'His art can be likened to an enchanted garden where all the flowers, alive and fragrant, have been invented, created and grown by the gardener-magician.'
Alexandre Benois of Mikhail Vrubel, 1904
Vrubel's art is at once mysterious and powerful, rooted in tradition yet transcendent in its vision. Indubitably one of the most original and influential figures in Russian Art and the leading exponent of Russian Symbolism, his genius encompassed an energising, almost terraforming, creative force, prompting Nicolas Roerich to remark, 'there is much sunlight about him - much of what we need' (quoted in S. Kaplanova, Vrubel, St Petersburg, 1975, p. 7).
Drawing inspiration from traditional sources such as byliny, classic works of literature such as Lermontov's The Demon and Russian fairytales, Vrubel interpreted familiar motifs in an arrestingly modern way; expertly soldering together subject-matter and a diverse range of media to form distinct new worlds, familiar to our own, yet set apart by their other-worldliness.
His versatile talent and irrepressible impulse to create were ignited further by the zeitgeist; the revival of arts and crafts and the introduction of folk crafts into the sphere of 'high art' encouraged him to experiment and provided more 'materials' with which to construct his vision - from monumental murals to easel painting, theatrical designs, sculpture and pottery.
The artistic colony at Abramtsevo, the estate owned by the pioneering collector and patron, Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), became the epic-centre of Neo-Russian style and the popularisation of arts and crafts. In the late 1880s, it was here that a number of artists, including Viktor Vasnetsov, Valentin Serov and Vrubel himself, set out to revive the art of 16th century Italian maiolica ceramics - the fine earthenware with coloured decoration set against an opaque white tin glaze.
The sculptural qualities and pictorial possibilities of majolica captivated Vrubel and he became fascinated by the unexpected effects, lustrous glazes, intricate colour-workings and metallic patinas produced during the firing process. He soon headed the ceramics studio and created a series of figures including Lel', Volkhova, Sadko and Kupava, derived from folk prototypes. In the late 1890s ceramics from Abramtsevo were exhibited widely, including at Diaghilev's exhibition of Russian and Finnish artists in 1898 and the Paris World Exhibition in 1900.
His exquisite Spring is one of a small number of models produced exclusively by Vrubel at Abramtsevo that remains in private hands. Other versions of the same model are held at the Abramtsevo Museum Estate, Tula Museum of Fine Arts and the State Tretyakov Gallery (see the State Tretyakov Gallery collection catalogue, Sculpture of the late 18th-19th centuries, vol. 1, Moscow, 2000, p. 133, no. 104).
The subject is taken from Alexander Ostrovsky's 1873 play, Snegurochka [The Snow Maiden], itself based on Russian folklore, which was turned into an opera in four acts by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1880-1881. Spring, the mother of Snegurochka, eventually grants her daughter the ability to love. Unfortunately, this proves to be fatal for the previously icy and impervious Snegurochka, and after falling in love for the first time she is melted by the sun.
The models inspired by this simple tale neatly convey how seamlessly Vrubel merged fantasy and reality and how closely he viewed the two. In the case of Spring, Vrubel recognised his wife, Nadezhda Ivanovna Zabela-Vrubel (1868-1913), in the model's expressive features. In a letter to his wife dated 1904 Vrubel wrote: 'I liked my sculpture. Do you remember the half-figure of Spring waving her hands trying to repel the birds? The gentle languor of her eyes, her smile and gestures - all remind me of you in form and expression.' (quoted in E. Paston, Abramtsevo: Iskusstvo I Zhizn' (Abramtsevo: Art and Life), Moscow, 2003, p. 258).