Pavel Tchelitchew

The Artwork of Pavel Tchelitchev

Born in October of 1898 in Dubrovka, a settlement of the Russian Empire, Pavel Tchelitchev was a surrealist painter and a costume and set designer. He was an exponent of the Neo-Romantic movement, a group which included French fashion designer and illustrator Christian Bérard and the Russian painters Eugène and Leonid Berman. This group, active in Paris during the 1920’s, drew their inspiration from Picasso’s ‘Blue’ and ‘Pink’ periods and the metaphysical paintings of de Chirico.

The only son of an aristocratic landowning family, Tchelitchev was educated by private tutors and expressed an early interest in art and ballet. After the 1917 revolution, his family was forced to flee Russia and settled in Ukraine. Tchelitchev studied at the Kiev Academy and at the studio of painter Aleksandra Ekster, one of the most experimental women of the avant-garde Art Deco movement. After graduation, he worked from 1920 to 1923 as a designer and builder of theater sets in both Odessa and Berlin. 

During the early 1920s, Pavel Tchelitchev, who was openly homosexual, met American pianist Allen Tanner in Berlin; the two men became lovers and moved together to Paris in 1923 to pursue the artistic careers. That year in Paris, Tchelitchev became acquainted with Gertrud Stein, who introduced him to the Sitwell sisters and the Gorer family, both wealthy families who supported the arts. He developed a long-standing close friendship with Edith Sitwell, which led to frequent correspondence between them and the painting of six portraits of Sitwell.

In Paris, Tchelitchev created multimedia painting, film and dance experiences that led to collaborative works with choreographer George Balanchine, later the founder of the New York City Ballet, and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who founded the preeminent Ballets Russes. Tchelitchev’s first show in the United States was a group exhibition at New York’s newly opened Museum of Modern Art in which he showed his drawings. In 1934, he left his lover Allen Tanner and moved to New York City with his new partner, poet Charles Henri Ford, whom he had met in 1933 shortly after Ford’s arrival in Paris.

Pavel Tchelitchev continued to collaborate with choreographer Balanchine and was introduced to writer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein, who became Tchelitchev’s greatest patron. For seven years tarting in 1940, Tchelitchev produced illustrations for the literary and art magazine “View”, whose coverage of the avant-garde and surrealist art scene was published by Ford and gay poet and film critic Parker Tyler. 

Tchelitchev’s earliest paintings, abstract in style, were influenced by his study in Kiev with Ekster and by the Russian Constructivist and Italian Futurist movements. With his move to Paris in the 1920s, he became influenced by the assertive emotions contained within the brushstrokes of the French Neo-Romantic artists. Tchelitchev continued to experiment with new styles throughout his career and eventually incorporated elements of fantasy and surrealism with multiple perspectives into his body of work. 

Pavel Tchelitchev became a United States citizen in 1952 and moved to Italy with Charles Henri Ford in 1949. He died, with his partner by his side, in July of 1957 in Grottaferrata, Italy. His body is buried in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. Tchelitchew’s works can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His correspondence, writings, photographs and printed material are housed in the Archives at Yale University. 

Note: For those interested in a more comprehensive study of Tchelitchew’s life and work, I recommend James Thrall Soby’s 1942 “Tchelitchew: Paintings, Drawings” published by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This volume in its entirety can be found at:

Top Insert Image: Cecil Beaton, “Pavel Tchelitchew”, circa 1930s, Bromide Print, 22 x 18.7 cm, National Portrait Gallry, Washington DC

Second Insert Image: Pavel Tchelitchew, “Fallen Man”, Date Unknown, Gouache on Paper, 65 x 50 cm, Private Collection

Bottom Insert Image: Pavel Tchelitchew, “Study for Bathers”, 1938, Ink on Paper, 44.5 x 28 cm, Private Collection

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