Satan summoning his Legions – Thomas Lawrence

There are many reason why I question religion.  Believe me, I would love to have the ultimate faith that some people feel, as I imagine it is really comforting to have a belief that will carry you through the thoughts of death, I also think it must be nice to have a like minded community around you, although religion isn’t necessary to provide this.  But my questions really start with Christianity and the vanity that comes with it.   I consider myself as a fairly well read and travelled person, who tries to immerse herself in all cultures, so I don’t mind saying, why is it that the Christian God and all the factions that come from that, is the only one without a name…?  If I look across the religions inclusive of those that have fallen by the wayside we see named Gods, so why is this one the only one known as “God”… some will say that is because he is the only one and the true divine being, while others will perhaps have the same school of thought as me that this was pure vanity based.

I also find the story of Satan incredibly interesting, as you may have noticed as I have written about it several times.  The issues I have only really seem to grow with the more questions I ask, as generally the answers are “because that is what God wanted”.

This isn’t an article where I am going to rant about religion, as I am very much of the belief of each to their own, but to fully understand art, we really need to understand history, religion and culture as this will open the doors to help you understand perhaps an artists intention and motive behind the paintings.

Thomas Lawrence was born in 1769, and was a child prodigy.  By the age of 10 he was supporting his family through the portraits he was creating.  At the age of 18 he moved from Bath to London and established himself as a portrait painter.  He received his first royal commission in 1790, and became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1791.  In 1794 he became a full member, only to go on to be president of the institute by 1820.  Lawrence stayed at the top of his profession until his death in 1830 at age 60.  During his life he gained royal patronage from the Prince Regent and was sent to paint allied leaders for the Waterloo Chambers at Windsor Castle.  At the time of his death, Lawrence was the most fashionable portrait artist in Europe, yet despite this he spent the majority of his life in debt.  He never married, but his flings with the Siddon Sisters was the subject of many books.

Know for his beautiful portraits of the rich and famous of the time, this is the only painting of its type that Lawrence created, and the whole piece has been created from one line in the book “Paradise Lost” by Milton, “Awake, arise, or be forever fallen”.  As a child lawrence had read “Paradise Lost” and had sketched images of Satan prior to moving on to concentrate on his portraits.

In 1796-1797 Lawrence created this piece.  During this era it was recognised by artists that the ideals of masculinity from previous artistic eras were ridiculous, but it was also seen that the male nude was the height of artistic merit and the more muscular the better.  Lawrence used the bare fist fighter Gentleman John Jackson as his model for this piece, who at the time had developed his own satanic streak, notably in 1795 he became the English champion boxer by grabbing his opponents hair and pummelling him into submission.  Lawrence embraced the absurdity of masculinity for this painting giving Satan the rippling muscles and a wide gaited power stance, making the figure totally intimidating.  The painting is 4.3 metres by 2.7 metres which adds to the intimidation of the figure.

640px-John_Jackson

Gentleman John Jackson

In the painting we can see Satan just off centre, his arms raised summoning those who were also cast out of Heaven, he has a feathered helmet, spear and shield, ready for battle.  He has a dagger strapped to his side, and his genitals are thinly strapped to his left leg ready for battle.  To the right a faceless warrior stands with his master, as a molten river flows around them.

This was painted for the Royal Academies annual exhibition, and was a bold move for Lawrence, as it was far removed from the portraits that his audiences were used to seeing from him.  On its reveal critics were not kind about this painting.  “A mad German baker, dancing naked in a conflagration of his own treacle”, was how this was described by John Williams on inspection during the 1797 summer exhibition, while critic John Hoppner offer £100 for the removal of the painting from the exhibition.

This painting also started a feud between Lawrence and Henry Fuseli with an accusation of plagiarism from his own painting “Thor battering the Midgard serpent” painted in 1790.

Fuseli, Henry; Thor battering the Midgard Serpent

Thor battering the Midgard serpent 

You can see the similarities between the two paintings, so I can understand why Fuseli might have been miffed, although in the plagiarism stakes I am a little on the fence.

Despite the criticism, others were more appreciative of the piece, and Lawrence didn’t seem to care that the critics slammed his piece as 14 years after painting it, he demonstrated great pride in this piece and his wish that he had concentrated more on the historic venture for his work.

Personally I think that this has been painted with the vigour of a poet, the depiction of Satan with his dramatically angry face (to the point it looks bullish) and the stance of a warrior who is uplight from the fiery rivers below, gives great theatre to this oil painting.  While this wasn’t Lawrence’s forte, I think that this was a valiant effort especially at the age that he attempted this dominating piece.

You can view this piece at the Royal Academy in London, where it greets visitors to the new collections gallery.

Have you seen “Satan Summoning his Legions”? (not literally), Why not tell me about it in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

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