Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

Serafina Astafieva and Her Cabaret by Carson Ellis

  • Title: Serafina Astafieva and Her Cabaret
  • Artist: Carson Ellis
  • Medium: Gouache on paper
  • Size: 13.5"h x 10"w
  • Creation date: 2009
  • Added to collection: 2010
  • Donor: Art Beat Purchase
  • Campus: Rock Creek
  • Location: B9/1 Administration office rm 115a

This charming work by Illustrator Carson Ellis is based on a period black and white photograph.  How artist Ellis translated this grainy archival photo into a painting is a perfect example of how to work and not to work from photos.  She simplified shapes, eliminated confusing elements, developed a simple palette of blue and red to unify the color, and changed the value of some elements and the scale of some of the figures to clarify the space.  She edited masterfully—  accentuating some elements, diminishing others and suppressing clutter completely to make a clearer design.  The photo is charming, but the painting feels more complete with fewer things: it has a life of its own.

The woman standing to the right is Serafina Astafieva (1876-1934) a Russian ballerina and teacher who studied at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater School and the Mariinsky Ballet School and performed with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. She opened the Russian Dancing Academy in London where her pupils included Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Markova.  The source photo shows Astafieva preparing some of her pupils for the Ypres ball of 1922.  Although Astafieva was remembered mostly as a teacher, as a performer she had the aura of fin-de-siècle exotic decadence that made her a celebrity.  She seems to have made an indelible impression on the sexually nervous T.S. Eliot who wrote of Astafieva under the name of "Grishkin" in his poem "Whispers of Immortality:" In his characteristic mixture of fascination and repulsion, Eliot compared her to the “Brazilian jaguar” which “does not in its arboreal gloom/ distill so rank a feline smell/ As Grishkin in a drawing room.”