The Sleeping Beauty: The Princess Pricks her Finger on a Spinning Wheel

Artist or maker:
Bakst, Léon (b.1866, d.1924)
commissioned in 1913, completed in 1922
Place of production:
Paris, France
oil on canvas
Type of object:
Accession number:


Seven panels tell the story of Sleeping Beauty. The Princess pricks her finger in the third of the series. The artist, Bakst, was born in Russia and began his career as a painter and illustrator. He achieved his greatest success in the theatre, notably with his designs for the Ballets Russes, which he helped to found.

In the preceding panel, the Good Fairy, unable to lift the wicked curse entirely, promises that if the Princess pricks her finger she will sleep only a hundred years, and then be awakened by the Prince whom she will marry. Here, Bakst provides a sense of foreboding with the raven haunting the scene at upper right, and the caged bird in the window. A more optimistic note appears in the corbel of peacocks drinking at a fountain, a symbol of eternal life.

The lack of modelling in the old woman's skirt reveals Bakst's unusal emphasis on pattern and colour. In a letter of 1921 to her brother James, Alexandrine de Rothschild described Bakst's way of painting the costumes: 'He has a very curious way of working. He starts by drawing the fabrics flat, without folds or shades, and then when he has all the colours and the fabrics hanging from the backs of his characters, like from a roll, he models them. When we saw them it was the first stage. I have to go back in a two or three weeks when he has given them life'. The perspective is also distorted in this panel; it has been suggested that it was inspired by a convex stage setting designed by Bakst for 'The Good Humoured Ladies'.

In 1890, Bakst had seen the dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s first production of the ballet Sleeping Beauty in Saint Petersburg. He said that this experience determined his career, but it was not until 1913 that he had the chance to explore the subject in a sustained way. Bakst’s paintings of the fairy tale were commissioned in 1913 by the newly married James de Rothschild to decorate the drawing room of his London house, which overlooked Hyde Park. The choice of subject was left to the artist, who completed the seven panels in 1922, delayed by ill health, other work and the First World War. In 1923 it was decided to hang the panels in the dining room, but it is not known whether they were ever installed. They were finally hung in the dining room of James's and Dorothy's next house, at 23 St James's Place. They were installed in the Bakst Room at Waddesdon in 1995.

Bakst had not undertaken such monumental painting on this scale before, although he had previously designed several murals. He looked to Italian Renaissance examples, such as Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506), for inspiration. Two preparatory sketches for this panel are known. Bakst based the faces of most of the characters on sketches he made of his patrons, their family and friends. Here, the housekeeper of James de Rothschild’s father, Madame Marion, guides James's sister-in-law, Noémie, to her fate, whilst his sister Alexandrine's cat lounges in front. Several preparatory portrait sketches by Bakst are also at Waddesdon, including one of Madame Marion made in 1921. In 1918, James had suggested using portraits in response to Bakst's complaints about the shortage of models in Paris during the war. Nearing the end of his commission, in 1921, Bakst stated that he wanted to do more murals and portraits as they were not so fleeting as theatre designs. Whilst he went on to make portraits, he never painted such murals again.

Juliet Carey and Phillippa Plock, 2012

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
2500 approx x 1410 - sight
Signature & date:
signed and dated, lower right: BaKST / 1922


Commissioned by James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957) for 34 Park Street, London in 1913; installed at 23 St James's Place after 1930; bequeathed by James upon trust for his wife Dorothy de Rothschild (b.1895, d.1988) and on her death to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; purchased by a Rothschild Family Trust in 1990.
Exhibition history:
'Léon Bakst: The Sleeping Beauty', Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel, 9 November 1992 - 9 January 1993, no. 3
Waddesdon (Rothschild Foundation)
On loan since 1995



Alexander Woollcott, Second Thoughts on First Nights, New York Times, 13 February 1921; p. 89; Bakst's refutation of being blind with description of paintings.
Leon Bakst, New York Times, 29 November 1922; p. 16; report on Bakst's visit to USA with description of paintings.
Bakst: An Exhibition at The Fine Art Society Limited; 3 December 1973 - 4 January 1974; London; Fine Art Society; 1973; nos 70-71; Study for the Baptism and Princess at the Spinning Wheel.
Charles Spencer; Léon Bakst; London; Academy Editions; 1973; pp. 189, 208, 240, fig. 217; as 'Princess at the Spinning Wheel'.
Haviva Peled-Carmeli, Doron J Lurie; Léon Bakst: The Sleeping Beauty; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 9 November 1992 - 9 January 1993; Tel Aviv; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; 1992; p. 57, fig. 3; p. 83 fig. 47; pp. 114, 116-120; p. 133; cat. no. 3.
Diana Souhami; Bakst: The Rothschild Panels of the Sleeping Beauty; London; Philip Wilson Publishers; 1992; pp 64-65, pp. 100-101.
Charles Spencer; Léon Bakst and the Ballets Russes; London; Academy Group; 1995; pp. 192-203, 223, fig. 299; as 'Princess at the Spinning Wheel'.
Jean Louis Gaillemin, Itinerari segreti: La bella addormentata, Architectural Digest: Le più belle case del mondo, 199, December 1997, 170-175; p. 171, ill.
Yelena Bespalova, Bakst's Panels for the Rothschilds in Waddesdon, Russian Fine Art Magazine, 2006, 29-39; p. 31, ill.

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