Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) 

Paul Swan (1883-1972)

Portrait of Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Paul Swan
Oil and Canvas
20th Century
39 x 28 in. (99.1 x 71.1 cm.)
The artist; Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta (1887-1948); Enrico Saccone.
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Isadora Duncan is considered to be a revolutionary within the history of international dance, and the present work, painted five years before her tragic death, represents not just a likeness but an age, and reveals far more about the dancer and her style than initially one might think.

Isadora was exposed to the arts at a young age and in 1903, following a brief stint in London, she was in Berlin where her performances soon caught the attention of the higher echelons of dance society. Isadora preached a new form of dance; ‘The Dance of the Future’, which aimed to ‘[…] express what is the most moral, healthful and beautiful in art’ . Over the next decade Isadora began to achieve her aspirations and choreographed a number of performances to the work Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Schubert – the latter having been introduced to at a young age by her mother. Her choreography was always highly charged and touched upon a number of themes including sexuality, friendship and motherhood, as well responding to shifts in the political climate of her times.

Tragedy struck however in 1913 when her two children (one by theatre designer Gordon Craig and the other by Paris Magnate), drowned in the Seine river. The children were being driven home with their nanny after lunch when the car stalled and the driver got out to start the engine again; the handbrake was never engaged and the car rolled down an embankment and into the river. Following this disaster Isadora’s choreography turned to the idea of loss, as reflected in her dance ‘Nocturn’ (1915), in which an angel calls a hesitant fallen soldier to heaven.

Isadora had always believed that dance played a crucial role in developing the character of children so in 1921, after failing to gain support in America for a dance school, she moved to Moscow where she found considerable support. When her funding was withdrawn the following year, Isadora, along with new husband Sergei Essenin, moved back to America, although faced criticism over her supposed Bolshevist sympathies. In 1923 Isadora’s citizenship was revoked and she returned to the Soviet Union before moving to Berlin then Paris, where she ran up considerable debt, and on 8 July 1927 at the Theatre Mogador, she gave her last public performance.

Isadora died later that year in a tragic accident in Nice, when the long flowing scarf she was wearing got caught around the wheel of a Bugatti sports car, pulling her from the passenger seat and breaking her neck. Supposedly her last words were ‘Goodybye, my friends, I’m off to glory!’

In this work Isadora is shown in a wistful manner, with her hand raised to her chest as she glances out of the picture frame. The positioning of her hand however is not simply a device to create dynamicity within the composition, it is reference to her belief that the human soul is located in the solar plexus - the area at the centre of the chest which she appears to be protecting. Isadora believed that all movement in dance, which is in itself a physical manifestation of feeling and emotion, should develop from this area and spread outwards, and gave it great prominence in her choreography.

Paul Swan, who was famously referred to be by a journalist as ‘the most beautiful man in the world’, first encountered Isadora at a ball in Paris in the early 1920s when Swan, although in his late thirties, was greeted with the flattering line: ‘O, beautiful youth, come here to me! Where have you come from? Arcady?’ As a dancer of notable repute himself, Swan’s admiration of Isadora was perhaps unsurprising, and they quickly found common ground in their naturally contrarian approach to their medium. Following Isadora’s death Swan arranged a memorial service, which, according to one biographer, more closely resembled a theatrical production with group chants and dance creations.
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