In ancient Greek depictions of the half-human half-beast satyrs, these male nature spirits often sported giant, permanent erections. In classical art and performance, satyrs were intentionally grotesque, with ugly faces, unkept hair and usually spotted mid-revelry, naked, drunk, masturbating or sexually assaulting their female forest-spirit counterpart, the nymph—a parody of male libido run amok. By the time Alexandre Cabanel painted Nymph Abducted by a Faun in 1860, the academic style had sanded the rough edges from the satyr’s aesthetic, but their violent sexuality had evolved from a joke into a fascination.
Cabanel’s Nymph and Satyr perfectly exemplifies the weird loophole that neoclassical, academic art provided to the collectors and patrons of the later 18th century. Overtly erotic, even fetishistic art could be produced and consumed at a vast scale under the accepted category of classical themes. It’s ok, the Greeks were into it too.
There’s always a temptation to give history the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps this artwork should be considered an allegory for the dominance of man over nature? Or it could be pointed out that this image depicts an abduction, not an explicit act of sexual violence. But the formal elements of the work are inescapable. An overtly powerful male figure is forcefully seizing a woman who attempts unsuccessfully to defend herself. This image is designed to invite lurid speculation about what happens next. It is a life-sized anticipation of an act of rape.
In this painting Cabanel created a violent fantasy, and like many Academic artists, passed it off as classical homage. And he was successful. In 1861 Napoleon III purchased Nymph Abducted by a Faun for his private collection, and would later acquire another one of Cabanel’s thinly veiled erotic artworks, The Birth of Venus. Art through the ages has engaged with humanity’s darkest tastes, critiquing or stimulating them. These artworks are still worthy of study, worthy of examination, as long as we don't participate in the same lie that Cabanel did. As historian Rebecca Levitan so perfectly puts it, “Enough with abductions. In our teaching and in our scholarship, let’s call a spade a spade and a rape a rape.”
Reed Enger, "Nymph Abducted by a Satyr," in Obelisk Art History, Published November 25, 2015; last modified May 19, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/alexandre-cabanel/nymph-and-satyr/.