Léon Samoilovitch Bakst was born as Lev Rosenberg on May 10, 1866 in Grodno (currently Belarus) in a middle-class Jewish family. After graduating from gymnasium, he studied in St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a noncredit student, working part-time as a book illustrator.
On his first exhibition (1889) he took the name of Bakst based on his maternal grandmother's family name Baxter. At the beginning of the 1890s he exhibited his works with Society of watercolourists. During 1893 - 1897 he lived in Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian while still visiting Saint Petersburg often. After the mid-1890s he became a member of the circle of writers and artists formed by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexandre Benois, which later became the Mir Iskusstva art movement.
In 1899, he co-founded with Sergei Diaghilev the influential periodical World of Art. His graphics for the World of Art magazine brought him fame.
He continued easel painting as well producing portraits of Filipp Malyavin (1899), Vasily Rozanov (1901), Andrei Bely (1905), Zinaida Gippius (1906). He also worked as an art teacher for children of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich. In 1902 he took a commission from Tsar Nicholas II to paint Meeting of Russian sailors in Paris.
In 1898 he showed his works in the Diaghilev-organized First exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists; in World of Art exhibitions, as well as the Munich Secession, exhibitions of the Union of Russian Artists, etc.
During the Russian Revolution of 1905 Bakst worked for magazines Zhupel, Adskaja Pochta, Satyricon, then for art magazine Apollon.
Beginning in 1909 Bakst worked mostly as a stage-designer, designing sets for Greek tragedies, and in 1908 made a name as a scene-painter for Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes (Cleopatra (1909), Scheherazade (1910), Carnaval (1910), Narcisse (1911), Le Spectre de la rose (1911), Daphnis et Chloé (1912)). All that time he lived in Europe because as a Jew he did not have the right to live permanently outside the Pale of Settlement.
During his visits to Saint Petersburg he taught in Zvantseva's school. One of his students was Marc Chagall (1908-1910). In 1910 they broke. Bakst advised Chagall not to go to Paris as, according to Bakst, it would be harmful for Chagall's art and financially would probably cause him to die of starvation. Chagall moved there anyway, did not die and actually found his style.
In 1914 Bakst was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts.
In 1922 he broke his relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Leon Bakst died December 28, 1924 in Paris from lung problems.