Mikhail Vrubel first painted the demon while illustrating a romantic poem by Mikhail Lermontov. Vrubel described him as “a spirit, not so much evil as suffering and sorrowing, but in all that a powerful spirit… a majestic spirit”. But that was only its first incarnation. The dark-eyed demon followed Vrubel his whole life, appearing in his work hunched against a dark sky, conversing with the beautiful Tamara, and finally contorted in agonizing defeat.
'Vrubel’s Demon is a symbol of our times, neither night nor day, neither dark nor light.' — Alexander Blok
At age 24 Mikhail Vrubel graduated with a degree in law, but he did not become a lawyer. He turned, instead, to painting. Vrubel studied at the Imperial Academy of arts under Pavel Chistyakov, and developed a odd, fragmented style — brushstrokes like pebbles on a beach. One of his first large commissions — murals for St. Cyril’s Church in Kiev — sent him to Venice, where he studied Early Christian art. The somber, doe-eyed saints of the coptic icons soaked into him, and would reappear, darker, on his return to Russia.
In 1890, Mikhail Vrubel moved to Moscow, where he developed a broad range of artistic work. Like many Art Nouveau artists, he work in many mediums, including stained glass, majolica, and costume design — but it was the demon that brought him into the limelight. Though he’d sketched illustrations for Lermontov’s poem in Kiev, Demon Seated was the first time he brought the form to life on a massive canvas.
Vrubel’s demon was met with shock by the Moscow art world. Critics called it ‘wildly ugly’ — others a ’symphony of genius.’ The controversy brought success, as it so often does. Vrubel caught the eye of art patron Savva Mamontov, who commissioned works for his private opera. Through this opera he met his wife, Nadezhda Zabela, who he created costumes for, and painted in operatic fantasy. For the next ten years, Vrubel painted mythological figures, created majolica friezes, even dabbled in architecture — but he always returned to the demon. In 1902 Vrubel created the massive painting The Fallen Demon showing the demon still defiant though twisted in defeat. It was a massive, detailed canvas — and Vrubel work turned into obsession. He painted and repainted the demon’s eyes and lips over and over, even once the work was on display. His compulsions finally ended with a profound mental and physical breakdown. He was committed to a mental hospital, where he would spend the rest of his life.
“Vrubel came to us as a messenger to tell us that the violet night is sprinkled with the gold of a clear evening. He left us his Demons to exorcise the violet evil and the night. What Vrubel and those like him reveal to mankind once a century, make me tremble with awe” — Alexander Blok
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Reed Enger, "Mikhail Vrubel, The man who fell in love with a demon," in Obelisk Art History, Published October 12, 2015; last modified May 21, 2018, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/mikhail-vrubel/.