Alexandre Cabanel’s painting, The Fallen Angel, is not your usual depiction of Satan. By now, you’ve probably seen countless depictions of Satan in red, bony, demon-like paintings. But here, Alexandre Cabanel takes a rather controversial approach – depicting Satan as a handsome devil.

Captivating countless art enthusiasts and critics for over a century, The Fallen Angel is not just a work of art; it’s a masterpiece with deep symbolism and meaning. A mere glimpse at it and you’ll be hit with a barrage of emotions as you ponder the artist’s motivation towards this masterpiece.

Read on as we decode the timeless charm of the ‘Fallen Angel painting, including interesting facts about the artist and the symbolism behind this timeless masterpiece.

Who Is Alexandre Cabanel?

Alexander Cabanel is one of the most intriguing French artists, both in life and through his art. Born in Montpellier, France, in 1823, Alexandre Cabanel began learning art at the tender age of 11. Even at such a young age, Alexandre possessed immense talent, which captivated his teachers and fellow students. In fact, at just 14, his school principal at the college at Saint Pons offered him a teaching job at the school.

Through the years, Alexandre Cabanel threw himself into his work, sometimes neglecting other youthful pleasures to master the technical dexterities of the art. At 16, he won a competition that exposed him to the world. He received compliments for his work, including one from the great botanist Saint-Hilaire, who gave him a letter of recommendation to M. Picot, a faculty member of Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

He remained in the institute for four years, where he painted a depiction of Christ in the Garden of Olives. A public exhibition of this painting earned him several commissions for decorating several establishments with his masterful paintings.

However, it wasn’t until he moved to Rome that Alexandre Cabanel’s career really took off. He won an entry in the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship, which afforded him the opportunity to study the classical masters.

As part of his studies, he was required to paint a male nude, which took him four months of painstaking work and further refinement to produce the Fallen Angel.

What Is the Story Behind the Fallen Angel Painting?

What inspired Alexander Cabanel to make such a painting? Considering the fact that he lived in a predominantly Christian society, which might have found it offensive, it pays to know the back story of what truly inspired him.

For this, we’ll look back to John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, which tells the story of Satan’s rebellion against God and Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. In the poem, Satan is depicted as a tragic hero who leads a rebellion against God but is defeated and cast out of Heaven along with his followers.

John Milton’s portrayal of Satan as a complex and sympathetic character aroused the interest of many artists, including Alexandre Cabanel. Such artists were drawn to the emotional and dramatic potential of the subject.

The style behind Alexandre Cabanel’s Fallen Angel painting was also greatly influenced by the romantic movement, which emphasized emotion, individualism, and imagination. Everything from the painting’s moody atmosphere, the twisted body of the fallen angel, and the broken wings are all typical of romantic art.

However, one might also argue that the 19th-century trend that explored the struggle between good and evil and the darker side of human nature also played a role in the painting’s depiction of Satan.

The Fallen Angel: Composition and Symbolism

There are layers upon layers of symbolism and emotion hidden within the painting. Every single aspect of the painting seems to tell a different part of the story and carries a deeper meaning, open to the viewers’ interpretation.

Take Satan’s folded arms, covered face, and clenched arms, for instance. All these symbolize Satan’s shame owing to his downfall. Lucifer’s left-wing also seems to blend and disappear into the background, symbolizing his severed connection with Heaven. The wingtips also darken and lose their luminous whiteness, which might symbolize Satan’s fall from grace and loss of divine powers.

If you take a closer look, the angels flying in the background are covered in clothing, which is evidently missing Lucifer. The clothes on the flying angels symbolize their Heavenly connection. Hence, Lucifer’s lack thereof might suggest his unworthiness of angelic garb following his banishment.

There’s also the emotionality of a crying Lucifer. Take a closer look at the painting and you’re faced with a crying Lucifer, with tears dripping down his face to signify his wounded pride and a deep sense of regret for being cast out of Heaven.

However, when you consider the Biblical context, these tears don’t represent repentance or humility but rather an expression of self-pity and resentment.

Besides this expressive mix of anger and rebellion, Lucifer also has a tragic yet dynamic gaze, with the corner of his eye observing the land of his exile. There’s also the flaming hair, which, when combined with his defiant look, suggests that revenge is on the horizon and he will not be defeated for long.

The Fallen Angel: Reception

Alexandre Cabanel’s depiction of Satan in this painting elicits varying responses from different critics and art lovers. On one hand, his beauty and courage could be seen as admirable. On the other hand, his arrogance and wickedness are quite repulsive.

Similarly, Satan’s tragic predicament might stir sympathy in some people, while others find satisfaction in his divine punishment.

The Bottom Line

They say true art speaks to the soul, and the Fallen Angel painting does that and more. Drawing inspiration from his previous experiences and the trends of his time, Alexandre Cabanel painted what is taunted as the most controversial depiction of Satan.

In some ways, the painting acts as a mirror, reflecting the viewers’ perception of free will, fate, good and evil, and the repercussions of one’s choices.

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