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Alexandrovich Vrubel (1865-1910) is a Russian artist of remarkable talent
and an unusual outlook on life. His paintings were produced in alternately
hostile and sympathetic atmosphere. In his lifetime, he knew both praise
and disdain, the spectator’s opinions ranging from “wild ugliness” to “fascinating
symphonies of a genius”. Gradually, however, Vrubel’s painting came to
be viewed as an integral part of Russian culture. Some scholars were inclined
to relate his painting directly to the Early Renaissance or Late Byzantine
art and looked upon Vrubel as a proud artistic individual who held aloof
from contemporary trends. On the other hand, many art historians of today
tend to consider Vrubel as the founder of Russian Art Nouveau.
Born into the family of a military lawyer, Vrubel first finished the St. Petersburg University (in 1880) to become a lawyer, but the same year entered the Academy of Arts. In his autobiography, written in 1901, Vrubel referred to his Academy years as the happiest in his life as an artist. For that he was indebted to professor Pavel Tchistyakov, who was famous for his method of teaching painting and drawing. Among Tchistyakov’s pupils were such outstanding painters as Vasily Surikov, Viktor Vasnetsov and Vasily Polenov who all thought very highly of their teacher. Vrubel owed much to the Academy and never shared the distaste felt by many advanced painters of the time. Vrubel’s art, academic in a sense, was based on the cult of the model and drawing. His Academy drawings on classical subjects are striking for their elegant workmanship.
However, even during his training, Vrubel never was a devoted follower of the Academy style. Along with an expressiveness and rich imagination, his works, already at this period, reveal a taste for improvisation, fragmentary composition, his characteristic “unfinished” manner peculiarly fused with classical style and monumentality. In 1884, the famous art historian Adrian Prakhov, who supervised the re-construction of the old and construction of the new cathedrals in Kiev, invited Vrubel to take part in the restoration of the Old Russian murals and mosaics in the 12th century Church of St. Cyril. The knowledge Vrubel acquired in the process of this work contributed to the perfection of his style as a painter. In St. Cyril’s Church, Vrubel executed new murals in place of the lost ones, The Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (Pentecost) and Three Angels over the Body of Christ. Later, he was commissioned to paint icons for the iconostasis of the church, which he did in Venice where he spent several months in the years 1884-85. In Venice, Vrubel was particularly impressed by the medieval mosaics in the Church of San Marco and the Early Renaissance paintings by Giovanni Bellini and Cima da Conegliano. It was in Venice that Vrubel’s palette acquired new strong saturated tones resembling the iridescent play of precious stones. In Venice, Vrubel produced four large icons, including The Virgin. He drew the face of the Virgin from the studies of E. Prakhova, wife of A. Prakhov.
Back in Kiev, Vrubel started a series of watercolor studies for the recently built Cathedral of St. Vladimir, among them several versions of The Lamentation (1887) and The Resurrection (1887). The jury rejected all his projects. In Kiev Vrubel started to work on the theme of the Demon. The Kiev versions of the Demon, both the pictures and sculptures, have not survived. In fact, Vrubel did not take pains to preserve his works, being more interested in the process of creation than in the result.
Other works of the Kiev period include the large canvas Portrait of a Girl against a Persian Carpet and The Oriental Tale (1886), the latter inspired by The Arabian Nights, Hamlet and Ophelia (1884) and numerous watercolors with flowers. The murals, canvases, or small watercolors done in Kiev have none of the Art Nouveau style, which was to appear only in Vrubel’s works of the Moscow period.
Vrubel planned to stop in Moscow for a few days during his business trip, but the acquaintances from Moscow's artistic life kept him in Moscow for years. During his first year in Moscow, Vrubel went on working on the paintings he had conceived in Kiev. Among others are The Seated Demon (1890) and a series of illustrations for Mikhail Lermontov’s poem The Demon (1890) and his novel A Hero of Our Time (1890-1891). The illustrations made his name known to the public but brought him notoriety rather than fame: too unusual for the tastes of 1880s, they caused bewilderment and derision. But in the artistic circles of Russia, Vrubel was received favorably. He found support from Savva Mamontov, a famous Moscow patron of arts, who invited the artist to work at the pottery shop on his estate in Abramtsevo near Moscow and commissioned him to paint the scenery for his Private Opera in Moscow. Mamontov also built up a clientele commissioning Vrubel to paint decor for mansions. Together with Mamontov and his family Vrubel traveled in Europe.
Later on, Vrubel tried himself at various artistic media such as applied art (ceramics, majolica, stained glass), architectural masks, stage set and costume design, and even architecture. His talent proved truly universal: in everything he did, and he could do almost everything, was the search for a lucid beautiful style. This search eventually made Vrubel the true founder of Russian Art Nouveau, a style that partially grew out of Russian neo-romanticism.
The most characteristic feature of this style is its cult of beauty – melancholic, enigmatic and refined – and its tendency to the synthesis of arts in everything, be it an illustrated book, a theater performance, or décor. Art Nouveau never was confined to easel painting or sculpture alone. It found its way into people’s households becoming an essential part of interior decoration. The somewhat affected mannerism generally typical of the style, also manifested itself in Vrubel’s works of the Moscow period. His panels, ceramic dishes, stylized furniture, costumes, and vignettes, perfect as they are, are at the same time superficial, as if intended for a fancy ball.
Vrubel’s best Moscow works include the Fortune-Teller (1895), Lilac (1900), At Nightfall (1900), Pan (1899), The Swan Princess (1900) as well as the portraits of Savva Mamontov (1891), his business partner K. Artsybushev (95-96), and Painter’s Wife in Empire Dress (1898).
In 1896, in an opera in St. Petersburg, Vrubel heard the singer Nadezhda Zabela, he fell in love with the voice immediately. After the performance they got acquainted and, half a year later, married. At the time Vrubel was referred to as the husband of the famous opera singer Nadezhda Zabela. They settled in Moscow, and Nadezhda started to sing in Mamontov’s Private Opera.
In the last years of the 19th century, Vrubel was preoccupied with motifs of the Russian epic and fairy tales, this largely under the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, e.g. The Snow Maiden, The Tale of Tzar Saltan, and others, where his wife sang the parts of the Snow Maiden, the Swan Princess, princess Volkhova, etc. He designed dresses for his wife, both for the stage and for real life, he drew stage sets, designed costumes.
Later, he resumed work on the Demon theme. In 1901, he started his large canvas Demon Downcast. Exhibited in 1902, the painting overwhelmed the audience and won real fame for the artist. The painting, charged with motion, is strongly decorative. Striving to create the astounding effect, Vrubel, who at the time, was already unbalanced, repainted the Demon’s face, his sinister eyes, his lips, twisted by pain. He repeatedly repainted the picture even when it was on display until he had one of his breakdowns.
Having recovered, Vrubel never again returned to this theme. While in the hospital, he painted a great deal from life – portraits, landscapes, still lifes, as if in hope to rejuvenate the faded palette of his art through painstaking study of nature. Most of these late works were painted from life. They include numerous portraits of Vrubel’s wife, a portrait of his little son (1902), several self-portraits, and, at last, his remarkable Pearl Oyster (1904) where the mystifying play of the mother-of-pearl is rendered with the virtuosi brush of the artist.
Alongside these works, Vrubel produced many versions of the prophet, inspired by the famous Pushkin’s poem. In one of the versions, the Prophet’s face is actually a self-portrait while the figure of the six-winged Seraph is apparently Azrael, the angel of death. Azrael (1904), though not so famous as the Demon Downcast, is one of Vrubel’s best achievements. In his many variations on the Prophet theme, Vrubel relates a tragedy of the artist who, as he believed, failed to fulfill his mission to “sear the hearts of men with righteous word”.
Unfortunately, many of Vrubel’s works have changed with time; he used to add bronze powder to his oils to give them a glistening effect. Bronze darkened, and Vrubel’s paintings lost their initial coloring.
In 1906, when Vrubel was hospitalized in Dr. Usoltsev’s mental clinic, he continued to make studies for the Prophet and even his rapidly developing blindness did not prevent him from doing this. At the same time, Vrubel executed the Portrait of the Poet Valery Briusov, destined to be his last work.
During the last four years of his life Vrubel lived in complete mental decline.
Vrubel by N.Dmitriyeva. Russian Painters of the XIX century. Moscow. 1990.
Michail Vrubel: The Artist of the Eves by Mikhail Guerman. Parkstone Press, 1998.
The Art of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) by Aline Isdebsky-Pritchard. UMI Research Press, 1982.
The Art and Architecture of Russia (Pelican History Art) by George Heard Hamilton. Yale Univ Pr, 1992.
A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists 1420-1970 by John Milner. Antique Collectors' Club, 1993.