Mikhail Vrubel and The Demon

The angel bent his gaze severe
Upon the Tempter, eye to eye,
Then joyful soared … to disappear
Into the boundless, shining sky.
The Demon watched the heating wings
Fading triumphantly from sight
And cursed his dreams of better things,
Doomed to defeat, venting his spite
And arrogance in that great curse
Alone in all the universe,
Abandoned, without love or hope

– from The Demon by Mikhail Lermontov

Long ago I promised to return to one of my favorite subjects: madness.  Currently I’m fueled by days of non-stop drawing, surviving on coffee and deviled eggs alone. In other words – the time is right. We’re looking at the madness of prolific Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel. When we left off some months ago, Vrubel was living in Moscow with his beloved wife and son. His massive works in oil, based mostly on Russian folklore, had earned the prolific painter a fair degree of fame and success. The illustrations to Lermontov’s poem The Demon that launched Vrubel’s career receded into the past. Mikhail was working in the theater alongside his wife, painting and designing costumes for her operas, immortalizing the beautiful singer as each of her fairy tale characters. His life was the epitome of creative and family bliss. His new paintings were glowing, as well, due in part to the subject matter and in part to iridescent bronze powder Vrubel mixed into the paint.

The Seated Demon

Nevertheless, Vrubel was compelled to return to the enormous portrait of the Demon. Slowly he began reworking the brooding features, even after the work had been exhibited. Painting thick layers upon layers in an attempt to convey the demon’s pure despair drove Mikhail further away from life, deeper inside himself and his work. The poem’s nihilistic themes seem to have struck the very heart of the artist. Despite his success and marriage, was there a sense of ultimate loneliness permeating Vrubel’s reality? Did the poem reveal a world as he secretly saw it, confirming his latent misery? Was he never genuinely happy, resenting his family life and fame? Perhaps, instead, there was an overwhelming fear of losing what he treasured most, triggered by the loss of his siblings as a child and fermenting inside ever since. Or was it The Demon‘s contempt for the Church that struck a chord? Vrubel’s obsession grew, taking over his body of work and eventually producing a dozen paintings and sculptures dedicated to The Demon. So much paint has been compulsively applied and re-applied that many details of these paintings are nearly indistinguishable, but the Demon’s large, restless eyes and dark features stand out, thoroughly spellbinding. Burning through the viewer, this is Vrubel’s best work, stunning, unhinging and unforgettable.

Details of Demon In Flight and Demon, Downcast

in 1902 Vrubel was briefly hospitalized due to failing emotional and physical health. The Demon had had left him powerless against reality and he was beginning to crumble. Home from the hospital, his health was improving, but recovery was short-lived. Just a year later Savva, Mikhail’s beloved son, died. With grief aggravating an already fragile mind, Vrubel continued his slow decline. He also continued to work, finally abandoning the demon that caused so much agony and returning to portraits and fantasy. I’m particularly fond of this drawing – the concerned visage of the artist’s psychiatrist.

Portrait of Psychiatrist Fiodor Usoltsev

Several years passed until the first signs of every artist’s worst nightmare showed themselves: Vrubel was losing his sight. This was the final blow to his health and spirit. Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel, one of the greatest Russian painters, met his end in the clutches of pneumonia at the age of 54. He purposely made himself sick by standing in cold spring air earlier that year, the Demon, surely, at his side. If you visit Moscow’s Tretyakov gallery, be certain to complete the tour – at end, after halls upon halls of classic Russian art, in Vrubel’s room he waits.

18 Responses to “Mikhail Vrubel and The Demon”

  1. DJ Velveteen Says:

    It’s important that any serious artist learns to traipse that line between madness and genius. The creator of Perry Bible Fellowship advocates that every artist “cherish your misery;” books have been written about the relationship between altered states of consciousness and the creative impulse.

    I regret not being able to jam when I was in your neck of the woods; I had exhausted my travel budget, and LA isn’t the friendliest city to vagabonds without cars. I missed your release party by a handful of days. That said, I’ll send wellwishings from north of Seattle; know that elsewhere, there are others who concur that it’s an excellent time to be a starving artist.

  2. wchambliss Says:

    Vrubel’s blue Ophelia is an absolute fave.

  3. Zoetica Says:

    DJ Velveteen – I’ve yet to find a happy medium. This post is the first time in almost an entire week I was able to do anything other than draw or curse at Photoshop. Sort of an all or nothing creative flow for me, at least thus far. Also, about that embracing misery thing – personally, I can’t lift a finger, nevermind a pencil, when I’m miserable.

    wchambiliss – yes, that one’s gorgeous!

  4. the daniel Says:

    This post is really meaty, I like that. I found the tale of his mental deterioration captivating. I immediately started looking around for posters/prints of the seated demon, though I think the drawing of the shrink is equally compelling.

  5. Zoetica Says:

    I must to find a super nice matte archival Demon print now. The hunt begins!

  6. Courtney Says:

    In my book, madness is necessary when creating. Of course the line between madness and genius can be thin to some, but there is something romantically haunting about being defeated (in Vrubel’s case a nervous breakdown and death) by something you love.

    I just checked out an online gallery of his work and I’m truly impressed!

  7. Zoetica Says:

    Courtney, couldn’t agree more. That ever-elusive line, however – that’s the real trick, isn’t it!

    thedaniel – found one that looks decent, and the only one so far without garish over-saturation.

  8. Jon Munger Says:

    I was speaking with a friend about the drive to excel having less to do with reaching a state of profundity and more to do with discontent. I won’t say outright mental illness (because madness and mental illness have very different meanings, and may be perfectly different things), but yes, refusing to settle with ‘good enough’ is a kind of madness. Most people seem to have no problem with settling, and we’re told ‘that’s just the way things are.’ This advise seems tantamount to giving up.
    Vrubel’s something of an artistic parable. It doesn’t matter how much praise you get, sometimes you can only see the errors you made. The wise (and successful) fire off their work before the doubt can sink in. Dumber birds write, rewrite, then throw away and start again with some vague, quasi-gnostic belief that satisfaction, not perfection, is just outside their grasp.
    Madness? I suppose it would look like it from the outside.

  9. Zoetica Says:

    See, I think Vrubel’s Demon obsession has less to do with trying for excellence and more with some internal battle, perpetually breaking down his happiness and raising questions he would rather not face. Of course this is based in nothing but my perception of him, and colored by my own demons, to boot!

  10. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Before CH, my knowledge of anything Russian was…practically non-existent. Thanks for remedying that.

  11. Jon Munger Says:

    Absolutely, Zo. But I see a man who isn’t striving for perfection so much as struggling to cover flaws. I’m sure that every time he put down the paintbrush he said “There, I have done it.”

    Ten minutes later, he saw the imperfect curve of an eyebrow, or a too-muted tone, and knew the whole damn thing was ruined. Maybe he had some vague, Platonic ideal snipping in his mind’s eye, or maybe he just figured it would happen if he applied enough paint.

    There’s got to be a word for that: to strive towards perfection out of certainty of failure. The Russians probably have a word for that, morose bastards they are.

    Except those luscious, absorbent Russian Women.

  12. Tequila Says:

    Demons are wonderful little mirrors. One can see quite a bit in them depending on where you stand. So it’s hard not to be enamored or so unflinchingly focused when painting one. I’ve sketchbooks full of them and the best part is you can’t paint them “wrong” let alone “right”. They just constantly provoke…no matter what you do.

    In this case it sounds more to me like he was having a long conversation with the work. No doubt he would find answers then new questions would arise causing more work to be done. It doesn’t really end like other paintings would. No rules of interpretation are laid down so the layering is like seeing different pieces of a personality or an answer come together.

    So I’m not seeing an absolute misery or madness kinda process here…it just makes sense. He got no worse a deal out of life than anybody else if you live long enough. That’s why one does this kind of work isn’t it? For the journey and all that it leads to? He lucked out on having a pretty long journey to explore with.

    I know many like to focus on the process and the techniques behind art. Pushed too far into focus though and it takes on a romantic notion where madness, genius, and the interpretation of an artist’s work all blur together into a melodramatic mess.The painting raises a lot of heavy questions and some of them prove far more interesting when answered beyond the possible intent of the creators hand & heart. The Demon as a creation is so universal that while no doubt the well versed in this particular painting see something well connected to the artist…does it trump the interpretation of those that will never know or care about its creator?

  13. Zoetica Says:

    I like that, Tequila – the concept of it being more of a journey of discovery in a positive sense. For Vrubel’s sake I hope you’re closer to the truth behind this series! Of course, that doesn’t address why he spent so much of his time undergoing treatment for mental illness.

  14. Tequila Says:


    Given how relatively new psychiatry is in the grand human picture, gotta take Vrubel’s experiences and search with a grain of salt. Techniques and procedures of his era may not have been as beneficial to him as say ones known today. No doubt he saw the best of the best…but look at how much psychiatry has developed both with and without the wide array of medications available today.

    Plus it kinda goes back to the painting…searching for answers. In this case via a part of modern medicine that in some places was still rooted in superstition. You know the mind of an artist. Hell you know the mind of a Russian artist. As much as I like kicking around in my own head for hours on end a day…that place can be pretty scary at times.

    Mix in the daily grind of life and you have any creative mind going a little off kilter. I think we take for granted what we have access to and accept these days. Looking at his work (or anything of his era) there is an unknown and shadowy quality around the mind and the world beyond religion and accepted science of the day.

    I dunno I think we’re in the age and product of too many answers while he was in an age and product of too many questions.

  15. erinn Says:

    I’m still kicking myself for not getting a canvas print of the seated demon at the Russian art museum in St. Petersburg.

    I’m not surprised that poem haunted him so much. I read it ages ago and I still have nightmares about it. (Or rather, about him, the demon.)

  16. brett favre injury Says:

    In my book, madness is necessary when creating. Of course the line between madness and genius can be thin to some, but there is something romantically haunting about being defeated (in Vrubel’s case a nervous breakdown and death) by something you love.

    I just checked out an online gallery of his work and I’m truly impressed!

  17. God is a women Says:

    you’ve wrote about Mikhail’s past like a tabloid journalist
    Please understand his insanity…as you call it
    was insight which stemmed from the realisation of his art
    the power of art is cruel and will sacrifice man to achieve its own ends but at times death is a restfull place of peace

  18. Ian Says:

    Had the pleasure of being introduced to vrubel ‘in person’ at the tretyakov. Pics really dont convey them fully. They are huge and even though old, a bit of luster still comes peeking though from the metal he mixed with the oils. I am a major fan of stained glass, especially in powerful setting such as cathedrals etc, so I’m a sucker for pretty much everything he’s done. If you like his stuff, do yourself a favor and see for real.
    BTW whomever designed the scrolling-at-different-speeds sideshow on this site deserves a webby.