Alexandre Cabanel produced some of French art’s most famous religious paintings. During his long career, Cabanel painted many subjects, from historical narratives to classical mythology, nude paintings, and religious artwork.
Alexandre Cabanel paintings exemplified the French Academic painting tradition, sometimes known as “l'art Pompier”. While this style of art fell out of fashion in subsequent decades, Cabanel was Napoleon III’s favorite painter enjoying critical acclaim during his lifetime.
This brief biography presents some of the most famous Alexandre Cabanel paintings. We will also explore what influenced the artist.
So, who exactly was Alexandre Cabanel?
Alexandre Cabanel (born 28 September 1823) at Montpellier in the South of France. He attended the local school in Montpellier, and his artistic aptitude was clear from an early age.
Given his talent, Cabanel enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was seventeen years old at the time. He studied under François-Édouard Picot, a classically trained artist famed for his realistic mythological artworks.
Alexandre Cabanel started painting in the 1840s. One of his earliest oil paintings was Agony in the Garden, which resulted in a second-place prize in the Prix de Rome competition.
Cabanel excelled in his studies and exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1844. One year later, Cabanel won first place in the Prix de Rome scholarship. He was just twenty-two years old.
In 1864, the École des Beaux-Arts appointed Cabanel as a professor. He taught at the institution from this date onwards until he died in 1889.
During his twenty-five years in teaching, Cabanel inspired many young French artists. Students included famous names such as Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Brun, Gaston Bussière, Eugène Carrière, Eugene Chigot, and Jules Bastien-Lepage.
Alexandre Cabanel paintings are examples of French Academicism, a style of painting dominating European tastes during the nineteenth century.
The great academies of Western Europe (including the École des Beaux-Arts) prioritized this painting style. Characterized by mythological subjects and an incredibly polished, realistic finish, the French upper classes particularly admired Academic art.
The Paris Salon also supported Academic artists, lending prestige and critical acclaim to their artworks. For example, as a first-rate Academic painter, Alexandre Cabanel soon enjoyed a successful career within the upper-class French art world.
The Paris Salon regularly elected Cabanel to their jury (where he selected paintings for their exhibitions). In addition, he often gave his students chances to exhibit, shaping the look and feel of the Paris Salon for decades. These opportunities shaped the character of “belle époque” French painting.
However, Alexandre Cabanel’s strict Academic focus was not without its detractors. Alongside fellow jurist William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Cabanel refused several Impressionist artists entry into the Salon. The refusal of paintings from Edouard Manet in 1863 led to the “Salon des Refusés”.
This counter-Salon allowed avant-garde movements such as Impressionism and Symbolism to flourish. But, as an unforeseen result, this eventually saw the decline of French Academicism as it increasingly appeared old-fashioned and staid.
Alexandre Cabanel’s paintings of nudes are very well known. However, he also produced several notable portraits and religious paintings.
Cabanel’s reputation remained largely unchallenged throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The Paris Salon awarded Alexander Cabanel with the Grande Médaille d'Honneur during the years 1865 and 1867 and then again in 1878.
Today, Cabanel’s oil on canvas painting, The Birth of Venus, remains one of the most prominent examples of nineteenth-century French Academic painting.
Napoleon III loved the painting so much that he purchased it soon after completion. Cabanel also produced a miniature replica in 1875, painted for the wealthy banker John Wolf. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (based in New York City, USA) currently owns the smaller version. The original, larger version hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
While The Birth of Venus is one of Cabanel’s most famous nude paintings, it also perfectly embodies French Academic principles. Indeed, Cabanel’s graceful composition, the mythological subject, and perfect human forms characterize the style.
Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel (1847) depicts the devil after his expulsion from heaven.
John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost (written in 1667) inspired Cabanel's painting of the devil. Milton, in turn, worked from the “War in Heaven” story from the biblical Book of Revelations. In this book, God casts the devil out of heaven for his rebellious and deceptive nature. It states he was “cast out into the earth”.
In addition, Lucifer’s angels were “cast out with him”. These angels are just visible in the background skies of Cabanel’s painting.
Cabanel’s painting shows Lucifer (the Fallen Angel, or L’Ange Déchu) seething with silent anger. Every muscle in his body appears tense, and his piercing eyes gaze from behind his muscular arm.
The Fallen Angel painting is one of Cabanel’s earlier oil paintings. It received mixed critical reactions, with one critic condemning the artist’s overly Romantic focus. In addition, the reviewer declares the execution “inadequate” and Cabanel’s draftsmanship “imprecise”. However, other commentators praised the figure’s perfect symmetry and muscular form.
Intriguingly, it is also one of the first paintings representing the devil in human form, and its controversial presentation shocked audiences of the time.
Cabanel usually created oil paintings on canvas, although he also produced many drawings and preparatory sketches.
As well as Fallen Angel, other famous religious paintings include The Death of Moses (translated as La mort de Moïse, painted in 1851), Paradise Lost, and Ruth in the Field of Boaz.
The Death of Moses currently hangs in the Dahesh Museum in New York City. This energetic and colorful artwork depicts Moses’ death after forty years of wandering in the Moab desert. He died on Mount Nebo at 120 years old “at the command of the Lord”.
Alexandre Cabanel died at the age of sixty-five on 23 January 1889. He passed away in Paris, France (where he spent most of his career), leaving behind a rich oeuvre of astounding Academic paintings.
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