Sketch for The Day and the Night

Oil on wood
54 x 71 cm
J.A.S. Collection


On May 26, 1916, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company performed in Madrid before the king and queen of Spain, Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia. The monarch was sufficiently impressed to invite Diaghilev to present a new ballet during the summer season in San Sebastian, where the royal family spent the holidays.

Diaghilev decided to create a ballet with a Spanish theme, and on the advice of Léonide Massine, who had seen Velázquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado, chose to present a show with the same title as the famous painting. The costumes would be by the Catalan painter Josep María Sert. Massine based his choreography on a pavane by Gabriel Fauré, thus paying a dual homage to Velázquez and his era, in that the pavane, with its stately, measured rhythm, was the principal dance during the reign of Philip IV. The piece represents the clandestine meeting with their respective lovers of two ladies of the court, who are spied on by a dwarf who blackmails them.

Sert took his inspiration for the costumes from Velázquez’s infantas, but gave them an air of Art Nouveau architecture: the skirts are like pavilions flaring out from the torso as if they were pediments, and the great wigs with their ringlets are reminiscent of columns in silhouette. This made the execution of any kind of dance extremely difficult, but the pavane involved few movements and a good deal of gesticulating.

The ballet was premiered on August 21, 1916, in the Teatro Victoria Eugenia in San Sebastian. The principal dancers were Massine, Lydia Sokolova, Léon Woizikovsky and Olga Khokhlova, who was to marry Pablo Picasso in 1918. When Diaghilev brought his company back to Spain in 1917, they performed in Madrid and twice in Barcelona, and this pavane was included in the repertoire of the first of these appearances, in June.

Josep Maria Sert

Barcelona, 1874-1945

He studied in Barcelona, Rome and Paris and was a disciple of Alexandre de Riquer and a protégé of Francesc Cambó. With exhibitions around the world, he was the most highly acclaimed decorative painter of his time. In addition to his work for private residences, he is noted for his paintings for the cathedral of Vic (Barcelona), the church of San Telmo (San Sebastián), and the Hotel Waldorf Astoria (New York), and for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. His highly imaginative Baroque style, with its luxurious rhetoric in tones of sepia and gold, was at variance with the artistic currents of his time.