Object in Focus: Satan

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Posted 5th July 2022

Our Collection Online Early Career Research Fellow (Mythological Subjects), Dr Melissa L. Gustin, focuses on Satan (1847) by George Frederic Watts in this blog.

In 1847, having left the sunny, art-laden hills of Florence for damp London, Watts wrote to his friend Georgiana Duff Gordon, ‘I am sick and sulking and indolent and stupid, still in England.’ He continues, ‘You will scarcely have escaped I am afraid of the gloomy influence of the present depressing state of things.’[1]After four years in Italy studying art, painting, and becoming the worldly, red-robed Signor, Watts had returned to England to put his learning into practice and actually paint some murals. However, his return was not as smooth and successful as he hoped; history painting had taken a blow with the suicide of Benjamin Robert Haydon, who was a leading proponent of the genre and of the Parthenon sculptures, while Watts’s four-year absence from the London exhibitions meant he was no longer widely known. During this time, Watts painted Satan, one of the stranger paintings in his catalogue. 

Satan is a massive painting, showing a large, tanned shirtless man in side profile, surrounded by a fiery light. John Ruskin once wrote, ‘Satan has his cheek-bone alright,’ commenting on the fact that only the very side of Satan’s face is visible. Instead, the focus of the picture is on the massive planes of Satan’s chest and the warding gesture of Satan covering his face from the light of God. This pose has been previously been connected to the famous statue in the Vatican Museum, the Apollo Belvedere, but my research has shown that Watts was actually inspired by a different pair of statues in Rome, the Monte Cavallo Horse Tamers.

These enormous statues on the top of the Quirinal Hill in Rome had previously inspired Richard Westmacott’s monument to Wellington, Achilles. The monument in London is what deciphered a cryptic note in a letter Watts wrote to Georgiana in 1846: ‘You do not mention Lord Compton, nor Mr. Buckner, nor tell me what you think of my old friend Achilles.’[2]The following February, he noted again his hope that ‘ ‘you sometimes greet my friend upon Monte Cavallo, my beloved Achilles.’[3]This statue was believed to be by Watts’s most important antique role model, the sculptor Pheidias. Pheidias led the sculpting of the Parthenon sculptures, to which Watts frequently turned as inspiration. In the same sketchbook as Watts drew careful studies of the Parthenon sculptures, we can see tiny sketches of the Monte Cavallo Horse tamers, in the same pose as Satan.

This is an early example of how Watts repeatedly used ancient sculpture as models for his paintings, even when he wasn’t making a painting showing an ancient sculpture. Instead, he often used these as inspiration for poses, as seen in the current exhibition, A Fragmented Legacy. The work of Pheidias— ‘my beloved Pheidias,’ as Watts wrote to Georgiana— was particularly important to him and appears in works throughout Watts’s life. Although John Ruskin viewed it, probably in Watts’s studio, Satan remained in Watts’s hands until his death, and was only exhibited a few times— a personal image, perhaps reminding him of his beloved Achilles and the happy days of his first trip to Italy.

This research, a full version of which can be found in The Burlington Magazine July 2022, develops from archival and image research undertaken during my fellowship at the Watts Gallery in October 2022. The article reveals several previously unpublished drawings in albums and sketchbooks, and discusses how Watts and his peers would have understood the ancient sculptures in Rome.

Satan can be seen in our Historic Galleries. Our exhibitition A Fragmented Legacy: G F Watts and Sculpture is open until 2 October 2022.

Read the full article by Melissa L. Gustin, ‘G.F. Watts’s ‘Satan’ and the Monte Cavallo ‘Horse tamers’,’ in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 164, no. 1432, pp. 664-671.

[1] G F Watts to Georgiana Duff Gordon, Autumn 1847, National Portrait Gallery Archives, G F Watts Collection, GFW1/14/54.

[2] NPG-GFW, GFW/1/14/47

[3] NPG-GFW, GFW/1/14/50.