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James Barry RA, Satan at the Abode of Chaos and Old Night

Satan at the Abode of Chaos and Old Night, c. 1792-95

James Barry RA (1741 - 1806)

RA Collection: Art

This dramatic pen and ink drawing was part of Barry's ambitious but abortive scheme to illustrate John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Barry embarked on this project in the 1790s, at a time when the works of Milton and Shakespeare enjoyed great popularity in British art. Barry described Milton as 'the first man of genius who was able to make any poetical use of the great personages and imagery of our religion'.

The scene from Book II shows Satan in the realm of Chaos - the abyss separating Heaven and Hell - seeking help in his quest to find and corrupt the new world of mortals. Using thick, quickly-drawn lines, dramatic lighting and an unusually low viewpoint, Barry created a vivid and unconventional image. Chaos, personified as an old man, deliberates while his crone-like consort, Ancient Night, peers out from beneath her hood to fix the viewer with a sinister glare. Barry's Satan, however, is an heroic and humanized figure rather than a monstrous demon. In an age of revolutions, this positive interpretation of the rebel angel reflected the artist's belief in the importance of political liberty.

James Barry was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1741 and lived in Dublin and Rome before settling in London where he was elected a Royal Academician in 1773. Barry served as Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools but his vitriolic criticisms of fellow members eventually led to his expulsion in 1799. Nevertheless his artistic achievements were highly regarded, and when he died in 1806 he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Barry's death.

Object details

Satan at the Abode of Chaos and Old Night
James Barry RA (1741 - 1806)
c. 1792-95
Object type
Pen and brown and black ink with grey wash over black chalk on laid paper

554 mm x 417 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Given by J. E. Yerbury 1937
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