PRINT March 1979

Mikhail Vrubel: Madness and Art

MIKHAIL ALEKSANDROVICH VRUBEL (1856–1910) was one of the first modern Russian artists—modern in the sense that he broke away from academic traditions, expressing his own artistic vision in a unique vocabulary. Although Vrubel is sometimes considered a Symbolist, his art is rather difficult to categorize. He perhaps tried to be different from everybody else. It is quite clear that, unlike the Peredvizhniki, those realist painters who dominated Russian artistic life during the 1870s and 1880s, Vrubel was not interested in making art that told a story easily understandable by many people. Vrubel’s concern—his “mania,” as he called it—was technique. Over and over again, he experimented with the expressive potential of color and line. A painting to him was a decorative surface, and he explored formal means for covering that surface with carpet- and mosaiclike patterns. If the impact of Vrubel’s artistic innovations on 20th-century Russian artists has yet to be completely documented, except in regard to the Symbolist painters of the Blue Rose movement,1 it is nevertheless difficult to believe that the creations of artists like Larionov and Malevich, who conceived of painting in terms of pure form, would have been the same without the example of Vrubel’s obsession with technique.2

An even less explored aspect of Vrubel is the possible relationship between his work and the venereal disease that eventually killed him. Vrubel contracted syphilis, probably in 1885, at the beginning of his artistic career, and suffered periodically from its effects for the rest of his life. The letters of Vrubel and his acquaintances, and the memoirs of those who knew him, contain evidence of the disease’s early symptoms and its progressive devastation.3 As early as 1885 he began to suffer from severe headaches. After the period of latency that commonly separates the first two stages of syphilis from the final tertiary stage, Vrubel again became ill. In 1896 he was too sick to complete an important commission for the Nizhnil-Novgorod exhibition, and in 1898 his sister-in-law, E.I. Ge, mentioned that the artist was again plagued by painful headaches. Owing to recurrent bouts of madness, Vrubel was confined to mental hospitals on and off from 1902, but he managed to continue working until 1906, when his vision became too impaired. He survived for four years, but his physical and mental deterioration continued until his death in 1910.

Despite the fact that his sickness spanned his entire artistic life, few scholars have devoted much study to the effects that syphilis might have had upon Vrubel’s art. Soviet authors do not even acknowledge that his mental illness was a by-product of syphilis, preferring to describe Vrubel’s case as manic-depressive psychosis. They also prefer to overlook any connection between his art and his disease, arguing, in short, that since, when he was extremely sick he was unable to work, his art was thus produced only during periods of health.

Vrubel’s contemporaries had similar ideas about the relationship between the artist’s illness and his art, and it is quite possible that current Soviet opinions merely repeat these views. Aside from Vrubel’s sister-in-law Ge, who wrote in passing that the artist’s work by its extreme originality must reflect his illness, many people thought otherwise.4 This attitude was expressed by the poet Briusov, who sat for Vrubel, then in a sanitarium, during 1906. In his memoir, Briusov described the physical and mental state of the artist, who was pathetically weak, half-blind and tormented by demonic voices: “The man was dying, was being destroyed, the artist—went on living.” According to Briusov, Vrubel might have been almost too weak and trembling to stand, but when he began to draw his hand was sure and steady. It is difficult to know whether this view of the artist on the part of Briusov and others who knew Vrubel, later reaffirmed by Soviet writers, is completely true or partly a wishful myth of the healing powers of art. Certainly there were periods when Vrubel was too sick to work, but it does not necessarily follow that the artist was completely rational when he was able to work. From his own letters, and from the testimony of others, Vrubel emerges as an eccentric, at the very least. Much of his behavior seems to have been characterized by symptoms of syphilis of the central nervous system, which in the early stages causes personality changes, carelessness and lack of judgment, and in the final stage a euphoria with grandiose ideas or a depression marked by anxiety.

As for the actual nature of his illness, Vrubel visited many doctors and received many different diagnoses, ranging from incurable paresis (by which the doctor probably referred to the final stage of syphilis) to curable folie à deux parts (no doubt what would today be called manic-depressive disorder). This range of opinions might have reflected medical ignorance, wishful thinking, or reluctance to tell the artist and his family the truth. Vrubel himself was well aware that he was sick, but seemed always to hope for a cure, never acknowledging that his disease was syphilis and that his case was hopeless.

The notion that Vrubel’s art was untainted by his disease, emphasized by Soviet scholars and by some of the artist’s contemporaries, might have arisen in reaction to those critics who considered Vrubel’s work decadent.5 During his lifetime, the artist was never widely popular. He enjoyed some government patronage at the beginning of his artistic career, but was largely dependent on the support of wealthy devotees of art for whom he worked, first in Kiev and later in Moscow. When the journal Mir iskusstva appeared at the turn of the century, Diaghilev and his circle took up Vrubel, whose art was very much to their taste. Critics like Stasov, who championed realist art, obviously disliked Vrubel’s work, and he received savage treatment at their hands, which may have inspired the artist’s friends and supporters to retaliate by defending Vrubel’s art against charges of decadence. And perhaps these friends were as excessive in their claims of the artist’s wholesomeness as the hostile critics were in the other extreme.

Is it, anyway, possible to discern madness in a work of art? This question has been discussed by psychiatrists, who have reached a variety of conclusions.6 However, from the viewpoint of art history, Rudolf Wittkower’s essay on Ernst Kris’ analysis of a “mad sculptor” is very useful. Wittkower showed very convincingly that the characteristics which Kris considered insane were quite acceptable within the historical context of the 18th century. Madness, Wittkower suggests, is in the mind of the beholder as much as in the mind of the person beheld. While psychiatry has a great deal to offer in understanding art, the interpreter must be extremely cautious about attaching pathological labels to artistic productions.

Furthermore, discussions of the art of the insane always depend upon a before-the-fact identification of the artist as insane. Without the knowledge that a given group of drawings was collected from mental patients, it might be difficult or even impossible to deduce the artists’ mental states from their work. Even then, one might conclude that there was nothing abnormal about such drawings. The interpretations given to such works are sometimes more bizarre than the works themselves. Finally, the present-day tendency to question whether or not there is such a thing as madness undermines any workable definition of artistic “insanity.”

Nevertheless, it still seems to me quite clear that Vrubel’s art reflected his state of mind, and that this state of mind was a complex and changing product of many factors—his personality, his innate talents and his illness, to name but a few.

Vrubel had an unusual background for a Russian artist. His father was an army officer. The artist was graduated from the faculty of law at the University of St. Petersburg, which he attended between 1874 and 1879, and after graduation he enrolled as a student in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. This background and education, and Vrubel’s wide intelligence, no doubt contributed to his independence as an artist. In 1884, before completing his course of study at the academy, he went to Kiev to work on the restoration of the church of St. Cyril, which was directed by the art historian A.V. Prakhov as part of the imperial regime’s efforts to glorify Russia’s Slavic past. Vrubel worked at restoring the frescoes of this church and also painted four icons for the iconostasis. Later, he executed some ornamental borders in the new church of St. Vladimir, in Kiev. His unused sketches for the main frescoes of this church are, to modern eyes, more interesting than the work of the artist Vasnetsov, who actually executed the major decoration of St. Vladimir.

In 1889 Vrubel moved to Moscow, where he won the patronage of a number of wealthy Muscovites, primarily the entrepreneur and art-lover Savva Mamontov, but also some members of the Morozov family. Vrubel was given much work by Mamontov, from designing for his private opera to directing the ceramic workshop on Mamontov’s country estate of Abramtsevo. Vrubel worked also at Talashkino, the estate of the Princess Tenisheva near Smolensk, and produced a number of paintings for private patrons in Moscow. At the turn of the century, when the Mir iskusstva circle found Vrubel’s art very much to their liking, his paintings appeared in their exhibitions. A few of his productions appeared in foreign exhibitions but they never received much critical notice. Vrubel married the opera singer Nadezhda Ivanovna Zabela in 1896. Their son Savva, born in 1901, had a hare-lip, which, according to his sister-in-law, much disturbed the artist. The boy died in 1903, amidst Vrubel’s progressive mental decay.

In some types of mental disease there is said to be a difficulty in distinguishing figure/ground configurations, and Vrubel’s conception of art as a decorative surface on which figure and ground are interdependent could, in that sense, perhaps be considered a symptom of his disease. However, by the same token, this diagnosis could apply to all Symbolist painting, just as Vrubel’s idea of art, although uniquely interpreted, would also have matched those of many contemporary European artists. Many conservative critics of the late 19th century would no doubt have agreed that that all Symbolist art was the product of diseased minds, but at least Vrubel’s work can be said not to have been artistically eccentric.

The theme of the demon, inspired by Lermontov’s poem of the tragic love of a fallen angel for an earthly princess, obsessed Vrubel from the early 1880s until 1902. The works of art on this theme would seem to be a very intimate expression of the artist’s concerns. Tarabukin has suggested that Vrubel’s demon was inspired by his love for two women from his Kiev period—a circus rider with whom he had an affair (and from whom he probably contracted syphilis), and the wife of Adrian Viktorovich Prakhov, Emilia L’vovna, whom he supposedly admired from afar. But there is not much direct evidence to prove Tarabukin’s supposition.

It is also apparent, from the faces of many of Vrubel’s demonic figures, that the artist was very familiar with the Symbolist and late pre-Raphaelite motif of the femme fatale and that he adapted that type to his own purpose. There are, for instance, obvious similarities between Rosetti’s photograph of Jane Morris and Vrubel’s seated demon, while one of Vrubel’s illustrations for an anniversary edition of Lermontov’s works is reminiscent of Stuck’s Medusa.

Vrubel’s father, visiting his son in Kiev in 1885, wrote a letter describing the demon as part male and part female. Presumably his son gave him this interpretation. Tarabukin would see a number of Vrubel’s creations other than the demon as androgynous. Still, it is difficult to decide whether Vrubel’s use of androgyny was inspired by his familiarity with Symbolist art or was a reflection of his own unconscious. There was, no doubt, a psychological motivation, perhaps an unresolved ambivalent attitude to his father that expressed itself in bisexual terms. Certainly the demon of Lermontov’s poem was completely masculine, and Vrubel’s visualization was symbolic rather than realistic.

The European Symbolist artists often made use of androgynous figures, so that Vrubel’s taste for androgyny might be just as much a question of stylistic sophistication as, and no more morbid than, his concept of painting as decoration (in relation to syphilis). It might also be noted that, in religious terms, the demon as a fallen angel could be pictured in the same way as angels who were presexual or both male and female at once. Perhaps it is impossible to separate the personal from the cultural strands in Vrubel’s theme. Even if we cannot know that the female aspect of the demon was a hint of the artist’s tragic loves or of bisexual conflicts, the fact that this subject occupied so much of Vrubel’s artistic career speaks for its importance to him. At the very least, the representation of the demon as an immense, heroic, isolated demi-god must have been a self-projection.

The Pearl is a painting as unique in Vrubel’s oeuvre as the demon theme is typical. Two women, holding hands, curve together around the rim of an immense organic pink shell that occupies most of the space. Strange small sea creatures float in an underwater world with an explosion of pink forms representing the interior of the shell. The painting suggests nothing so much as a return to the womb, and the two half-clothed women who frame the shell may refer to the twin early loves of the artist. As the painting was done in 1904, when Vrubel’s artistic life was coming to a close, it might be read as an attempt to escape from the horror of his existence. However, it is interesting that, in its time, the work was much admired for its technique, not its psychological content. Shortly after its completion, Ge discussed the painting with Vrubel, praising the magic of the seashell, while Vrubel was proud of his technical skill. If the subject is unusual, the composition is reminiscent of Art Nouveau ornament; Vrubel had already produced a ceramic plaque with a somewhat similar design, but on a Slavic theme, in Mamontov’s ceramic workshop.

Yet, in 1906 Vrubel haltingly expressed to Briusov some thoughts about The Pearl that suggest that the artist then saw in the two women a distasteful sexuality. Briusov tried in vain to overcome Vrubel’s subsequent distaste for the painting. Did the artist here reveal the suppressed sexual conflict that had unconsciously fueled his art, or was he simply voicing the conventional morality of his day? In contrast with The Pearl, Vrubel’s portrait of Briusov, created during an appalling state of physical and mental degeneration, does not look like the product of a madman, even though, objectively, that is exactly what it is.

Without guessing about what Vrubel has left unsaid, his work does seem to reflect his complex personality, both healthy and unhealthy. His art is never a simple record of reality, but rather a (Symbolistic-) idealized re-creation born of his inner vision. The urge to idealize reality, in fact, must have been one of the mainsprings of Vrubel’s art. Perhaps this is why Vrubel continued to work as long as he could summon the strength to lift a pencil, even when, as testified to by Briusov, he was plagued by demonic voices. His idealizing tendency thus agrees with the fact that Vrubel never abandoned his hope of a cure, never quite admitting the hopelessness of his condition. Beyond being an impetus to work, his love of beauty was protection against, as well as an escape from, the ugly truth.

Vrubel’s enduring obsession with the theme of the demon has already been mentioned. He first turned to this subject at about the time when he contracted syphilis, and continued to work on variations of the theme until his major attack of madness in 1902. The Fallen Demon, the last variation on the theme and much more his own than Lermontov’s vision, is a glorification of the physical collapse that was soon to overtake the artist. Apparently he worked feverishly over the painting until he managed nearly to obscure the figure of the demon within the overall design. Here the very act of painting is related to Vrubel’s illness, and his compulsive reworking of the canvas seems linked to his reluctance to finish the work. But this was also an attempt to externalize his inner turmoil: even a contemporary critic compared the brush strokes to nerve patterns. Vrubel’s intention seems to have been to hide the demon, to escape from the inescapable.

It is known that Vrubel sometimes used drawing in a compulsive way during sieges of extreme mental breakdown, when he would draw over and over again on the same sheet. While working on Briusov’s portrait, the artist erased parts of it and claimed that he wanted to redo the background. The poet, however, thought that Vrubel’s action was an attempt to erase his demon. The effects of this destructive erasing can be seen in the background of the portrait and in the outline of the head (Vrubel was too weak to finish the commission). In short, Vrubel in his darkest moments might have seen the act of drawing as a ritual means of escape; his demon could be hidden or erased by his hand—which also would agree with his concept of art as an idealization of reality.

Vrubel’s career is often described by present-day scholars, both Soviet and Western, as an example of the tragedy of the artist-genius who was unappreciated by the crass world in which he lived. This interpretation is not new. Vrubel’s contemporaries had already drawn the same conclusion a number of times and it was romantically reiterated by Benois in his obituary on the artist.7 This view no doubt coincided with Vrubel’s image of himself, and it inspired his vision of the larger-than-life heroes who peopled his paintings. Yet the notion of Vrubel as a misunderstood genius is not entirely in agreement with the facts of his life. It is true that he was never a popular success in Russia, but he was accepted and supported by a number of sophisticated patrons and critics. Some of Vrubel’s sense of social alienation was self-imposed, a direct result of his own view of himself, produced, in part, by his illness.

It seems to me that the far greater tragedy of Vrubel’s life and work is his illness, that gradual destruction of his physical and mental abilities which he had to suffer because he was born only a few years before a highly effective remedy for syphilis was discovered (in 1908). Vrubel himself does seem to have been largely unaware of the extent of his disease, protected as he was by his idealization of life. Yet hints of the truth seem to pervade some of his paintings, like the ravaged demon of 1902. One of his tenderest paintings is a swiftly worked, but dispassionately drawn, portrait of his young son, a serious child whose large eyes look out toward his father, and whose hare-lip is clearly shown. My son is like a flower, Vrubel seems to be saying, and yet he is deformed. At the heart of beauty lurks decay.



1. J. E. Bowlt, Russian Art 1875–1975: A Collection of Essays, New York, 1976, pp. 63–93.

2. Naum Gabo, Of Divers Arts, New York, 1962, pp.155–167, suggested this. See also R. Reeder, “Mikhail Vrubel: A Russian Interpretation of fin de siècle Art,” The Slavonic and East European Review, LIV, 3, 1976, pp 323–334.

3. E. P. Gomberg-Verzhbinskaia, and IU. N. Podkopaevaia, eds., Vrubel: Perepiska. Bosporninaniia o khudozhnike, Leningrad, 1963, for all references to letters and memoirs.

4. N. M. Tarabukin, Vrubel, Moscow, 1974, pp. 143–152.

5. G. IU. Sternin, Khudozhestvennaia zhizn Rossii nachala XX veka, Moscow, 1976, pp. 139–149.

6. R. Cardinal, Outsider Art, New York, 1972, pp. 16–23, 181–182, for a summary of the problem, and bibliography. R. and M. Wittkower, Born Under Saturn, New York, 1969, pp. 98–132, 281–294. See also M. Schapiro, “Leonardo and Freud: An Art-Historical Study,” Journal of the History of Ideas, XVII, 1956, pp. 147–178. E. Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art, New York, 1967.

7. A. Benois, Rech (St. Petersburg), April 3, 1910.