Feel Art Again: "The Parting of Sea King and Princess Volhova"

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Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Vrubel, one of Russia's greatest 19-century artists. Vrubel's 1898 work, "The Parting of Sea King and Princess Volhova," is exemplary of Vrubel's oeuvre, with metallic tones and fairy tale subject matter. Today, we'll delve into the life of this Russian artist who, despite his striking work, isn't very well-known in America.

1. Mikhail Vrubel graduated from the Law Faculty of St. Petersburg University and then promptly enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts. His first big break came when he was asked to replace the lost 12th-century murals and mosaics in St. Cyril's Church in Kiev.

2. Vrubel was interested in the Oriental arts, especially Persian carpets. The unique textured appearance of his paintings is a result of his attempts to imitate the texture of Persian carpets. The metallic appearance of works like "The Parting of Sea King and Princess Volhova" is from the bronze powder he added to his oils.

3. Vrubel was skilled in many artistic pursuits, including ceramics, majolica (a type of glazed pottery), and stained glass. For the World's Fair of 1900 in Paris, Vrubel created "Vol'ga and Mikula," a fireplace. For the 150th anniversary Vrubel exhibit at the State Russian Museum, the fireplace was reassembled from 130 fragments.

4. At age 40, Vrubel fell in love with a famous opera singer, Nadezhda Zabela, and married her. He designed many stage sets and costumes for Zabela, including ones for her performances as the Snow Maiden, the Swan Princess, and Princess Volkhova.

5. Several of Vrubel's works, including "Pan," "The Swan Princess," and "Lilacs," were based on Russian fairy tales. He also created illustrations for Hamlet and Anna Karenina, but his most famous works are his sketches and watercolors illustrating Mikhail Lermontov's poem, Demon.

6. Vrubel, who often drew for 12 to 14 hours a day, became absorbed in his 1901 painting, "Demon Downcast." He repainted the demon's face so often that it had a different face each day during its exhibition. Eventually, he had a nervous breakdown, requiring hospitalization in a mental clinic. The mental problems were brought on, or just complicated, by Vrubel's tertiary syphilis. Valery Bryusov, a Russian writer, later remarked, "The creative power has outlived everything in him. The man was dying, decomposing by the master - continued to live." Vrubel died in 1910, after struggling with his illness for at least several years.

7. In 1906, the year Vrubel completed what would be his last painting, "Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel," several of his works were brought to Paris and put on display. There, they fascinated Pablo Picasso, who supposedly stood staring at the paintings for several days.
A larger version of "The Parting of Sea King and Princess Volhova" is available here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.