By 1896, the major Russian artist Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910) had established his distinctive style in paintings of motifs which were mainly based on literary narratives, most recently in at least two from Goethe’s Faust. His major patron and promoter owned a private opera in Moscow, for which Vrubel was commissioned to design stage sets and costumes.
Vrubel’s Morning from 1897 doesn’t appear to have any obvious literary reference. Half-concealed in its lush vegetation are several figures apparently in the process of waking up in the early morning. One woman with a nun’s veil and wimple is reclining across the right half of the painting, as another at the far right is making her way to wash in the pool in the foreground. Two nudes stretch at the top and the left.
A Bogatyr, shown here in this densely-painting work from 1898, is a wandering knight in many East Slavic legends, defending mediaeval East Slavic and Finnic peoples from invading tribes. With his immense strength, bravery and booming voice, both the bogatyr and his horse fit the description perfectly.
Pan (1899) is of course derived from Classical myth, through retelling in Russian folk tales. He clutches his ‘pan pipes’, partly dressed in animal skins, as a waning crescent moon hangs just above the horizon. His left hand is marvellously hoary and aged.
In 1896, Vrubel had met the operatic soprano Nadezhda Zabela, and they married shortly afterwards. His patron invited her to perform in his theatre, and in 1900 she sang in the role of Tsarevna Swan-Bird, or The Swan Princess (1900), in the world première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Tsar Saltan, which is based on the poem of the same name by Pushkin. Vrubel designed the sets and costumes, and painted this wonderful portrait of his wife in her stage role.
Vrubel produced designs for this majolica fire surround showing Volga Sviatoslavich and Mikula Selianinovich during 1898-1900. These are two bogatyrs: Volga Sviatoslavich (left, in blue and white) is apparently based on Vseslav of Polotsk (c 1039-1101) who ruled Polotsk and was briefly the Grand Prince of Kiev, and Mikula Selianinovich (right) is a ploughman who appears in several legend cycles.
It’s hard to decide whether to title this painting according to the overwhelming cascade of Lilacs, or the Siren (1900) who is being engulfed by the flowers. Once again Vrubel applies paint in small patches or tiles, just like mosaic or stained glass.
That is also true of A Lady in Lilac. Portrait of Nadezhda Zabela Vrubel, his second portrait of his wife in 1900.
The final years of Vrubel’s paintings return to Mikhail Lermontov’s Demon and other more symbolic themes.
The Fallen Demon or The Demon Downcast from 1902 completes the cycle inspired by Lermontov’s poem, with the nihilistic figure crashed to earth just as he had proved successful in his pursuit of Tamara. Scattered around him are the eyes from golden peacock feathers, the remains of his wings. In the distance are the rugged snow-covered mountains of the Caucasus. Vrubel apparently repainted the figure of the demon repeatedly.
Vrubel’s Six-winged Seraph (Azrael) from 1904 shows the Judaeo-Islamic Angel of Death, responsible for transporting the souls of the dead. Their right hand holds a long dagger, and the left holds what I think is a light. The paint surface is fragmented across much of the image, with bright patches of different colours assembling into dense patterns, much as in a mosaic.
Vrubel turned to pastel and mixed media for his remarkable Pearl Oyster from the same year. Two young women are reclining inside the shell of an oyster. There are various marine creatures overlaid and beyond the edge of the shell.
In 1905 Vrubel was commissioned to design mosaics for the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, including its prominent façade which is a mosaic based on his ealier Princess of Dreams. By this time, he was suffering from overt psychiatric illness, probably the result of his tertiary syphilis. He continued to paint until he lost his sight, and finally died in Saint Petersburg in 1910.
To return to my original question: was Vrubel, one of the great Russian Symbolist artists, a Symbolist at all? His works are surely those of a highly original narrative painter who specialised in myth and legend.