Vrubel's "Dream"

Natalia Soukhova

Magazine issue: 
#2 2005 (07)

As the Tretyakov Gallery's 150th anniversary approaches, the "Tretyakov Gallery" magazine initiates a series of special articles tracing the history of selected paintings from the Gallery's collection. In the first, the focus is on Mikhail Vrubel's "Princess of Dreams". Next year will not only mark the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Tretyakov Gallery, but 2006 will also be the 150th anniversary of Vrubel's birth - and exactly 110 years since he created his "Princess of Dreams". The painting brought Vrubel fame as an artist, simultaneously involving him in an enormous scandal in which the Tsar himself was to become embroiled.

In recent years, the "Princess of Dreams" has fared better. An entire room was created in the Tretyakov Gallery to house the painting - the Vrubel room.

Mikhail VRUBEL. The Princess of Dreams. 1896
Mikhail VRUBEL. The Princess of Dreams. 1896
Oil on canvas. 750 by 1400 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery


Rostand and the “Princess of Dreams

Vrubel's painting is based on the French dramatist Edmond Rostand's play "La Princesse Lointaine", which premiered in 1895. In the same year, the play was staged by Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, with an English translation, "The Faraway Princess", appearing in 1899. Tatiana Shchepkina- Kupernik, translating the play into Russian, decided to give it a title which, in her language, sounded more poetic: "The Princess of Dreams". The dream is, indeed, a vital motif in the play, which tells of the Provencal troubadour Jaufre Rudel's love for the beautiful princess Melisande (Melissinde). Based on a real character, Prince Jaufre has never seen the "dream princess", but has heard accounts of pilgrims who extolled her beauty and virtue. To this unattainable beauty Jaufre Rudel dedicates many lovely poems and songs, which become known the world over.

Her hair cascades down shoulders white –
A mass of flowing golden curls.
Her eyes, like softly glowing pearls
Shine, limpid on a moonlit night.
Now playfully they dance like fires,
Now strangely silent she appears.
All men with passion she inspires,
All women fills with jealous fears.
So, if the pilgrims' marvellous song
Indeed tells true, and does not lie
She will appear to us 'ere long
Our burning hearts to satisfy.

The prince is, however, destined to meet a tragic end. Setting sail and overcoming many obstacles to join his beloved, he dies in her arms.

On 4 January 1896, the play was staged in St. Petersburg by the Literary and Artistic Society. Alexei Suvorin's company used Shchepkina-Kupernik's translation, in a premiere which was a benefit performance for the actress Lydia Yavorskaya.

Yavorskaya and her close friend Shchepkina-Kupernik both knew Rostand personally and had been guests at his soirees in Paris. At that time, the plays of Rostand were being staged by every theatre in Europe. The Suvorin theatre administration, however, considered the "Princess of Dreams" banal and was vehemently opposed to the new production. No-one was more outspoken than Suvorin himself. "At rehearsals, he would thump the floor of his box with his staff, which never left his side, and exclaim loudly: 'Some nincompoop going to visit some silly girl on a stupid ship - and these idiots [Shchepkina-Kupernik and Yavorskaya - N.S.] imagine that Petersburg will go wild with joy!'"[1]

Despite all attempts by the theatre's management to stop the production, the play was staged and was, of course, a huge success. As Shchepkina-Kupernik adds, the "Princess of Dreams" gave its name to waltzes, perfume, chocolate and even writing paper with quotations from the book. All copies of the play sold so quickly that notices began to appear in the newspapers: "Copy of 'The Princess of Dreams' sought - reward offered."


The History

Vrubel saw Rostand's play in early 1896. Around that time, he received a commission to decorate the arts pavilion for the forthcoming All-Russian Industry and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod. The exhibition was due to open in the summer of that year. Sergei Witte, the minister of finance, was appointed organiser of the event - and he planned to hold it in style. The total area of the exhibition was to be 247 acres, with a special pavilion for works of art. Unversed in the arts, Witte asked the wealthy entrepreneur and patron of the arts Savva Mamontov to take charge of the cultural side of the exhibition. Known, after Lorenzo de Medici, as "Savva the Magnificent", Mamontov was a long-standing acquaintance of Witte, with whom he had collaborated on many occasions.

Initially, Mamontov had been responsible for the "Far North" pavilion. But, as the painter and art historian Nikolai Prakhov noted, "Mamontov showed an interest ... not only in the North pavilion. He could not help but notice that in the neighbouring arts pavilion, at the end of the long, high- ceilinged hall, there were two large spaces left unoccupied - magnificent spaces right up under the roof. The next time he saw the minister of finance, Mamontov suggested filling these spaces with decorative panels."[2] Witte agreed, leaving the choice of artist to Mamontov. The entrepreneur decided to give Vrubel, whose work he greatly admired, the task of creating the panels, with the choice of subject left to the artist. At this stage, it should be noted that the arts pavilion was in fact the responsibility of the Academy of Arts, with the arts department of the exhibition headed by Albert Benois. The arts pavilion was designed in neoclassical style by the architect Vladimir Tseidler, and the exhibition itself was to showcase works by members of the Academy.

At that time, Vrubel was not yet widely known as an artist. He had some experience in stage design and had, in 1890, already created his "Demon", but the commission for the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition was to be his first important, large-scale piece of work.

For the two panels, Vrubel chose sharply contrasting subjects. The first was the Western story of the Provencal troubadour in love with a beautiful princess, the second - the ancient Russian folk tale of Mikula Selyaninovich the ploughman.


The “Princess of Dreams” at the Nizhny Novgorod All-Russian Industry and Art Exhibition

In commissioning Vrubel to create the panels for the arts pavilion, Mamontov knew he was taking a considerable risk: the commission had not been officially agreed with the Academy of Arts, which was responsible for the pavilion. The arts department exhibitors were ill-disposed towards Vrubel, not so much because they considered his work to be poor, but because they felt Mamontov should have sought the Academy's approval. As Vrubel's work on the canvases for the pavilion progressed, Albert Benois sent a telegram to the Academy of Arts: "Vrubel's paintings monstrous. Must be removed. Await hanging committee." The academicians were determined to teach the selfassured merchant and his protege a lesson. Vrubel's canvases, so unusual in their design and technique, were boycotted by the Academy. The hanging committee, consisting of V.A. Beklemishev, M.P. Botkin, P.A. Bryullov, A.A. Kiselev, K.A. Savitsky and chaired by the Academy's vice-president Count Ivan Tolstoy declared that the "paintings could not stay ... in the arts department rooms."

Mamontov, enraged and indignant, hurried to St. Petersburg. Appealing to Witte, he succeeded in convincing the minister that the Academy had no right to remove the paintings, since the interior decoration of the pavilion was not its business. Witte promised to have the committee's decision revoked. The committee chairman Count Tolstoy, however, appealed to Great Prince Vladimir Alexandrovich, president of the Academy - who turned to Tsar Nikolai II. The paintings were removed, and Vrubel himself began to be persecuted. Unable to accept such cruel treatment, he stopped working on the paintings and left Nizhny Novgorod, travelling to Moscow to work on another commission. Mamontov paid him 5,000 rubles for his unfinished compositions.

"Savva the Magnificent" was not so easily defeated, however. When, in late May, Vasily Polenov arrived at the exhibition, Mamontov asked him to finish Vrubel's work. Time was running out fast. "Savva and Konstantin [Korovin] have persuaded me to finish Vrubel's paintings," wrote Polenov to his wife. "They are so interesting and so skilfully executed that I could not refuse ..."

The paintings were moved to Mamontov's house in Moscow. Vrubel himself was, apparently, "overjoyed to learn of this turn of events"[3] and prepared to oversee the final stage of the process.

Mamontov's decision to approach Polenov was, of course, extremely well- grounded. As an artist, Polenov was held in the highest esteem. One of the most important and best-known of the Wanderer artists (the "Peredvizhniki"), he had been a member of the Academy of Arts since 1876. His decision to finish a pair of paintings by the little- known Vrubel, an outcast spurned by official circles, was bound to cause the hanging committee some concern.

While Polenov and Korovin worked on Vrubel's canvases, Mamontov continued his feud with the Academy. Furious about the committee's unfair treatment of Vrubel, he rented a plot of land adjoining the exhibition and hired the Archangel railway contractor Babushkin to build a huge pavilion outside the exhibition's wall. A massive sign above the entrance read "exhibition of decorative paintings by the artist Mikhail Vrubel, rejected by the hanging committee of the Imperial Academy of Arts". Several days later, the reference to the hanging committee was painted over at the insistence of the exhibition's management. Even so, this was a remarkably audacious act: visitors to the exhibition flocked to view the notorious paintings. "The pavilion opened at the same time as the exhibition. The sign had been there since the morning," wrote Prakhov. "At first, admission was free. Later, visitors were charged 20 kopecks, the fee going towards paying the caretaker and cashier, who also acted as curator."

Thanks to Polenov, Korovin and Mamontov, Vrubel's name was saved. The Tsar himself expressed a desire to see the controversial paintings in the arts pavilion, but the president of the Academy prevented the canvases from being shown, considering the reputation of his institution to be at stake. Eight other works by Vrubel appeared in the exhibition, however: the "Judgement of Paris" triptych, "Spain", "The Muse", his portrait of Artsybushev and two sculptures, "The Demon" and "Head of a Bogatyr" from "Ruslan and Lyudmila".

Such an abundance was due mainly to Witte's feeling that the 14 years which had elapsed since the last All-Russian exhibition were insufficiently represented. In his opinion, the recent achievements of Russian art were not adequately presented. Writing to Mamontov, Witte requested that he and other collectors loan works by new artists for the exhibition. Mamontov responded by presenting a number of contemporary pieces, including the works by Vrubel, which he hoped would help the artist to become known. In addition to this, Mamontov's Private Russian Opera was then on tour in Nizhny Novgorod with a production of "Hansel and Gretel" designed by Vrubel. Besides the sets, Vrubel had also created the sumptuous curtain "Italy. Neapolitan Night". All in all, Mamontov had succeeded in organising a real Vrubel extravaganza.


Public Opinion

The scandal surrounding Vrubel's paintings turned out to be one of the sensations of the season. Even in the early stages of his work in the arts pavilion, the artist would often hear snippets of critical remarks made by older colleagues. "They made no secret of their disgust at the 'ugly, decadent paintings'," wrote Prakhov, whose home in Kiev Vrubel frequently visited. "Korovin and I soon saw that Vrubel's paintings, so original and fresh, were literally killing the other works, skilfully arranged below in their gilt frames."[4]

Many thought Vrubel's unusual style peculiar and absurd. The academicians' paintings hanging nearby served only to accentuate the strangeness of his canvases. "People laughed at Mr. Vrubel's paintings,"[5] wrote Garin-Mikhailovsky in the newspaper Novoye Vremya. "New art!" exclaimed Gorky at the end of his damning article on Vrubel. "It shows neither any real love of art, nor any real taste... What does all this ugliness mean? A shallow spirit and a poor imagination? A lack of idealism, a degeneration of taste? All this is merely a stance - a deliberate attempt to appear eccentric in order to obtain fame."[6]

Even Chaliapin, who was close to Mamontov and took part in many of his projects, originally saw Vrubel's work as a mere "jumble of colours". What was it that appealed to his patron in these "strange paintings"? He could not understand, and sought, on many occasions, to obtain an explanation. Once, after listening to the singer's criticism of the "Princess of Dreams", Mamontov replied: "You are still young, Fedenka, and you have not seen much. There is a lot of feeling in Vrubel's work."[7]

Despite all the vehement criticism, there were also many highly favourable reviews of Vrubel's work. Throughout the three-month exhibition, new and conflicting points of view appeared in the press almost every week. "The arts department is only ever mentioned in connection with Vrubel's paintings," commented the publication Moskovsky Listok. Another newspaper maintained that Vrubel's canvases were "so powerful, they were frightening". Many dwelt on Vrubel's new and original style: "Here, we are faced with a truly novel approach, a new technique which we must acknowledge and attempt to understand. Soon, it will be all around us." Garin-Mikhailovsky remarked on the emotional depth of Vrubel's work: "There is a lot of feeling here, a lot of thought, a lot of new ideas." After purchasing the sketches for the exhibition paintings, Victor Vasnetsov wrote in a letter to Nizhny Novgorod: "Whatever it is that Vrubel has painted, he has painted it magnificently."

Gorky's trenchant article on the "Princess of Dreams" elicited a polemical response from the artist Andrei Karelin, who pointed out that the writer, carried away as he was by his string of reproaches, had failed to understand the painting properly. The "Princess of Dreams", explained Karelin, depicted not a real meeting between Jaufre Rudel and his princess, but a vision - a "dream of a Dream", inspired by the prince's beautiful song. Through music, the prince had succeeded in conjuring an image of his beloved.

Several years later, Nikolai II visited an exhibition held by Sergei Diaghilev in the Academy of Arts. Konstantin Korovin writes: "Glancing at Vrubel's 'Lilac', the Tsar said suddenly: 'How beautiful. I like that'." Standing nearby, Great Prince Vladimir Alexandrovich [president of the academy - N.S.] overheard the comment and protested vehemently:

- Upon my word, Your Majesty, it is nothing but decadence!
- No, I like it, replied the tsar. Who painted it?
- Vrubel, came the reply.
- Vrubel?.. Vrubel?.. the Tsar mused.

Turning to his attendants, he noticed Count Tolstoy, vice-president of the academy. "Vrubel is the one who was taken to task in Nizhny, is he not, Ivan Ivanovich?"[8]


The Sequel

When the exhibition closed, the "Princess of Dreams" passed on to Mamontov's Private Russian Opera, then to his pottery. At that time, Mamontov was chairman of the Northern Building Society. When it was decided to rebuild Moscow's Metropol Hotel, he took on the job. The new building was designed to become a city centre for the arts. Besides housing a hotel, it would boast a theatre, winter garden, restaurants and numerous halls for dance performances, masquerades and modern art exhibitions. The facade was to be decorated with a majolica panel. This, Mamontov decided, would show Vrubel's "Princess of Dreams". The panel was made at the merchant's ceramic factory and, in time, appeared on the hotel facade: a real triumph for both artist and patron.

The painting itself was stored in the building of Zimin's Opera, now the Moscow Operetta Theatre. After the revolution of 1917, all props belonging to the opera were passed to the Bolshoi Theatre. In 1 956, theatre staff decided to clear out the old storage depositories in preparation for the forthcoming youth and student festival. Stumbling on a huge folded canvas signed "M.A. Vrubel", they notified the Tretyakov Gallery. That summer, the restorer A.P. Kovalev and the 20th-century art specialist O.A. Zhivova from the Tretyakov Gallery came to examine the find. The canvas was unrolled outside. Creased, filthy and torn, it had several patches missing. Nonetheless, the specialists immediately recognised the "Princess of Dreams". "After all," wrote Kovalev, "its double was clearly visible from the theatre - the majolica panel on the nearby Metropol building!"[9]

The canvas was taken to the Tretyakov Gallery and a special reel made - large-scale paintings are usually rolled up for storage. The "Princess of Dreams" was then stored in the church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi for many years, which was where the Tretyakov Gallery then kept many of its paintings. Only in the 1990s was the work finally restored. Initially, it had to be straightened; then it was necessary to fix the paint, remove the dust, shift the original canvas onto a new one and order a special frame onto which the canvas could be stretched. At that time, the whole Tretyakov Gallery was under reconstruction, and it was decided to create a special room for Vrubel's enormous painting - the Vrubel room. The canvas was brought to this room and the last stages of its restoration took place before the visitors' very eyes.


“The Princess of Dreams” Characters:

Vrubel's "Princess of Dreams" floats above the ship in a white tunic and chaplet of white lilies.

Fingering the strings of his lute, Prince Jaufre appears to be gazing at his beloved.

The "Princess of Dreams" was painted like an ancient fresco. The colours have faded a little with time, yet they retain an amazingly musical quality, as if touched by the pensive song of the prince. Held in the song's magic spell, all the characters listen, entranced. Dreamy and introspective, it is as if they are all gazing at some lovely princess of their imagination: Jaufre's friend, the poet Bertrand, depicted in the centre holding the sail; the priest to Bertrand's right; the doctor and the sailors - all are plunged into a mysterious reverie. The colourful patterns on the princess's dress and the carpet hanging from the deck, the glittering hues of the waves strengthen the viewer's impression of a beautiful and mysterious vision. "My 'Princess of Dreams' is the dream of beauty shared by all artists," wrote Vrubel. The painting is indeed an allegory of the inspir-ation and creative spirit guiding the artist. The prince's love for his princess is akin to the painter's love of art. The "Princess of Dreams" can be seen as the illustration of Mikhail Vrubel's personal credo: the finding of truth in beauty.


  1. Tatiana Shchepkina- Kupernik, "Teatr v Moyey Zhizni" (The Theatre in My Life). Moscow, Leningrad, 1948, p.115.
  2. "Vrubel. Perepiska. Vosp- ominaniya o Khudozhnike" (Vrubel. Correspondence. Memories of the Artist). Leningrad, Moscow, 1963, p. 321.
  3. Ibid, p.172
  4. Ibid, p.321.
  5. Nikolai Garin-Mikhailovsky. "Zhuri i Khudozhnik" (The Committee and the Artist). Taken from Novoye Vremya, 1896, no.7295, p.2.
  6. Maxim Gorky. "Sobraniye Sochineny" (Collected Works). Vol.23, p.165.
  7. "Shalyapin F.I. Literatur- noye Nasledstvo" (Fyodor Chaliapin. A Literary Legacy). Vol.1, pp.141, 273.
  8. "Konstantin Korovin Vspominayet" (Konstantin Korovin Reminisces). Moscow, 1990, p.131.
  9. A.R. Kovalev. "Vosstanovleniye Panno "Printsessa Grioza" (Restoring the "Princess of Dreams"). Taken from "M.Vrubel v Tretyakovskoi Galereye, Muzeyakh I Chastnikh Sobraniyakh Moskvi" (Mikhail Vrubel in the Tretyakov Gallery and Moscow's Museums and Private Collections). Moscow, 1997, p.52.
Mikhail VRUBEL. The Princess of Dreams. Detail (Prince Jaufre and the Princess of Dreams)
Mikhail VRUBEL. The Princess of Dreams. Detail (Prince Jaufre and the Princess of Dreams)
Photograph of Edmond Rostand inscribed by the author for Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, translator of “La Princesse Lointaine”
Photograph of Edmond Rostand inscribed by the author for Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, translator of “La Princesse Lointaine”
Lydia Yavorskaya – the first Russian actress to play the Princess of Dreams
Lydia Yavorskaya – the first Russian actress to play the Princess of Dreams
The Arts Department pavilion. 1896
The Arts Department pavilion. 1896
The “Far North” pavilion. 1896
The “Far North” pavilion. 1896
The “Far North” pavilion. Entrance. 1896
The “Far North” pavilion. Entrance. 1896
The Machinery pavilion. 1896
The Machinery pavilion. 1896
Mikhail VRUBEL. Spain. 1894
Mikhail VRUBEL. Spain. 1894
Oil on canvas. 248 by 89 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
Portrait of K.D. Artsybushev. 1896–1897
Portrait of K.D. Artsybushev. 1896–1897
Oil on canvas. 101.5 by 136.7 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
The Demon (Sitting). 1890
The Demon (Sitting). 1890
Oil on canvas. 114 by 211 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
The Judgement of Paris. 1893
The Judgement of Paris. 1893
Triptych showing Venus, Eros and Paris. Central part.
Oil on canvas. 317 by 132 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery
The Metropol Hotel, Moscow: central facade with “Princess of Dreams” majolica panel
The Metropol Hotel, Moscow: central facade with “Princess of Dreams” majolica panel
The Metropol Hotel, Moscow: central facade. Detail
The Metropol Hotel, Moscow: central facade. Detail

See also:

Symbolism and Russian ArtAlla Gusarova
Symbolism and Russian Art





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