The Demon Seated by Michael Vrubel: Why it is a masterpiece

In 2007, I entered the Vrubel hall for the first time. The light was dim. The walls were dark.

While approaching the “Demon”, you inevitably fall into the other world. That world is inhabited with powerful and sad creatures. That world has the purple-red sky, which makes giant flowers turn to stone. The space of that world looks like a kaleidoscope, and all you seem to hear is the sound of glass clinking.

An alluring and attractive Demon sits opposite you.

Even if you are not keen on painting, you will gravitate to this one being mesmerized with the energy of the canvas.

How could Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) create this masterpiece?

The reply lies in the time of the Russian Renaissance and … growing crystals, big eyes and something else.

The Russian Renaissance

The Demon could not appear before. For its birth, one needed the time of the cultural rebirth, which the Russian Renaissance brought.

Just travel back in time and see what happened in the Italian culture in the end of the 15th – early 16th century.

Florence bloomed and flourished. Merchants and bankers strived not only for commercial success but for spiritual and intellectual enjoyment as well. The best poets, painters and sculptors were generously rewarded for their creations.

For the first time throughout centuries, the artists’ customers include not only clerics but secular clients. And, naturally, nobility would not fancy a plain flat-faced image or a fully-covered body. They longed for the image of beauty.

It comes as no surprise that Madonna paintings became more human and appealing: they were depicting beauties with bare shoulders and chiseled noses.

Raphael. Madonna in the Meadow.
Raphael. Madonna in the Meadow. 1506. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Russian artists had a similar experience in the middle of the 19th century. Part of the intelligentsia began to doubt the divine nature of Christ.

Some artists convey their message with caution while portraying the Savior as more human-like. In particular, Kramskoy introduced the portrait of a son of God without a halo, with a sunken face.

Christ in the Wilderness

Ivan Kramskoy. Christ in the Desert (detail).
Ivan Kramskoy. Christ in the Desert (detail). 1872. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Some artists were searching refuge in fairy tales and pagan images, like Viktor Vasnetsov.

Viktor Vasnetsov. Sirin and Alkonost.
Viktor Vasnetsov. Sirin and Alkonost. 1896. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Vrubel followed the same path. He took a mythical creature, the Demon, and endowed him with human features. Note that there is no devilry in the horns or hooves.

Only the title of the canvas gives us an explanation of the image itself. What we see first is a masculine figure.  He has an athletic body depicted in a fantastic landscape. By all means, it is  the Renaissance.

Feminine side of the Demon

Vrubel’s Demon is special. And it doesn’t come to the absence of red evil eyes or a demonic tail.

We see Nephilim, the fallen angel. He is so impressively big that he can hardly fit into the picture.

His clasped fingers and drooping shoulders speak of confusion and conflicting emotions. He is bored of being evil. He does not notice the beauty around him, and obviously nothing can entertain him.

He is strong, but there is no way of applying that superpower. The position of a powerful body, which froze under the yoke of mental confusion, is striking the imagination.

Mikhail Vrubel. The Demon Seated (Detail of "Demon's Face").
Mikhail Vrubel. The Demon Seated (Detail of “Demon’s Face”). 1890.

Pay attention to how extraordinary Demon’s face looks. He has big eyes, long hair, big lips. Despite the muscular body, his femininity is undeniable.

Vrubel himself said that he deliberately created an androgynous image. After all, dark energy can be attributed to both masculine and feminine. Hence, his image should present the mixture of the features of both sexes.

Art Quiz

Kaleidoscope of the Demon

Vrubel’s contemporaries doubted that The Demon was an actual painting. His work was so innovative.

The artist worked with a palette knife (a metal spatula that is used to remove excess paint), which he used to create the image in fractions. As a result, the surface looks like a kaleidoscope or crystal.

The artist had been sharpening that technique for a long time. His sister Anna recalled that Vrubel was interested in growing crystals in his students’ times.

And in his youth, he was artist Pavel Chistyakov’s student. He taught Vrubel to divide space in sections and create a kind of 3D image. Vrubel enthusiastically adopted this method as it aligned well with his artistic vision.

Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait by V.A. Usoltseva.
Mikhail Vrubel. Portrait by V.A. Usoltseva. 1905

Fantastic Color of the Demon

Vrubel. The Demon Seated (detail).
Vrubel. The Demon Seated (detail). 1890.

Vrubel was an outstanding colorist. There was little he could not do. For example, he was using only white and black to create vibrant colors with just subtle shades of gray.

And when you recall Tamara and the Demon, your imagination shows it in full color.

Mikhail Vrubel. Tamara and the Demon.
Mikhail Vrubel. Tamara and the Demon. 1890. Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow.

It comes natural that such a master creates an unusual color somewhat similar to the one typical of Vasnetsov’s paintings. It does remind of the unusual sky in The Three Princesses.

Viktor Vasnetsov. Three Princesses of the Underworld.
Viktor Vasnetsov. Three Princesses of the Underworld. 1881. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Although Vrubel’s painting has a distinct three-color palette, blue, yellow, red, the hues are unusual. That is why at the end of the 19th century, such a painting could not be understood. Vrubel’s Demon was criticized for looking rough and clumsy.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, in the era of Art Nouveau, the taste changed and Vrubel was awed. His originality in the approach to colors and shapes was greatly appreciated. And the artist became the audience darling. They would compare him to such eccentric masters as Matisse and Picasso.

The Demon as an Obsession

10 years after The Demon Seated Vrubel created the Demon Defeated. Upon completing his work, the artist ended up in a mental health hospital.

It made the audience think that the painting ‘defeated’ Vrubel by pushing him in insanity.

But in actuality, it was not the case.

Mikhail Vrubel. The Demon Defeated.
Mikhail Vrubel. The Demon Defeated. 1902. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

He was interested in this image, and he worked on it multiple times. It’s common for an artist to return to the same image more than once.

For instance, Munch returned to The Scream after the break of 17 years.

Claude Monet painted the versions of the Rouen Cathedral in dozens, and Rembrandt made lots of self-portraits throughout his life.

One and the same image assists the artist in making picturesque bookmarks along his timeline. Returning to the same image in several years, the master can evaluate the changes made by the time and gained experience.

If we exclude the mystical context, then the Demon must not be blamed for Vrubel’s illness at all. Everything was much more trivial.

Mikhail Vrubel. Self-portrait with a pearl shell.
Mikhail Vrubel. Self-portrait with a pearl shell. 1905. Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg

In the early 1890s, he contracted syphilis. There were no antibiotics, and the causative agent of the disease, treponema pale, caused detrimental consequences.

After 10-15 years since the moment of infection, the patient’s central nervous system gets affected. It is accompanied by irritability, loss of memory and followed by delusions and hallucinations. The optic nerves also atrophy. Vrubel fell victim of the disease.

He passed away in 1910. People would have to wait for 18 years longer before the life-saving penicillin was invented.

Read more about Russian artists’ masterpieces.

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Translated by Alla Chernetz

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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