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Mikhail Vrubel Photo

Mikhail Vrubel

Russian Painter and Theater Designer

Born: March 17, 1856 - Omsk, Russia
Died: April 14, 1910 - St Petersburg, Russia
Movements and Styles:
Art Nouveau
"Art - this is our religion"
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Mikhail Vrubel Signature
"Byzantine painting differs fundamentally from three-dimensional arts. Its whole essence lies in the ornamental arrangement of form which emphasizes the flatness of the wall"
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Mikhail Vrubel Signature
"I have a passion for grasping form as fully as possible"
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Mikhail Vrubel Signature
"Vrubel was more than just an artist - he was a prophet, a seer, a demon"
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Alexandre Benois
"He [Vrubel] adopted the fundamental imperatives of Symbolism as his credo: the purpose of art is the affirmation of Beauty and Truth of the Spirit, and the artist's path is a never-ending struggle between good and evil, God and the devil, the human and the demonic"
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Lydia Iovleva
"They [Symbolists] feel themselves co-creators with God. They visualize divine prophecy"
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Yevgenia Petrova
"All the principles of Cubism, Constructivism and Surrealism were founded by Vrubel. And despite our respect for Picasso, the real beginning of modern painting was Vrubel"
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Sergei Sudeikin
"Vrubel's association with the Moscow Private Opera Company of Savva Mamontov, between 1896 and 1901, may also be regarded as the real beginning of modern stage design in Russia"
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Wendy Salmond
"His well-wishers openly consider that he has pronounced a new word in this genre"
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the artist's wife, the opera singer Nadezhda Zabela on Vrubel's stage designs
"Vrubel in his Demons has given us the most awful examples of revolting and repulsive decadence"
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Vladimir Stasov

Summary of Mikhail Vrubel

Vrubel's ground-breaking works challenged orthodoxies within Russian art, so much so that they were often misunderstood by his peers. Though under-appreciated in his own lifetime, he has now been 'reclaimed' by history as one of the founding fathers of the Russian avant-garde.

Vrubel made his early reputation on a series of oil paintings and earthenware sculptures based on Russian folklore and to which he brought elements of Symbolist painting and Art Nouveau. Later, he created graphic illustrations to accompany the poetry of Mikhail Lermontov and from whom he took inspiration for his famous "Demon" works. The figure of the Demon became a motif in Vrubel's oeuvre and was read thus as the personification of the artist's very own inner turmoil. Indeed, the artist spent the last years of his life in mental institutions though it was during those years that he painted some of his most unusual works, some of which are now cited as seminal examples of Russian Art Nouveau.


  • Breaking with all the traditions and techniques of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Vrubel's painting conveyed a profoundly spiritual and lucid inner life that accommodated darkness and mental confusion. It is this mystical element to Vrubel's art that takes the spectator far beyond the frame of his paintings.
  • Put off by the Russian church's rejection of his art, Vrubel abandoned Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy and turned his attention towards philosophy. He was drawn especially to Immanuel Kant believing that the route to true spiritual enlightenment was linked to the idea that one could only achieve full self-realization through personal creativity.
  • Once residing in Moscow, Vrubel was exposed to new artistic styles emerging from western Europe. The decorative and natural style of Art Nouveau, and specifically its focus on aesthetics, sat well with his Kantian worldview. Enthused by the possibilities for the new style, and willing to experiment with Symbolism and Middle Eastern decorations and designs, Vrubel became a pioneer in what would be a colorful, and specifically Russian, Art Nouveau. One finds several similarities between Vrubel and the Symbolist mosaics of Gustav Klimt.
  • Vrubel was revered for his dense brush strokes and his penchant for breaking his figures into an almost anarchic mass of facets and planes. This has led several enthusiastic commentators to cite Vrubel as an early forerunner of Cubism. In paintings such as Venice (1893) Vrubel had started to self-consciously experiment with collage and cube-shaped forms. Indeed, when Venice was first exhibited in Paris, Pablo Picasso was so taken with the work he called Vrubel a "genius".

Biography of Mikhail Vrubel

Mikhail Vrubel Life and Legacy

Mikhail Vrubel lived a troubled life; dogged with depression and put into an institution after his only son’s death, he also spent his last years in a psychiatric clinic. It is little wonder then that the motif he is best known for is the demon which he depicted in paintings throughout his life.

Progression of Art

The Virgin and Child (1884)

The Virgin and Child

Hung between highly decorative columns and an arch, The Virgin and Child is one of several murals Vrubel helped restore in the Church of Saint Cyril in Kiev during the early 1880s. Though they were restorations rather than original works (Vrublev worked as part of a team of students restoring over 150 works over a period of seven months) the murals still carried the artist's signature style.

The formal composition of The Virgin and the Child is taken from conventional depictions of the Virgin and Christ and demonstrates the Vrubel's full engagement with Russian, Byzantine, and medieval Christian pictorial traditions. The folds of the fabric, the pensive facial expressions, and the use of rich colors and gold are akin to that which Vrubel would have seen in Russian orthodox churches growing up, and also on his travels to Venice undertaken in the same year that this piece was painted.

In his 1911 biography of Vrubel, the artist Stepan Iaremich described the works produced in Kiev during the 1880s as the best of Vrubel's career. Whilst this opinion may not hold up to scrutiny, Iaremich's comments do account for the importance of the Kiev paintings in developing a style seen throughout Vrubel's later work. The murals at the Church of Saint Cyril can be seen in fact as the beginnings of Vrubel's exploration of spirituality and personal faith, ahead of his rejection of religion and experiments with Symbolism. Here, in the solemnity and thoughtfulness of the figures' gazes, the viewer can begin to see Vrubel contemplating fulfillment and peace as attained through insight and personal reflection.

Oil on board - Church of Saint Cyril, Kiev, Ukraine

Demon Seated (1890)

Demon Seated

Whilst still working in Kiev on the restoration project, Vrubel began to experiment with illustrations of "The Demon" which he based on the description of a Demon in a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, the most important poet and writer of the period and, to this day, the greatest hero of Russian Romanticism. The influence of the Saint Cyril restoration is clear in Vrubel's use of thick brushstrokes to create a mosaic-like texture. This is particularly apparent to the right of the Demon figure, where the geometric shapes created by the brushwork break the plane down into an abstract space. As the art historian Maria Taroutina notes, here the viewer can see Vrubel employing "medieval means to modernist ends". Vrubel's treatment of the figure of the Demon is finely detailed while he emphasizes the mood of solitude by placing his subject against a blank and infinite, background. The monumentality of this work was described by Vrubel's patron Mamontov as the "fascinating symphonies of a genius".

Vrubel himself described the Demon as "a spirit which unites in itself the male and female appearances, a spirit which is not so much evil as suffering and wounded [...] a powerful and noble being". The ambiguity of the Demon's gender is mirrored in the uncertainty of the setting. The landscape is distant and creates feelings of solitude and uneasiness: the Demon could be looking off into the distant sunset, or it could be the fires of hell. This painting demonstrates Vrubel's own personal rejection of Christianity and the fixed stability of religion at this time in his life in favor of a view that creative accomplishment would bring him spiritual content. The Demon is pensive and expressive, weighing up in his mind personal faith, torment, and resignation, much like Vrubel himself did in these years before he was admitted to psychiatric care.

Isolated and reflective, Vrubel rejects the traditional religious view of the Demon as an evil being, blurring the boundaries between good and evil - Christ and Satan - to give a more modern view on the spiritual individual. In this rejection of traditional dichotomy, the artist urges the viewer to consider instead the individual soul: the sense that introspection is the path, not mass religion.

Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Portrait of Savva Mamontov (1897)

Portrait of Savva Mamontov

In this portrait, the viewer can see the influence of folk art and the church mosaics and murals Vrubel helped to restore in his early career. The artist uses thick brushstrokes to create a mosaic-effect in the background of the painting, using subdued colors to make the bolder figure of Mamontov stand out in the foreground. Surrounded by the objects associated with a wealthy art collector, such as luxurious fabrics and furniture, Mamontov is also dressed the part in his pristine suit. It demonstrates what art historian James Curtis describes as the "strong theatrical quality" of Vrubel's art.

Vrubel is less well-known as a portrait painter (perhaps as it is not abstract enough a medium to convey Symbolist ideas) but he did produce many during his lifetime. What is significant to note, however, is that his portrait work mainly consists of depictions of people he knew well, such as the poet Valery Bryusov and his own wife Nadezhda Zabela, who Vrubel painted repeatedly. Therefore it seems only natural that Vrubel would paint such a portrait of his patron and friend Savva Mamontov during his residency at Mamontov's artist community: the Abramtsevo Estate. The pair were close, with Vrubel accompanying the Mamontov family on a holiday to Italy in 1891. A descendent of a wealthy merchant family, Mamontov encouraged and celebrated artists working across disciplines with interests in traditional Russian folklore and crafts. The art historian Hanna Chuchvaha describes Abramtsevo as a place which "represented a revival of vernacular art and the stylization of folk art".

Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Swan Princess (1900)

The Swan Princess

The majority of this painting is taken up by an almost abstract rendering of the Swan Princess's white feathers. Vrubel uses light brushstrokes to create the texture of feathers, from which the more detailed figure of the Swan Princess emerges, with an intricately painted jewelled headpiece and veil. The dramatic nature of the foreground figure and the mysterious backdrop is distinctive of turn-of-the-century artworks inpired by Russian folklore and fairy tales, whilst the wide-eyed and pensive gaze of the Swan Princess is reminiscent of Vrubel's depictions of the Virgin in his contributions to the Saint Cyril restoration in Kiev.

The drama and theatricality of this painting carries the influence of Vrubel's marriage to the opera singer Nadezhda Zabela, which took place four years prior to this work being produced. Following the marriage, Vrubel moved into the world of theater, designing stage sets and costumes for several ballets and operas. Here, the wide-eyed protagonist is modelled on his wife when she starred in the role of the Swan Princess in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan. It is this very personal element which causes this painting to be, in the words of the art historian Lydia Iovleva, "seething with passion and powerful temperament".

Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The City of Ledenets, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900)

The City of Ledenets, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan

Between 1896 and 1901, Vrubel painted set designs and produced costumes for 9 operatic productions as part of Savva Mamontov's Moscow Private Opera Company. The archway and gates are heavily ornate and exotic, featuring dark colors and a liberal use of gold. The patterns both here and in the domed city that lies beyond are based on Vrubel's exploration with texture, such as ceramics, stained glass and mosaics.

The opera was based on a fairytale by the classic Russian poet and playwright Aleksandr Pushkin. In the tale, the mystical city of Ledenets arises from the sea overnight, an effect Vrubel achieved through the use of the colors blue and white. The story features ideas of duality between reality and dream, which Vrubel again illustrates in his set design sketch through fantastically intricate and luxurious patterns and manipulation of space to create a three-dimensional atmosphere. He had dealt with the decoration of large-scale areas before, such as church frescoes, but here he uses the space to create dynamism and a sense of depth. Beyond the heavy doors and archway, the kingdom of Ledenets unfolds through a cluttered array of domes and towers, drawing the viewer in. The artist's wife, who starred in the production, said that Vrubel "really distinguished himself in the Saltan decorations, and even his terrible enemies the newspaper critics, say that the decorations are beautiful".

Watercolor and pencil on paper - Bakhrushin Museum, Moscow

The Demon Downcast (1902)

The Demon Downcast

While its image, an evolving lietmotif throughout his ouvre, was based initially on Lermontov's poem, Vrubel's fascination with the figure of the Demon is thought to have begun after seeing Anton Rubenstein's opera The Demon in Kiev sometime around the mid-1880s. The development of Vrubel's Demon can be illustrated through two of his most iconic works; works that act ostensibly as bookends to his career: Demon Seated (1890) and, twelve years later, Demon Downcast.

Like Demon Seated, Vrubel employs mosaic-like textures to create an abstract and unidentifiable backdrop against which the Demon figure lies. This is, however, where the similarities end. In this piece, the Demon figure is dramatically changed: it has lost the muscular stance of the previous Demon, and instead lies prostate (rather than seated) and amaciated. It has also lost the pensive gaze of the previous Demon, and instead stares directly and challengingly at the viewer. Vrubel used a metallic bronze powder in elements of this work in order to reflect the light, similar to Russian icons and art found in Russian orthodox churches.

The Demon returns to haunt Vrubel (or vice versa) in this painting. The headpiece worn by the Demon has been interpreted as a crown of thorns, which again creates an ambiguity between Good and Evil and reflects the artist's own rejection of religion. The crown of thorns alludes to sorrow and sacrifice, reflective of Vrubel's own state of mind at this time; indeed, following the exhibition of this work, he suffered a severe nervous breakdown. The Symbolist landscape painter Konstantin Bogaevsky recalled viewing the painting upon its showing at the World of Art exhibition in 1902: "It produced a strong impression on me, which I can compare to no other. It glowed as if it were made of precious gems, so that everything around it seemed gray and unsubstantial" he said.

The World of Art group had organized a total of six exhibitions between 1898 and 1904 in St. Petersburg and Moscow though the last exhibition was a failed attempt by Dyagilev to prevent the group's Moscow members from "defecting" to The Union of Russian Artists group (that was formed in 1903).

Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The Six-Winged Seraph (1904)

The Six-Winged Seraph

This painting is intimately linked Vrubel's earlier Demon paintings, both in its style and subject matter. Taking to biblical form again, the artist renders the figure monumentally dominating the canvas, against a mosaic-like background of interlocking paintstrokes. Elements of gold and metallics create a sense that the painting is shining, whilst the seriousness of the face, the hollowed eyes, and the ambiguous gender of the seraph echoes Vrubel's Demon figures of previous years. Hands ominously appear from the mist of the backdrop: one holds a glowing red orb whilst the other hovers a dagger above the head of the viewer.

Painted six years before Vrubel's premature death, The Six-Winged Seraph was one of the largest works of the artist's late career. This painting shows the culmination of a lifelong fixation and battle with religion, and an increasing need to explore the themes of redemption, suffering, and repentance. As noted by the art historian Maria Taroutina, Vrubel's later paintings have often been dismissed as some of his weaker work, but can also be interpreted as a sign of his increasingly deteriorating mental health. Yet, as before, Vrubel's early influences of the Renaissance and Byzantine are used to modernist ends to create radical forms and convey spiritual themes.

One can find clear similarities between Vrubel and the Symbolist paintings of Gustav Klimt, leader of the anti-establishment Viennese Sucession. Like Vrubel, Klimt's mature works made use of symbolism to convey psychological ideas - typically related to sexual liberation and human suffering - and to promote the thesis that art should be freed from the laws of traditional culture. And, like Vrubel, Klimt's paintings and murals used shimmering patterned mosaics and rectangular and concretic patterns to create lavishly decorated figures and backgrounds.

Oil on canvas - State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Mikhail Vrubel
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Savva Mamontov
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    Adrian Prakhov
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Mikhail Vrubel Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 14 Nov 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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