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By the mid 1880s, the Russian realist movement reached something of a watershed. Of the great writers, Dostoevsky and Turgenev were dead, and Tolstoy had renounced art in favor of religion. By the early 1890s, a series of new artistic trends began to appear. Influenced initially by French literature and art as well as by the art of Romanticism (Russian and European), the Russian decadents and symbolists turned from novelistic prose to lyric poetry and, eventually, to drama. They also rejected the commonly-held belief that art should serve social progress. Rather, they posited the artist as a free godlike figure whose life and work could point the way to the ideal future. In the visual arts, we can see how abrupt the turn away from realism was if we look at the painting of Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel (1856-1910).

"The Demon Seated" (1890)

The subject of this painting is the hero of Mikhail Lermontov's Romantic narrative poem of the same name. This work, written in the late 1830s tells the story of a Byronic demon fated to love a Georgian princess, who dies as a result of his kiss. She is saved by angels, while he is doomed to spend eternity alone. This overheated story fit perfectly with the Romantic temperament, but would have been anathema to realist writers and painters. Vrubel described the Demon as "A spirit which unites in itself the male and female appearances, a spirit which is not so much evil as suffering and wounded, but withal a powerful and noble being." Note the otherworldly expression in the Demon's eyes (as opposed to the expression in Perov's portrait of Turgenev, for example), symbolic of the existence of a world beyond that of the everyday. Note also the background, which is filled with such symbolically-laden images as sunset, fire (which stands for the end of the world), as well as aggressively nonrealistic flowers.

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