Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The Fallen Angel, Wood Engraving, 1866, Gustave Doré, 1832-1883
During the fifteenth century as painters increased their skills, it was noted their activity entailed more than physical labor. Their work was not the same as that of artisans whose activity often required repetitive handwork. Scholars became aware that critical thinking was taking place as a painting or sculpture was being created; intellectual and emotional content was evident in the work. This assessment led to the belief that painting and sculpture were of a higher order than other human-made forms (e.g. chairs, tables, dinnerware, and pottery). To this perceived higher order the term “art” was given and specialized image makers became known as “artists.” Thus “art” came into being and a hierarchy was established. Painting, sculpture and architecture were regarded as “fine arts” and others were regarded as “minor arts” or even “miscellaneous arts.” Prints such as woodcuts, engravings, and etchings ranked higher than the handcrafts but they were still part of the minor arts despite the work of masters such as Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt.
Photography was invented during the nineteenth century but the halftone process for printing photo images (as in reproductions of black and white photographs in newspapers and books) was not being used until after the 1880s. The medium of choice for illustrations during the nineteenth century was engraving and very skilled artists devoted time to it. Yet even today, the art of book illustration is not usually an area of study among art historians. Gustave Doré is praised for his very original work and exceptional engraving skills, but he did not open the way to new directions in painting as did his contemporaries, the Impressionists. Instead, his work is associated with nineteenth century romanticism which favored drama and exoticism in art. Doré’s illustrations for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” provided an opportunity to illustrate highly dramatic moments and at the end of Book III, an illustration is shown of Satan’s fall. Satan is alone in a freefall from heaven. Rays of heavenly light are breaking through the darkness and stars are in their places as Satan is entering the outer atmosphere of the earth which is shrouded partially by clouds.
The Bible does not say angels have wings but image makers of the Middle Ages reasoned they possessed some means of locomotion. Wings sounded logical and they often depicted them to be spectacular and sometimes in rainbow colors. Satan also has been given wings but they are not the usual graceful and colorful wings seen on angels. Doré has depicted Satan with primitive bat-like wings; the type associated with Gothic horror novels. The falling figure of Satan attracts our attention immediately because of its context. It is difficult to move your eyes away from its active angular shape which contrasts strikingly with the passive softness of the clouds; even the earth seems soft. Satan’s intense darkness against the light grey sky ensures that this “fallen angel” remains the focal point of our attention. In Doré’s engraving there is a sense that something sinister is approaching the earth.
Hovak Najarian © 2013