Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel was born on March 5, 1856 in Omsk, in Siberia and died in St. Petersburg on April 1, 1910. The son of a colonel in the Russian army, Vrubel studied history, art, theater, music, and literature in Latin, French, and German, all of which were emphasized and encouraged by the artist's father. His formal art training started in 1864 at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts in St. Petersburg. While studying law at St. Petersburg University during the years between 1874 and 1880, he was enrolled in painting classes. After graduating from the Law Department in 1880, Vrubel began studying at the St. Petersburg Academy of the Arts as a full time student. Here, he learned from Chistiakov who would play a significant role in the development of Vrubel's style, just as he did with other great artists such as Ilya Repin, Vasilii Polenov, Victor Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov, and Vasilii Surikov. Vrubel later wrote in his autobiography that his years at the Academy were the best years of his life. Before his graduation, Vrubel had been recommended by his teachers to Professor Prakhov who was recruiting painters to help with the restoration of twelfth century icons in the Church of St. Cyril in Kiev. Works done there included the Virgin Mary and Child and The Descent of the Holy Spirit. Vrubel used this experience to search for greater spirituality, monumentality, and plastic expressiveness through classic art. His technique and style evolved fully in 1890. It is characterized by "volume cut into a multitude of interrelated, intersecting facets and planes; broad mosaic brush strokes to model form; and fiery and emotional color combinations reminiscent of stained glass." These characteristics became defined after Vrubel moved to Moscow in 1889 and appealed not only to Symbolists but to future Cubists as well. He was an active member of the Abramtsevo art circle and worked on decorative panels, paintings of Venice and Spain, stage designs for an opera, ceramics, and architectural sketches.
However, the main subject of Vrubel's work during his stay in Moscow was Lermontov's poem The Demon. Posing questions of good and evil and putting forward his ideal of a heroic personality as he saw it, Vrubel depicted "a rebel, unwilling to accept the commonplace and unjust nature of reality, tragically alone." From 1900, his art took the form of a tragic confession. In 1902, Vrubel began to suffer from a mental illness. After a brief stay in a clinic, his health improved, only to take a sharp turn for the worse after the death of his child in 1903. As he headed towards a mental breakdown, he continued to "struggle" with the ideas of The Demon, which he understood in Nietzschean terms, creating about a dozen paintings; the last of them, indicative of Vrubel's progressively darker and pessimistic mood, was the torturous and tragic Demon Downcast (1902). Between 1902 and 1905, he created his best black and white works, remarkable for their keen insight into characters and for their clear-cut forms. During his work on a portrait of the poet Valerii Briusov (1906), Vrubel noticed that he was losing his sight -- the realization that he would not be able to paint aggravated his mental condition even more. In the spring of 1910, in a fit of depression and despair, Vrubel stood in front of an open window, hoping to catch a cold; he died when the cold turned into pneumonia. [S.H.]
[Sources: The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Fedorov-Davydov.]