Mikhail Vrubel

Mikhail Vrubel

Mikhail Vrubel was a Russian artist known for his demon-themed series of paintings. He was a versatile painter who helped in shaping the development of Russian art until its golden years during the late 19th century. He was considered as one of the greatest Symbolist painters back in his country. He particularly specialized in portraiture and his style is characterized by its fragmented brushstrokes which made his paintings looked similar to the mosaic art of the medieval period.

With Vrubel’s versatility, he became a master of large scale murals, theatrical props production, sculpture and easel painting. He was also an architect at some point and he produced nothing but fine pieces of art works. Alexander Golovin had even described him as someone who “expressed his thoughts perfectly. There was unerring quality about everything he did”. Vrubel was able to stand out on his own because of his originality in style and approach.

Vrubel’s unique painting form often led people to misunderstand his work. Thus, the Russian artist was heavily criticized by his contemporaries. Art historian Repin commented “What a long-suffering life he had, and yet, what pearls his genius produced.” Despite of those criticisms, Vrubel in undeniably one of the leaders of the current artistic movement at the time. He was even thought to be the main proponent of Art Nouveau artists.

Mikhail Vrubel used Mikhail Kermontov’s “The Demon” poem as an inspiration for his own demon theme series of paintings. Historians say that Vrubel was already on the verge of losing his sanity when he was working on the series but this problem did not tarnish his growing reputation even more so after his death. However, on whether his art could be characterized as Byzantine or Art Nouveau, it is still up for debate.

Vrubel’s major works include Virgin and Child (1885), Girl against a Persian Carpet (1886), The Seated Demon (1890), Portrait of Konstatin Artsybushev (1897), and Six Winged Seraphim (1904).

Early Life

Mikhail Vrubel was born on March 5, 1856 in Omsk, Russia. His Polish father was a military lawyer whom insisted that his son should become a lawyer, too. The young Vrubel then earned his law degree from the St. Petersburg University in 1880. Nevertheless, his father knew of his son’s interest and talent in painting. He provide the support that Mikhail needed by hiring art tutors for his training.

In 1881, Vrubel got accepted at the Imperial Academy of Arts. He was under direct supervision of Master Pavel Chistyakov. The student undoubtedly has talent and a unique style that served him well. Eventually, he would develop a keen interest in creating his own composition and penchant for Symbolism; painting in fragment brushwork. He would combine this fragmentary composition with mosaic art techniques.

Early Career: Byzantine Art

Mikhail Vrubel’s early career began when he was invited to make new mosaics and wall paintings in St. Cyril Church at Kiev. The old art decoration was originally executed during the 12th century and it would be his task to replace them with 20th century inspired Christian art. Thus, he was sent to Venice to get a hold of medieval Christian art.

Middle Years

Visiting Venice, Vrubel would take interest in the mosaics decorated at the Church of San Marco particularly. He was also drawn to the works of Giovanni Battista Cima da Congeliano and Giovanni Bellini. Unfortunately, several of his works in Venice have been lost. It is said that his disinterest in expanding his pool of clientele resulted to less effort in promoting his work; hence, most of which have been improperly documented.

In 1886, Vrubel went to Kiev to create and submit his designs for decorating St. Volodymir Cathedral. These designs depict some Bible scenes such as The Resurrection and The Lamentation. The panel of judges however turned his proposed design down because of its eccentricity. To make a living, he worked as an illustrator for famous plays such as Anna Karenina and Hamlet. It is worth mentioning that these illustrations gained little influence on his later works.

During this period, Vrubel would have begun working on the pictorial representation of Lermontov’s The Demon poem. He would have also produced fine works such as The Oriental Tale and the Portrait of a Girl against a Persian Carpet, both of which were executed in 1886.

Mature Years

Vrubel settled in Moscow in 1889 to illustrate a series of The Demon inspired paintings. This was commissioned to celebrate the 50th death anniversary of the Russian poet, Lermontov. The paintings were painted with black watercolor and cardboard as medium. The series (1890-91) included the following titles:

  • Tamara and Demon
  • Tamara Dancing
  • Tamara Lying in State
  • Head of Demon
  • Demon and Angel with Tamara’s Soul

However, these works attracted negative comments from the public audience. The scholars had other opinion in mind though, as they appreciated the series well. The illustrations made a controversial debut for its depiction of carnal desire of an evil spirit for a human named Tamara. The repelling theme had obviously made the painter famous nonetheless and this perhaps inspired him to continue his idiosyncratic choice of style and theme.

Despite receiving unfavorable criticism from the public, Vrubel won the support of wealthy patrons such as Pavel Tretyakov and Savva Mamontov. In 1890 he was executed his masterpiece The Seated Demon which is now located at the Tretyakov Gallery. This was then followed by The Demon Cast Down in 1902. These novel paintings are recognized as one of the greatest products of Russian Symbolism.

Art Nouveau

Before the 19th century ended, Vubrel befriended Nadezhda Zabela, a renowned opera singer. The got involved in a romantic relationship soon after and married in Moscow. His association with Zabela opened doors of opportunity for him to design props and costumes for theater performances of his wife and company. He was essentially part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera productions at the time. He presumably designed sets and costumes for Pan (1899), Lilacs (1900), and The Swan Princess (1900).

As a Portrait Painter

Mikhail Vrubel’s asset lies in his skill in using watercolor onto portraits and still-life paintings allowing him to shift from illustration and theatrical painting to portraiture during the late 19th century. He gained some more clients in the city varying from doctors, art patrons to independent artists. He painted portraits of the following public figures:

  • Konstantin Artsybushev (1897)
  • Savva Mamontov (1897)
  • The poet Valery Briusov (1906)
  • Psychiatrist Fiodor and wife Usoltsev (1905)
  • Nadezdha Zabela-Vrubel in an Empire Dress (1898)
  • Savva Vrubel, the Artist’s Son (1902)

Old Age

The fin de siècle period was also the time when Vrubel’s career suffered an overall decline. He returned to painting dark theme scenes like The Demon Cast Down of 1902. Biographers however say that this could be partly due to syphilis and a chronic nervous breakdown. These disorders required him to be admitted in a mental health hospital.

While suffering from poor mental health, Vrubel was still able to complete some more portraits over the next couple of years. He finished portraits for The Prophet by Pushkin as well as other private persons’ portraits. Until 1906, Vrubel contracted an eye disease that made him give up his art. And on April 1, 1910, he died of complication at the age of 54. His remains were buried at St. Petersburg, Russia.

Vrubel’s Art

Mikhail Vrubel was one of the few artists who chose not to conform to Western art influence. His painting style was novel and extraordinary that will help the audience gain a better understanding of Russian literature. From the literature’s depth, symbol and sensibilities, everything is captured and translated into thought-provoking paintings.

For example, in his The Seated Demon, Vrubel used color psychology to invoke human emotions combined with the unsettling appearance and posture of the main figure. The figure is painted with human physical traits so it makes it subject open to interpretation whether the audience could look at the figure as themselves or the artist’s. There is a puzzling tension in the figure’s torso and effeminate face.

By tone, the painting seems to be buried deep in melancholy and longing. This is where the poem Demon by Lermontov would come in as a direct source of inspiration for Vrubel’s seated demon. The poem tells the story of Satan who is seeking revenge against the Creator by destroying the Tamara’s fiancé, a prince. The demon succeeded in destroying the prince and then pursues Tamara until he falls in love with her.

Satan fell hard for Tamara that he is willing to change himself for the better, if in return, it would mean Tamara reciprocating his love. However, the would-be princess dies shortly after resisting Satan’s attempt to charm her. Thus, the demon lost hope in changing his bad ways that will get him to heaven again.

While there may be lots of interpretations for Lermontov’s poem, Vrubel took it upon himself to see the character as both the artist and himself. He wanted to show how difficult it is to have balance between creativity and lust. And it is worth mentioning that Vrubel’s demons are structured with androgynous features, as such, art critics take it as his struggles in coming to terms with his sexuality.

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