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Cabanel, Alexandré [French, 1823-1889]


[ Biography | 19th Century Artists | Academic Style Artists ]
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Cabanel, Alexandre (1823-89). French painter. The winner of the Prix de Rome in 1845, he ranked with Bouguereau as one of the most successful and influential academic painters of the period and one of the sternest opponents of the Impressionists.

By the time he was 22, he was a student at the Academy, near the end of his training, and already a consummate practitioner of all that was good and bad about academic art. First, the good. The academy was a boot camp for artists, as gruelling then as what medical school is today. There were daily drawing drills, long lectures, and tight discipline--regimentation at every turn. And the carrot on the end of the stick? It was the Prix de Rome, which amounted to a year's free study in that hallowed, city-sized academy to end all academies, Rome, Italy, where a student could almost drown in all the academic art accumulated over the centuries. The contest had all the hallmarks of a single-elimination sports tournament. It was open only to unmarried males under the age of 30. Starting with a given theme, students first made studies of every aspect of their proposed work. These were judged and most were eliminated in this round. Then, those lucky enough to have survived, were locked into a deadline. The students slaved away in their studios for days and weeks at a stretch to complete the final painting.

In 1845, the theme was Jesus in the Praetorium (Jesus mocked). Alexandre Cabanel came in second. The winning painting was by Francois Leon Benouville. Who? If Cabanel is little known, the winner is even less so. Likewise his painting is less so as well. Cabanel was robbed. He was to have his day, however. In 1863, the year of the infamous Salon des Refuse', Cabanel, by now an instructor at the Academy, submitted his The Birth of Venus to the annual Salon and won the gold medal. It is a lusciously languid nude reclining in all her titillating (but chaste) splendour tended by winged putti as she lazes upon the ocean waves. It was bought by no less the emperor himself, Napoleon III, who followed up his acquisition by doling out additional commissions to the lucky artist. And the bad? Cabanel was perhaps the most dogged opponent of the upstart, radical, barn-burning, antiestablishment, no-talent group of disruptive rapscallions known collectively by the derogatory term, Impressionists.

The Birth of Venus (Musee d'Orsay, Paris) is his best-known work and typical of the slick and titillating (but supposedly chaste) nudes at which he excelled. It was the hit of the official Salon of 1863, the year of the Salon des Refuses, and was bought by the emperor Napoleon III, who gave Cabanel several prestigious commissions.

RS Archive pages at Powell's Books

  Cabanel, Alexandré [French, 1823-1889]

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