Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel (: Михаил Александрович Врубель;, - , , all ) is usually regarded as the greatest painter of the movement. In reality, he deliberately stood aloof from contemporary art trends, so that the origin of his unusual manner should be sought in the Late Byzantine and Early Renaissance painting.
Vrubel was born in the city (), in a military lawyer's family and graduated from the Law Faculty of in 1880. Next year he entered the , where he studied under direction of . Even in his earliest works, he exhibited striking talent for drawing and highly idiosyncratic outlook. Although he still relished academic monumentality, he would later develop a penchant for fragmentory composition and "unfinished touch".
Demon Seated in a Garden, 1890
In , he was summoned to replace the lost 12th-century murals and mosaics in the St Cyril church of with the new ones. In order to execute this commission, he went to to study the medieval Christian art. It was here that, in the words of an art historian, "his palette acquired new strong saturated tones resembling the iridescent play of precious stones". Most of his works painted in Venice have been lost, because the artist was more interested in creative process than in promoting his artwork.
In , he returned to Kiev, where he submitted some monumental designs to the newly-built . The jury, however, failed to appreciate the striking novelty of his works, and they were rejected. At that period, he executed some delightful illustrations for and which had little in common with his later dark meditations on the Demon and Prophet themes.
1905 he created the mosaics on the hotel "Metropol" in Moscow, the centre piece of the facade overlooking Teatralnaya Ploschad is taken by the mosaic panel, 'Princess Gryoza' (Princess of Dream).
While in Kiev, Vrubel started painting sketches and watercolours illustrating the Demon, a long Romantic poem by . The poem described the carnal passion of "an eternal nihilistic spirit" to a Georgian girl Tamara. At that period Vrubel developed a keen interest in Oriental arts, and particularly , and even attempted to imitate their texture in his paintings.
In 1890, Vrubel moved to where he could best follow innovative trends in art. Like other artists associated with the Art Nouveau, he excelled not only in painting but also in , such as , , and . He also produced architectural masks, , and .
The Artist's Wife (1898)
It is the large painting of Seated (1890) that brought notoriety to Vrubel. Most conservative critics accused him of "wild ugliness", whereas the art patron praised the Demon series as "fascinating symphonies of a genius" and commissioned Vrubel to paint decorations for his private opera and mansions of his friends. Unfortunately the Demon, like other Vrubel's works, doesn't look as it did when it was painted, as the artist added powder to his oils in order to achieve particularly luminous, glistening effects.
In 1896, he fell in love with the famous singer Nadezhda Zabela. Half a year later they married and settled in Moscow, where Zabela was invited by Mamontov to perform in his private opera theatre. While in Moscow, Vrubel designed stage sets and costumes for his wife, who sang the parts of the Snow Maiden, the Swan Princess, and Princess Volkhova in 's operas. Falling under spell of Russian fairy-tales, he executed some of his most acclaimed pieces, including (1899), The Swan Princess (1900), and Lilacs (1900).
In 1901, Vrubel returned to the demonic themes in the large canvas Demon Downcast. In order to astound the public with underlying spiritual message, he repeatedly repainted the demon's ominous face, even after the painting had been exhibited to the overwhelmed audience. At the end he had a severe , and had to be hospitalized to a mental clinic. While there, he painted a mystical Pearl Oyster (1904) and striking variations on the themes of 's poem The Prophet.