Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
French painter and teacher. His skill in drawing was apparently evident by the age of 11. His father could not afford his training, but in 1839 his département gave him a grant to go to Paris. This enabled him to register at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts the following October as a pupil of François-Edouard Picot. At his first Salon in 1843 he presented Agony in the Garden (Valenciennes, Mus. B.-A.) and won second place in the Prix de Rome competition (after Léon Bénouville, also a pupil of Picot) in 1845 with Christ at the Praetorium (Paris, Ecole N. Sup. B.-A.). Both Cabanel and Bénouville were able to go to Rome, as there was a vacancy from the previous year. Cabanel's Death of Moses (untraced), an academic composition, painted to comply with the regulations of the Ecole de Rome, was exhibited at the Salon of 1852. The pictures he painted for Alfred Bruyas, his chief patron at this time (and, like Cabanel, a native of Montpellier), showed more clearly the direction his art had taken during his stay in Italy. Albaydé, Angel of the Evening, Chiarruccia and Velleda (all in Montpellier, Mus. Fabre) were the first of many mysterious or tragic heroines painted by Cabanel and show his taste for the elegiac types and suave finish of the Florentine Mannerists
On Cabanel's return to Paris, the architect Jean-Baptiste Cicéron Lesueur (1794-1883) commissioned him to decorate 12 pendentives in the Salon des Caryatides in the Hôtel de Ville (destr. 1871). Several major decorative commissions followed, which included work on the Hôtel Pereire, the Hôtel Say and the Louvre. Much has been destroyed, but the ceiling in the Cabinet des Dessins in the Louvre, The Triumph of Flora, which combines the hard contours and careful finish of Ingres's school with a composition and colour that recalls the ceilings of the French Rococo, is probably typical of Cabanel's talent for achieving sumptuous effects.
In 1855 Cabanel exhibited Christian Martyr (Carcassonne, Mus. B.-A.), Glorification of St Louis (Lunéville, Mus. Lunéville) and Autumn Evening (untraced), establishing his academic and official credentials. In 1855 he received the Légion d’honneur and in 1863 he was elected to the Institut and nominated professor (along with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Isidore-Alexandre-Augustin Pils) at the reorganized Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He won the Grande Médaille d'Honneur at the Salons of 1865, 1867 and 1878. His dark-eyed heroines, thinly painted, usually in muted colours, and immaculately drawn, were popular with collectors on both sides of the Atlantic; likewise his mythological paintings, which were a by-product of his decorative works. Nymph Abducted by a Faun (1860, exh. Salon, 1861; Lille, Mus. B.-A.; see fig.) is a solid, decorative group in the manner of Charles Coypel or François Lemoyne. He exhibited the Birth of Venus (1862; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay) in 1863 to widespread acclaim. It is composed like an overdoor by Boucher, although it has been suggested that it was influenced by Ingres's Odalisque and her Slave (1839; Cambridge, MA, Fogg). Both paintings were acquired by Napoleon III. In 1867 he painted a huge Paradise Lost (Munich, Maximilianum) for Ludwig II, the King of Bavaria, and in 1868 Ruth (untraced) for the Empress Eugénie. The full-length portrait of the Emperor that Cabanel painted for the Tuileries in 1865 was liked by critics less than Hippolyte Flandrin’s dreamy portrait exhibited in 1863 (c. 1860-61; Versailles, Château), but it was much more popular at court. Cabanel's portraits were already in demand, and he rivalled Edouard Dubufe and Franz Xavier Winterhalter as portrait painter to the Napoleonic aristocracy.
Cabanel was also a successful teacher. His pupils (like those of his master, Picot) often won the Prix de Rome; among the best known are Jules Bastien-Lepage, Edouard Debat-Ponsan, Edouard Théophile Blanchard (1844-79), Henri Gervex and Lodewijk Royer. He was elected regularly to the Salon jury, and his pupils could be counted by the hundred at the Salons. Through them, Cabanel did more than any other artist of his generation to form the character of 'belle époque' French painting. Cabanel’s pictures were always drawn and painted with a high degree of academic virtuosity, combined with an undercurrent of strong feeling, as in the Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta (1870; Paris, Mus. d’Orsay). This made him popular in his lifetime, but it was the wrong combination for the tastes of later generations. After his death his reputation collapsed.