In 1896, an eternal wanderer, an unsettled and homeless painter finds his pier. His dream came true. He fell in love. Nadezhda Ivanovna Zabela – a famous singer – becomes the artist’s wife.
Vrubel was infinitely happy. He idolized his wife: he went to all her rehearsals and plays, invented and personally made her outfits for the stage and life. She was his muse in life and in creativity.
He creates a suite of portraits of his wife. Her face lives in some fairy-tale and mythological female characters of his paintings, shining through them or with familiar features, or the favorite musical tonality of the color scale.
During the work on the painting Demon defeated (1902) Vrubel had serious symptoms of mental illness, and then, with small intervals of time, the disease progressed and did not leave the artist until his death.
A significant role in the treatment of Vrubel was played by Dr. Usoltsev. His private clinic was in the Petrovsky Park
in the vicinity of Moscow. In his hospital, which he preferred to call a sanatorium, Usoltsev used not quite ordinary methods of keeping patients. He believed that patients should live in an environment that would remind them of the disease as little as possible. Patients lived as if on a visit, in the same house as the doctor and his family. They were not subjected to a shy regime, they gathered in the evenings in the living room for talks and entertainment together with medical personnel, concerts with singers and artists were arranged for them.
Appreciating the art of Vrubel, Usoltsev paid him special attention and hoped for his complete cure. The artist lived with him completely freely, he was provided with all the conditions for work. His wife and sister rented a house nearby, visited him every day, and he also came to their house. Vrubel felt good and worked hard.
In these conditions, Vrubel creates one of the most delicate, fragile images – Portrait of NI Zabela-Vrubel against the background of birches (1904). Walking in the summer of 1904 at the park in Petrovsky, he admired the harmonious birches,
which inspired poetic associations with his beloved image. He painted these 32 birches (described in a letter to his wife) in all details as if it were a theatrical background for a thin, lyrical female portrait. Vrubel worked hard on the portrait, using the whole arsenal of artistic means, and only in St. Petersburg he finished it, having managed to harmoniously combine the complex elements of the color pastel and charcoal. In the portrait, trembling color accents subtly convey the unique, tender soulful aura of Zabela. The light melody of the birch grove is manifested in a fragile female form.
This portrait is one of the monuments of Vrubel’s attachment to his wife, in which he saw something angelic. And it is remarkable that Vrubel was able to poeticize the shortcomings of Zabela’s appearance, and even, as her sister writes, “she often exaggerated her shortcomings, because they especially liked him.”