Satan by Jean-Jacques Feuchère at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum

In this episode, we’ll be taking a closer look at a captivating bronze sculpture titled Satan. This remarkable work was created by the celebrated French artist Jean-Jacques Feuchère in around 1834. Some say that this piece inspired Rodin’s “Thinker”. Welcome to Art, Culture & Books with me, Anthony King.

In the heart of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, visitors encounter a captivating bronze sculpture titled “Satan.” This sculpture symbolizes rebellion, evil, and temptation. Satan has played a central role in various religious and literary texts, representing the eternal battle between good and evil. The sculpture’s exhibition at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1834 added to its recognition, securing its enduring place in art history. It was described there as ‘a personification, with plenty of verve and ardour, of the evil genius at odds with being powerless.’ This contemplative figure, steeped in melancholy, embodies the themes that intrigued Romantic sculptors.

The Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683, holds the distinction of being the world’s first public museum. Named after its benefactor, Elias Ashmole, an influential English scholar and antiquary, the museum is a testament to its pioneering role in preserving and showcasing human culture and knowledge. This sculpture was donated by Lord Archer through the Cultural Gift Scheme on behalf of himself and Dame Mary Archer. Jean-Jacques Feuchère, born in Paris in 1807, was a prominent sculptor renowned for his ability to capture human emotion and form with precision. His artistry often incorporated subjects from mythology and literature, allowing him to explore complex themes.

In “Satan,” he departs from traditional portrayals, offering a unique perspective that speaks to his innovative approach. What sets “Satan” apart is the meticulous attention to detail. The texture and intricate features of the bronze sculpture, the subtle emotions etched onto Satan’s face, and the intricate rendering of certain elements contribute to the sculpture’s overall impact. Bronze, known for its durability and the level of detail it can retain, proves an ideal medium for this work. In the context of art history, “Satan” holds a significant place. The 19th century was a period of profound artistic exploration and transformation, characterized by the emergence of Romanticism. Artists of this era sought to express deep emotions and explore human nature. Satan, with its complex character, was a popular subject, allowing artists to delve into the darker aspects of human existence. Feuchère’s sculpture also reflects broader trends in 19th-century art. The period witnessed a shift from traditional, classical styles to more dynamic and expressive forms. “Satan” captures this evolution with its intricate details and emotional depth. The 19th century, marked by the Romantic movement, witnessed a renewed interest in exploring the emotional and enigmatic facets of Satan, making this sculpture a fitting reflection of its artistic era.

We find that the character of Satan has played a central role in shaping human narratives and belief systems. In the Christian tradition, Satan is often depicted as the embodiment of evil, tempting humanity and leading to its fall from grace. This religious interpretation has cast a long shadow over depictions of Satan, portraying the character as a sinister and malevolent force. However, Satan’s portrayal is not limited to religious contexts. In literature and art, Satan has also been explored as a complex character, capable of evoking both sympathy and revulsion. The Romantic era, in particular, witnessed a resurgence of interest in Satan as a symbol of rebellion and a figure who challenged the status quo. Artists and writers sought to humanize the character, emphasizing the internal struggles and complex motivations that drive the devil’s actions.

“Satan” by Jean-Jacques Feuchère taps into this broader cultural fascination with the character. The sculpture portrays Satan in a way that goes beyond the traditional, grotesque depiction of a horned demon. Instead, Satan is depicted as a young, handsome figure with outstretched wings, hinting at his angelic origins and fallen status. This portrayal captures Satan’s inner turmoil and conflict, showcasing the devil’s beauty, pride, and rebellion against the divine. “Satan” is not only a reflection of its artistic era but also a testament to the enduring cultural fascination with this character. In various forms of media and storytelling, Satan continues to be a symbol of rebellion, temptation, and moral ambiguity. This sculpture, housed in the Ashmolean Museum, stands as a compelling representation of the devil’s multifaceted nature and its ability to provoke deep emotions and contemplation.

By Anthony King (c)