Alexandre Cabanel: The Life & Glorious Art of French Master

Alexandre Cabanel was a French academic painter who was immensely popular for his perfectionist art that was even appraised by Napoleon.

Alexandre Cabanel

One of the most glorious French masters of modern art who conveyed an impressive example of an excellent master and the head of an art school and studio is Alexandre Cabanel. His sublime work, blended with his teaching as a professor, is the reason behind his noblest biographies to date. What makes Alexandre remarkable is his memorable productivity of thirty years, with the brilliance of success overpowering his prestige of superior talent and a considerable reputation for his magnificent career. One reason for his exclusiveness is his inventiveness, skilful and original learning, which never made him a painter of a single style or picture. It is this infinite variety of his power that never made him repeat himself, putting himself first in fresco, historical composition and in portraits, sealing his brilliant individuality. Cabanel continuously regenerated the ideas, and his sole reason for studying was to create, which enabled him to draw terrific compositions. However, the history of the arts reveals that every great talent has detractors, which means trying to discredit a master’s genius by accusing him of adherence to exclusive and superannuated academic traditions. Therefore, Cabanel’s conception and execution of portraiture are so thoroughly modern and worldly- in the aristocratic sense of the word- to prove that his individuality and originality of treatment go so far as to level the playing field. Now, that you have a brief idea about Cabanel and are already on the brink of popping out of your skin, let’s begin with an awe-inspiring journey through his life and masterpieces.

Discussing the Life of the French Academic Master.

Born in Montpellier on the 23rd of September, 1823, Alexandre Cabanel, at age eleven, began to learn about art in school, which captivated the teacher’s attention. If I have to tell you about his exceptional gifts for which he was popular in school, there foregoes one incident. Once when he was no more than fourteen, the principal of the college at Saint Pons offered him the job of teaching drawing in the school. Imagine being offered such a job at a young age! However, out of timidity or modesty, he declined the offer. Cabanel might have feared lest his vocation as an artist distinguishing under a heap of dictionaries. Hence, he devoted himself exclusively to drawing. In his anxiety to master the technical dexterities of that art as early as possible, he threw himself to work, neglecting all the worldly pleasure of boyhood, which is an exceptionally disciplined movement. In his youth, he was very interested in music, but since pursuing two exceptionally-distinct paths could not be possible simultaneously, he dedicated himself to painting instead. He began to study the principles of drawing and practise the experiments in colour. Every afternoon, after several hours of studio work, he took his sketchbook, wandering across the street, sketching women in their costumes and marking a closer look at the secret of natural effect.

Self Portrait Alexandre Cabanel

When he was sixteen, a competition was proposed where he carried off the prize and everyone heaped compliments for his excel in work. Among them, one was illustrious Saint-Hilare, the great botanist, who encouraged him warmly and gave him a letter of recommendation to M.Picot, a member of the institute. So Cabanel moved to Paris in December 1839, after he had allowances, and his remarkable talent didn’t fail to surprise the Picot’s atelier. His fellow students already saw him be a rising star, and Picot himself saw his brilliance as turning his present into an excellent future. Alexandre Cabanel had a great grip on the sober and well-considered compositions in a careful scheme of arrangement. For four years, he worked harder in Picot’s studio, alongside learning in Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1843, he was in a position to exhibit the picture of Christ in the Garden of Olives. It was his first public effort as a great success, and this encouraged him to be his own.

Christ in the Garden of Olives by Alexandre Cabanel

When he was in Rome, he was so absorbed in the contemplation under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Stanze of the Vatican that he fed his knowledge with some of the excellent masters to possess them completely. The last picture he painted in Rome in 1851 was evidence of the work of Raphael’s followers.

After studying in Paris and exploration of Rome, he finally came back to his hometown and was fully equipped for his original work. However, after some time, he was given the commission to execute twelve panels for the Grand Salon of the Hotel de Ville. This commission was because of the recommendation by an architect, M. Lesueur. Alexandre was to decorate the room with allegorical pictures of the Months, and he painted twelve panels and twenty-four spandrels, using extreme lightness and delicacy. The representation of Months caught the attention of Paul Delarcohe, who was so moved by the work that he gave him another commission. Such a triumph was uncommon for artists, proving the high moral character of the art. Another commission he got following this was The Apotheosis of St. Louis for the Luxembourg Palace.

Alexandre Cabanel paintings The Apotheosis of St. Louis

While there is no historical attics that preserve the artist’s life thoroughly, somewhere I feel that we can trace it through his artworks in a sensible pattern, so let us go through the last few years of Salon to see each work exhibited by Alexandre Cabanel.

NameAlexandre Cabanel
Birth23 September 1823, Montpellier
Died22 January 1889
Famous PaintingThe Birth of Venus
MasterM. Picot

Following Alexandre Cabanel Paintings Through Time.

It was in 1857 that Alexandre Cabanel, whose powers were already ripe for loftier themes, sent to the gallery in the Champs Elysees a picture showing Michelangelo in His Studio, Visited by Pope Julius II, one of Othello relating his Battles, and another of Boniface and Aglaia. Cabanel’s ideal of religious beauty is lucid and adequately embodied in this Aglai, which shows a sweet embodiment of pious melancholy.

It is easily recognisable that out of all the great inventors, Alexandre Cabanel’s figures were the outcome of his ample reserves of study and the strongly-developed power of his assimilation and intuition, which is the true secret of his craftsmanship and artistry. In addition to admiring his spirit, it is noteworthy that he worked for thirty years overcoming new hardships, never quitting without excess self-confidence and remaining energetic and vigorous in every single work, which is quite an expression of the balance of faculties and the highest praise of the mind that regulates their use solely for the glory of art, which is the colossal achievement.

As Alexandre adhered to the belief that immortal beauty existed, he painted Boniface and Aglaia with a light that is not mystical but appears mysterious. In nearly all of his religious works, he embodied this belief, which makes it even more extraordinary. If you look closely at all the mentioned Alexandre Cabanel paintings, there is a style of Greek art, but the gracefulness and tenderness tempt us even more. You can easily observe that these figures are relatable with their gestures and expressions because of the highly-precise observation of the artist. As Dumas writes in the Illustrated Biographies of Modern Artists,

“Cabanel seems to have dipped his delicate brush in the very oil of the symbolical lamp by whose ideal flame Psyche lights him to his work.”

Michelangelo in His Studio, Visited by Pope Julius II by Alexandre Cabanel
Othello relating his Battles by Alexandre Cabanel
Boniface and Aglaia Alexandre Cabanel art

After the exhibition of 1857, where Alexandre Cabanel showed his three artworks, Emile Pereire, a wealthy banker, commissioned him to execute a painting, on the ceiling of his splendid residence. Theophile Gautier described it as,

“Within a hexagon is framed a large circle, filled apparently, by the free atmosphere of space and of the luminous sky, for Cabanel’s ceiling shows us a higher realm and is not merely a picture turned upside down over our heads. This opening to the sky, filling the centre of the ceiling, gives it height and air. It is surrounded by an entablature terminated by a balustrade. On the steps of an amphitheatre are groups of figures, very gracefully and happily composed, representing the Five Senses. The sense of Sight is personified by a painter leaning forward towards a beautiful half-draped female figure, his model, the better to study the details; in fact, can sight be put to better use than studying beauty to immortalise it? Hearing is figured by a singer, or rather by a Muse singing, accompanied by a musician, who listens in rapture whilst playing. The ecstatic expression of the singer, with her head thrown back is very charming; we seem to hear the song breathed from her parted lips, which are curved with the most exquisite foreshortening. In Smell, we have one of the most charming of the five groups- a Venetian lady at her toilet, while her attendant perfumes and dresses her golden hair, Touch is more symbolically treated as a pair of lovers. The cavalier-less confident than Alphonse d’Avalon marquis du Gast, in Titian’s picture- only lays his hand lightly on his lady’s shoulder with a thrill of ecstasy, not daring to be bold. This graceful incident is represented with enchanting modesty and delicacy. Taste is figured by A Satyr, reclining in the very beatitude of drunkenness, looking through the crystal flask that he has already half emptied, at the sun, which turns the purple juice to ruby in the light. By his side is a Bacchante pressing grapes, below each group are winged children charged with attributes appropriate to the Senses.”

After the artist completed the ceiling painting, everyone was captivated by the six large panels where he depicted the Hours. After this commission, he remained in the limelight, and architect Armand selected him as a master in the requirements of decorative painting.

Between these commissions and paintings, there came numerous works for him, but Alexandre’s preferences among them were history and portrait paintings.

In 1859, Alexandre Cabanel exhibited The Musician’s Widow or la Veure du Maitre de Chapelle. He represented the mourning family in a deeply-sorrowful and distressing atmosphere. Cabanel showed them listening to the last melody composed by the father they lost in a melancholic air with a piano played by one of his daughters. The widow and orphans seemed to be sobbing in the cheerless home in the dusk. The canvas represents the heartfelt memory of the lost backbone of the family with a spine-chilling effect of emotions. Mother’s grief is depicted through her eyes and expressions, whereas the sisters seem to be weeping. The painting shows how Alexandre Cabanel was fond of emotional scenes, filling them with dignified sentiments.

Alexandre Cabanel art The Musician's Widow or la Veure du Maitre de Chapelle

At the time of 1861, the French master devoted himself solely to portrait paintings. Some of the Alexandre Cabanel paintings belonging to this period are Mme Broussonnet of Montpellier, Henriette and Jeanne, Mme Oppenheim of Cologna etc. At the end of 1861, he finally completed his last works to devote himself to two great compositions- A Nymph carried off by a Satyr and A Florentine Poet. The Nymph (now in Luxembourg) shows a dramatic action with a warm glow of tone through her fine texture of flesh. Further, there is a tenderness through brilliant colours, which made the artwork the most remarkable work of the entire year. If you look closely, there are numerous actions involved. For instance, the Dyrad clasped in Satyr’s arms struggles to escape from his powerful and forceful embrace. And the firm hand of Satyr on the waist of Dyrad, her leg bent over his hairy goat foot, and their expressions are truly vigorous, painted with brilliant contrast. The struggle looks desperate, and the composition portrays witnessing the extraordinary-stress through the atmosphere as if the victim’s cries echo the woods.

Alexandre Cabanel paintings Nymph carried off by a Satyr

In Florentine Poet, Alexandre showed a poet on a stone bench with the murmur of the love sonnets through his one hand raised with parted fingers. One lover and his mistress keenly listen to the inspired singer, and the other two youths follow the soft voice of a poet. Every face has a radiance of serene enjoyment and the spring tide of life, and the emotions and sentiments look fresh on each of them. He showed the figures with an admirable charm and Italian costumes, making it this of the most successful pictures in the exhibition of 1861.

Florentine Poet by Alexandre Cabanel

In 1863, as Alexandre Cabanel was day-by-day glorifying his image and grew more confident about his art, he determined the year to surpass himself. He wanted his admirers to amaze him with his finest composition of the year. Hence, with the grandeur of the illustration, the splendour of accessories and the novelty of the subject, he decided to paint the Birth of Venus. The painting is now one of the gems of the Luxembourg Palace. The artist showed a genuine sensation with the soft-cradled opal-blue waves where Venus awakes. There is tender radiance on her snowy limbs resting on the billows with her arms in the water and shiny long hair. Alexandre showed Venus in such a way as if she would open her eyes languidly to willingly postpone the hour of her triumph. Further, he exhibited a little swarm of loves fluttering around her, besigning her with kisses and crowding down upon her like a flight of doves to arouse her with long slumber. Further, he filled a grace in the composition with the perfectly modelled figure harmonious with her attitude. Every line and single detail is graceful. In 1863, it won the decoration of Legion d’honneur and the much-coveted title of membre de L’Institut. Besides, Alexandre Cabanel also became a professor of painting at the Academie des Beaux-Arts.

Alexandre Cabanel The Birth of Venus

By now, you might have understood that Alexandre loved experimenting with different psychological studies on his canvases, where he succeeded. You can also derive that rather than just displaying the face of a sitter to consider, he also had an official character and dignity of majesty.

In 1865, Alexandre Cabanel received the medal of honour from the jury when he also painted his finest portrait, Mme. la Vicomtesse de Ganay, displaying the finest details. Then in 1867, he brought together all the crucial works- The Rape of the Nymph, Birth of Venus, and portraits. During the same time, in order to vary his collection of well-known works, he sent a magnificent picture- Paradise Lost. The artist showed the canvas of Adam and Eve crouching beneath the tree of knowledge for bewailing their first sin. The golden-haired mother trembles down to the arm of Adam, and the Creator himself is in divine anger, descending on wings as angels to judge the guilty pair. Evidently, he mastered the balance of masses with an evident showcase of traditions from great Italian masters.

Paradise Lost Alexandre Cabanel paintings

In 1869 and 70, after the grand jubilee and celebration of Alexandre Cabanel’s work in the Champ de Mars, he returned to portrait paintings. And it was his last years of success that greatly added weight to his reputation. Several portraits, like Marquise de Brissac, Marquis and Marquise d’Alligre, Mme. de Vatimesnil and others, occupied him during this period. However, in 1870, amidst these, he painted another history painting- The Death of Francesca da Rimini.

The Death of Francesca da Rimini by Alexandre Cabanel

Final Words.

Alexandre Cabanel’s significant accomplishment, besides his highly successful career, is his ability to always reproduce the artworks in the best possible versions through his inventiveness and dedication to learning. To a vast extent, his works are treated with the dignity that characterises Alexandre’s personality. His enormous study, mastery of knowledge, and inclusion of grace and sentiment in his works are something we should remember and emulate.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What style of painting is Alexandre Cabanel?

Alexandre Cabanel was an Academic painter who mastered several art genres, among which his history paintings, frescoes and portraits were most famous.

Who was Alexandre Cabanel inspired by?

Initially, Alexandre Cabanel was motivated by his interest in learning art. However, some suggest that some of his paintings were inspired by Renaissance masters like Raphael and Michelangelo.

What paintings did Alexandre Cabanel paint?

Alexandre Cabanel enjoyed a successful career throughout his life, however, some of his famous artworks are the Birth of Venus, Rape of the Nymph and Nymph carried off by a Satyr.

How did Alexandre Cabanel die?

Alexandre Cabanel died of an asthma attack on January 22, 1889. The artist was 65 years old at the time of death.

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