Object of the Month: Satan, 1847

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Posted 16th March 2017

by Dr Nicholas Tromans

G F Watts painted this huge, stark image in the 1840s, probably around the time he returned to London after several years in Italy, in 1847. The figure is Satan, which in Hebrew is, literally, the opponent or adversary. The figure rises and turns within a flame-like background, suggesting the lake of fire to which Satan is described as being chained at the beginning of John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). Milton's epic poem was one of the most popular source-books for British artists, providing as it did a fabulously vivid reimagining of the Book of Genesis. Milton's Satan is famously all too attractive a figure: energetic, charismatic and even to be pitied for having been overlooked by his master, God, in favour of a newly appointed Son in Heaven.

Watts captures this (anti-)heroic interpretation of the great enemy, but also has an eye on the Romantic artist-poet William Blake. In Blake's own epic poem Milton (1804-10), the older poet returns to London in order, among other things, to account for his sympathetic rendering of Satan. The book's preface contains the poem 'Jerusalem', and its frontispiece shows an extraordinary image of a nude Milton in a posture close to that of Satan in Watts's painting.

This wonderful painting is Watts's most Romantic picture. It shows him responding to Milton and Blake and creating from that response something entirely his own: a monumental image that seems to long for the other figures needed to complete its story.