Thursday 23 May 2019

What Lies Beneath: L'Ange Dechu/ The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel

L'Ange Dechu/ The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel, Oil on canvas; Musee Fabre, Montpellier

L'Ange Dechu/ The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel
L'Ange Dechu/ The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel

Niall MacMonagle

A power-hungry appetite, a challenging of authority, a pitch for the top spot has been around for a while. Even Almighty God in heaven had to deal with rebellion when a defiant Lucifer attempted a takeover and Hell's Angels were born.

That Lucifer means "the morning star, the bringer of dawn" ensures that there will always be something beautiful about this bad boy.

Even when Lucifer fell, Milton's description of that moment in Paradise Lost is a glorious one: From morn/ To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,/ A summer's day.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) is best known for his classical, historical and religious paintings, including those of Moses, Oedipus, Cleopatra, Ophelia, Adam and Eve.

Napoleon III's favourite painter was born in Montpellier where this large painting, now hanging in a gallery in Musee Fabre, steals the show.

Cabanel's self-portrait at 13 is impressive. He won the Prix de Rome scholarship aged 22, was appointed professor in 1863, painted Napoleon III's portrait (Napoleon also bought Cabanel's The Birth of Venus) and he died in Paris aged 65.

Cabanel was only 24, about the same age as the figure depicted, when he painted L'Ange Dechu.

A year earlier, in 1846, he had painted the same figure, despairing, his head in his hands, storm clouds in the sky. But this version is something else. This fallen angel is a handsome devil. Buffed, gymmed and sporting a six-pack - throw a pair of Speedos and a neck microphone his way, give him a buzz cut and tattoo and he could be on Love Island.

The pose is more rebellious and sulky than contrite. The head is raised, there's that tear in his right eye, but the eyes themselves smoulder with quiet rage and the clasped, joined hands, the raised elbows suggest the fight isn't over. His iridescent, lustrous, elegantly-flowing feathered wings are magnificent. He's ready for take-off.

Behind him the host of angels, in diaphanous blues, are faithful, happy, soaring. And boring.

You can hear this fallen angel say John Milton's words: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Isn't he the devil?

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