work is featured in the National Gallery of Art’s Ballets Russes exhibit.

The house: Evergreen Mansion, a neo-classic, 48-room estate on Baltimore’s North Charles Street.

The challenge: Convert Ambassador John W. Garrett’s boyhood gymnasium into a theater. Turn the bowling alley into an Asian art gallery. And do something about all that Victorian clutter in the dining room. (As decorated by Warder Garrett’s recently deceased mother-in-law.)

The results: You’ll have to go see for yourself. But if you’ve already been to “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced with Music,” now is a good time to learn more about Bakst, who lived in Baltimore with the Garretts on and off from 1922 until his premature death in Paris in 1924. At Evergreen you can see dozens of Bakst’s paintings and drawings, his elaborately stenciled theater and his only surviving sets. His work is stunning. But equally fascinating is the story of the Washington heiress who became the confidante, agent and muse of Leon Bakst, and a “Dame Patroness” of the Ballets Russes.

The painter and the patron

The tractors, reapers and hay mowers of middle America made Alice Warder a privileged heiress of the Gilded Age. Born in 1877, she was the daughter of an Ohio businessman who started a farm machinery firm that became International Harvester. He retired at 36 and moved his family to Washington. Warder spent her teen years at a faux-Burgundy castle on K Street. (It was relocated to 16th Street in mid-1920s, and is now the 38-unit Warder Mansion condominium complex). They were an artsy family; Stanford White designed her father’s Rock Creek Cemetery sarcophagus, and the family donated sculptures that are still on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 1905, Warder met John Work Garrett in Berlin, when he was second secretary at the U.S. Embassy and she was a dilettante voice student. Like so many couples then and now, they reconnected in Washington. When they married in 1908, the nuptials were covered by the press with a zeal now reserved for the likes of Will and Kate. Although Garrett spent three decades at the State Department, his grandfather was president of the B&O Railroad, and Garrett County was named for his family. A Baltimore Sun engagement announcement described her as “a prominent young society woman and traveler” who was “a linguist of remarkable ability and a fine literary critic.”

They were married on Christmas Eve by the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. From there, it was off to embassies in Italy, Venezuela and Argentina. During World War I, they both received State Department commissions to work in Paris. Together with novelist Edith Wharton and her Washingtonian friend Mildred Bliss (of Dumbarton Oaks), Warder Garrett organized concerts for out-of-work musicians and used the proceeds to fund French refugee hostels. She put in hours in a Red Cross uniform, but she also found time to go to the opera, the ballet and quite a few Parisian soirees.

Warder Garrett’s World War I-era daybooks from her time in France recount visits with many artists, composers and choreographers associated with the Ballets Russes, the storied company founded by Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. As documented by the NGA exhibit, Diaghilev lifted ballet from the wilted world of fairy tales and oom-pah tunes to the much more vivid realms of 20th-century music and art. Warder Garrett attended her first Ballets Russes performance in 1914, one year after “The Rite of Spring” caused a celebrity riot in Paris, and four years after Bakst’s runaway hit “Scheherazade.”

Bakst was always most at home when asked to design faraway realms. He was born in present-day Belarus and had worked in Russian folk art. He was not famous before working with the Ballets Russes, unlike Matisse, Picasso and other artists in the NGA exhibit. The lushly designed “Scheherazade,” set in an Arabian palace, launched a fashion craze. Remember that scene in Season One of “Downton Abbey” when Lady Sybil comes down to dinner wearing harem pants? Lord Grantham can blame Bakst for that.

“His designs were a lightning rod,” said Sarah Kennel, the National Gallery’s curator for the Ballets Russes exhibit. In nearly all the Bakst designs on display, the bodies are in motion, with diaphanous-looking fabric floating behind the figures.

“His sense of how design and movement worked together allowed him to display his full talent,” Kennel said. “He is really interested in the body that’s wearing the costume.”

In 1915, Warder Garrett wrote home to her sister, “I go almost every day to pose for Bakst . . . he is one of the most strange human beings I have ever known.” That portrait now hangs in a drawing room at Evergreen. In it, Warder Garrett is wearing an ensemble Bakst designed: a loose-fitting blouse, a long blue skirt and a turban. She looks every inch a Ballets Russes dame patroness. The most-talked about ballet of 1917, the season she co-funded, was “Parade,” which featured costumes and sets by Picasso, a libretto by Jean Cocteau and music by Erik Satie.

Ironically, the modernism of “Parade” signaled something of a death knell for Bakst. He had committed to do design work for a new ballet, “La Boutique Fantasque,” but Diaghilev rescinded the contract, angry that his longtime collaborator was also working for Ida Rubenstein, a former Ballets Russes dancer who formed her own troupe. The mercurial impresario may have also been worried that Bakst’s Orientalist style wass too passé. By 1919, the artist’s health and finances were in bad shape. His blood pressure was high, his eyesight was failing and he needed money. In an impassioned letter to Warder Garrett, he calls Diaghilev “vile” and asks for help, saying, “I am so convinced that my art interests and enchants you.”

He must have been right, because she responded by wiring him 15,000 francs.

Reimagining a mansion

From 1919 through 1924, Warder Garrett organized exhibits of Bakst’s work paintings, drawings and costume designs in the Hague, New York and Baltimore, as well as two American tours. She was his agent, but James Abbott, Evergreen’s curator, says the childless heiress and the artist shared a complex bond.

“Bakst went through so many ups and downs in his career,” Abbott said. “There’s a 10-year-span where Mrs. Garrett knows him, and I think she probably serves as much as his counselor and psychiatrist as a friend and confidante. There’s some mothering going on, there’s a little professional advisement, and there’s that friendship, all rolled into one.”

Abbott speculates that John W. Garrett must have found Bakst very entertaining and considered the artist a friend; there were actually more Bakst works displayed in his rooms at Evergreen than in hers. On the strength of his exhibit in Baltimore, the Garretts secured a teaching position for Bakst at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He turned the post down but agreed to a six-month stay at Evergreen. During that time, he lectured at MICA and took on the serious task of helping Warder Garrett redecorate. Garrett’s mother had died in 1920, but her dark, ornate Victorian tastes where the complete opposite of his wife’s.

“When they inherited this house, she did not want to move here,” Abbott said. “[Garrett] had to promise that she could make some changes.”

Theirs being a Washington marriage, the move was a political compromise: Garrett was running for Senate. He lost. But Warder Garrett still got to transform his old gymnasium, filled with the equipment he and his Olympian brother trained on as children, into a theater.

“This space, this was really Baltimore’s first modern room,” Abbott says, gesturing towards the walls of the theater, decorated with hundreds of stenciled patterns. The colors are primary and bright reds, yellows and blues, with gold accents, and the designs are all taken from Russian folk art, including flowers, pheasants and roosters. The stage itself is surrounded by sturgeons, and every detail of the room, from the parchment paper lamps to the stacking end tables, was designed by Bakst.

Did he do all the painting himself? No, but he supervised a work crew that included one of Warder Garrett’s nieces.

“I imagine it was pretty dictatorial,” Abbott said. “He was comfortable with being a dictator.”

Warder Garrett gave the artist free rein in the dining room. The walls are a dazzling shade of yellow, the draperies and valances a deep patterned scarlet. Hanging on the walls are six matching 18th-century Chinese tapestries. For the Ballets Russes,

“She wanted a room that was alive before the first guest sat down at the table,” Abbott said. “It is not as grand at the theater, but it gives you a sense of Bakst and his vision.”

For reasons not entirely clear, Bakst hopped a boat for Paris rather than stick around for “Songs in Costumes,” a grand-opening evening of light opera that Mrs. Garrett performed in the theater, wearing costumes he designed. Bakst returned to Baltimore in 1924, seven months before he died. On this trip, he helped the Garretts turn their bowling alley into an Asian art gallery. The burgundy-and-pink color scheme Bakst chose is relatively tame, but the revelation might be that even when decorating for the rich and famous, Bakst was as resourceful as the hosts of “Design on a Dime”: Rather than building showcases for the artifacts, he sent the workers out to buy medicine cabinets.

Echoes of the Ballets Russes

Attend a concert at Evergreen now, and you can still linger in the gallery while sipping Warder Garrett’s special punch and munching on shrimp salad sandwiches. Until her death in 1954, she would frequently host New York’s Musical Art Quartet, allowing the violinist to perform on her “Red Diamond” Stradivarius.

The mansion is now owned by the Johns Hopkins University and run through a partnership with the Evergreen House Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by Warder Garrett to organize concerts and care for her collections. If Hopkins sells the house, it loses the art, including paintings by Picasso, Ignacio Zuloaga and Raoul Dufy. And of course, the roughly 100 works by Bakst. Many are scattered throughout the mansion, including set designs, a portrait of Linda Lee Porter, Cole Porter’s wife, and a series of 16 botanical drawings.

If you look closely at the drawings, you may notice that the carefully sketched leaves look familiar, not unlike the ivy patterns Bakst stenciled onto the nymph costumes for the ballet “Afternoon of a Faun.” Those original costumes are prominently featured in the National Gallery exhibit, just to the left of the costume Bakst designed for Vaslav Nijinsky in “The Spirit of the Rose.”

Abbott has seen the exhibit, calls it “phenomenal,” and agrees it is aptly named. “Our story at Evergreen is a pocket of a much larger Ballets Russes story,” Abbott said, “about when art danced with music.”

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

Evergreen Museum and Library

is at 4545 N. Charles St. in Baltimore and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, call 410-516-0341 or visit www.museums.jhu.edu.

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced With Music

runs through Oct. 6 at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. For more information, call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

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