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The Ballets Russes, Four Patronesses and Me

05/06/2014 11:21 am 11:21:43 | Updated Jul 06, 2014

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Emily Weddle is a senior Art History and Music double major at Wellesley College.

Some days, it feels like I'm dating my thesis. I check in everyday to give it some attention, I get frustrated at the littlest thing, and I shower it with love when something brilliant comes to me. My senior thesis consumes every single part of my life, and I love it.

When I describe my thesis topic to other people, the first thing out of their mouth is, "Wow, how did you come up with that?" expecting an answer like, "One day I sat down, and I just knew." As much as I'd like to say that were true, it isn't. Like all good relationships, the topic of my thesis came to me gradually over time. I slowly wooed it out of the many books and articles I read, and numerous conversations with my thesis advisor, professors, and friends. I searched far and wide to pinpoint down exactly what I was writing about and to find a valid thesis argument.

My journey began in the spring of my junior year, when my fellow overachieving peers began to discuss the idea of "thesising." For my first two and a half years at Wellesley, I had not put too much thought towards writing a thesis. I was double majoring in Art History and Music, and to me, writing a thesis meant choosing one major over the other. Yet talking to my peers about their ideas got me excited, and I started thinking about a thesis topic that would combine my passion for art and music. I realized that this project could give me the opportunity to explore a period I had been drawn to throughout my studies: Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. I found an amazing advisor, Gurminder Bhogal, in Wellesley's Music department, and we both bonded over our mutual interest in the connections between music and the visual arts.

Around the same time, I was preparing myself for an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, by studying the collection and Peggy's life. I found myself drawn to her story as the strong, independent woman in a male-dominated art world. Since going to a women's college, my interest in women's history has grown immensely. I discussed my research on Peggy and female patrons of art with my thesis advisor, and she led me towards similar patrons of music, including the incredible figure of the Princesse de Polignac.

I hopped into my plane to Venice with a biography of the Princesse, and officially began my thesis research. In between working at the museum and exploring the streets and canals of Venice, I immersed myself into the life of Winnaretta Singer, the lesbian American heiress of the Singer Sewing Fortune. She married the similarly homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac and established a musical salon that dominated Parisian society from 1893 until her death in 1943. Winnaretta commissioned works for her salon from great composers like Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and Francis Poulenc. I was able to visit her palace in Venice and imagined the glamorous life she led. Along the way I found a figure frequently popping up named Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes.

My previous music history studies had briefly introduced me to the Ballets Russes, or Russian Ballet, as the ballet troupe that had produced Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and caused a riot in the theater at the premier. The connection to Winnaretta sparked my interest in the group, and I began researching the Ballets Russes in Venice. A few of my fellow interns had studied the troupe, and they pointed me towards some great resources. Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes in 1909 in Paris, the cultural, musical, and artistic capital of the world. They worked with artists and composers like Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. The Ballets Russes combined some of the greatest minds of modern art and music together to create groundbreaking productions and advances in the avant-garde community.

Hidden amongst the pages of my biography, I found Winnaretta Singer working alongside Stravinsky on works for her salon that ended up being performed by the Ballets Russes. Winnaretta commissioned Stravinsky to write the burlesque ballet Renard for her salon, but the Ballets Russes premiered it in 1922. The next year, the Ballets Russes performed Les Noces to great acclaim, with Winnaretta hosting the musical premiere in her salon the night before the public premiere. She also contributed financially to the troupe, and helped them connect with Prince Pierre of Monaco, her nephew, who granted them a permanent home in the Théâtre de Monte-Carlo and with it financial security in 1923. Her involvement with Diaghilev and Stravinsky extended to affecting the Ballets Russes during a very transitional moment in their history. After World War I, the troupe had lost many of its Russian aristocratic patrons, and French society had changed dramatically, leaving the Ballets Russes without substantial support from their audience as well. Winnaretta's fortune had remained intact through the war, and her commissions and collaborations with Stravinsky provided financial relief for Diaghilev and influenced the new musical direction the Ballets Russes took after the war.

When I returned to Wellesley in the fall, I delved into the world of the Ballets Russes. I found the names of three other women who had worked closely with Diaghilev and other composers and artists. As I read more, I found that their accomplishments had greatly affected the legacy of the Ballets Russes in very specific ways. The Comtesse Greffulhe, née Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, a Belgian princess who had married a French count, worked with Diaghilev to find funding for the first seasons of the Ballets Russes. She had worked closely with Diaghilev's first financier, Gabriel Astruc, with her group the Société des Grandes Auditions, which sponsored public concerts and premieres of musicians, conductors, and newly composed music. Her position in society provided him with access to the upper echelons of the Parisian world, and helped to launch his productions into popularity. Elisabeth introduced Diaghilev to the Princesse de Polignac, and helped to underwrite the Ballets Russes's first popular performance of Boris Godunov in 1908, where he met Misia Sert.

After Diaghilev met her in 1908, Misia Sert entered into Diaghilev's circle of advisors and became his close personal friend and one of his most trusted consultants. Over the years, Misia married a couple of very influential men in Paris, including Thadée Natanson and Alfred Edwards, who had introduced her into the world of bohemian Paris. She became friends with figures like Gabriel Fauré, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Maurice Ravel, and by 1908 had established herself in Parisian society as a strong, intelligent, and popular hostess. She introduced Diaghilev to Ravel, and they worked together on Daphnis et Chloé, which premiered in 1912. She then brought together the collaborative team of Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Léonide Massine, who created the surrealist ballet Parade in 1917. Her greatest contribution to the Ballets Russes was the masterful combinations of composers and artists that she brought together and into Diaghilev's circle. Misia also introduced Diaghilev to Coco Chanel in 1920, and Chanel began to work with the Ballets Russes as well.

Chanel entered into Diaghilev's world at a very transitional moment for the troupe. They had produced a few popular productions, such as Parade and Les Noces, but it was Chanel's fashionable celebrity that brought new life into the Ballets Russes. Chanel's reputation as a forward-thinking couturier imprinted onto the Ballets Russes the chic and glamorous image of the troupe that remains to this day. She joined Misia in Diaghilev's circle of advisors, and she was frequently asked to give input on costuming and set design. In 1924, Chanel provided costumes for Le Train Bleu from her own collections, working alongside Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, Bronislava Nijinksa, Henri Laurens, and Pablo Picasso. Chanel also provided financial support to Stravinsky by endowing the revival production of The Rite of Spring in 1920.

Through my research, I've found that each of these four women held a unique and complex role within the Ballets Russes. My initial curiosity in the project stemmed from the lack of any scholarly works about the contributions of these patronesses. Many of my sources brushed over each of these figures, describing either basic biographical information or general statements like, "The Princesse de Polignac was one of Diaghilev's greatest and most supportive patrons." I kept asking myself why were these women so important, and how did they contribute to the Ballets Russes, questions that no one source could answer. Attending a women's college has made me more aware of the lack of interest and studies into women's history, and my research confirmed that fact. Historians also often tend to brush over the more unglamorous parts of history, including the roles of patrons and the topic of finances.

My thesis argues for the recognition of these four women and the complex roles they held within the Ballets Russes, and to give credit to these women for their incredible achievements in twentieth century music, art, and dance. My thesis brings to light a moment in history that has been overlooked and forgotten. There are no words to describe the feeling of working on a project that gives life back to the legacy of these four women. My hope is that my work will inspire others to question history itself, and to reveal the importance of women's contributions to our society and culture today.

Some days, it feels like I'm married to my thesis. But honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.

--Emily Weddle

The HuffPost College Thesis Project gives students a chance to share with a wide audience the fruit of their hard academic work. The project is launching with about a dozen partner schools, which comprise students from public and private, two- and four-year colleges. To read all posts in the series, visit here.