In 1923, American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) created the marble sculpture, “The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair”.
The sculpture depicts an unusual episode found in the Bible, narrated in Genesis 6.1-4:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the Sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose…. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
The ‘Sons of God’ have often been interpreted as angels, who were so attracted to human women that they came to earth to have sex with them. Daniel Chester French adopts this angelic interpretation of Genesis 6.1-4 in his sculpture, which from 1924 has been on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
According to the museum’s acquisition records, French originally saw the silhouette of an angel copulating with a human woman while staring at the ‘Old Faithful Geyser’ in Yellowstone National Park. Admittedly, there are many people who imagine that they see faces and such things in the clouds and other objects. There is even a term for this: it’s called ‘pareidolia’. So Daniel C. French’s case of pareidolia is perhaps not so unusual. And yet… I can’t say I’ve ever looked at a cloud and thought: hey, that cloud looks exactly like an angel having sex with a woman! And the same goes with the shapes of geysers that I’ve seen. Who knows, there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Daniel C. French’s angel-erotic pareidolia. Perhaps he had very recently been reading about Genesis 6.1-4, and this image had simply been imprinted on his mind. Or perhaps he was just really into angelic-human sex, and told his lovers to dress up with feathers. Who can tell?
Side-note: Daniel C. French’s other sculptures are decidedly unsexy. French is best known for the majestic and slightly fascist statue of Abraham Lincoln (1920) at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, and also for the Four Continents at the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, New York. None of his other sculptures offer any indication that the artist had an angel fetish.
But after French’s sculpture of “The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair” was put on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, along with a notice that it had been inspired by Old Faithful, it came to the attention of photographer Frank Jay Haynes. He noticed that the sculpture not only bore a resemblance to Old Faithful, but to his own photograph of the geyser: “Old Faithful Geyser. Plume. Yellowstone National Park” (1885). The photograph had been sold for decades at Yellowstone as the main souvenir photo of the Geyser:
If you look carefully at the photograph, with the sculpture in mind, you can make out the angel’s right wing at the top left, the heads of the angel and woman at top right, the obscured left wing, the woman’s arse, and even her left leg extended on tippy-toes to reach eagerly up to her angelic lover, with the right leg crossed behind it. It’s all there, in watery geyser form. And on the left-bottom of the geyser and sculpture, you can see the cascade of water shooting up, later to take pareidolic shape as a Son of God about to copulate with a Daughter of Man.
It’s not just me and Daniel C. French seeing these things, is it?
As a result of these similarities, subsequent promotion of French’s sculpture made note that it had been modeled on Haynes’ photo of Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park.
My major source for the information about the sculpture, French, and Haynes was Peter H. Hassrick, Drawn to Yellowstone: Artists in America’s First National Park (The Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with University of Washington Press, 2002).
Follow-up [26 March 2018]: Jim Davila, who has been blogging on biblical studies for 15 years this week, makes a jocose suggestion: “According to 1 Enoch 67, the burning abyss where the watchers were buried underground to await the Final Judgment became a hot springs. A coincidence? Do you really think so?”