Alexandre Cabanel: The Tradition of Beauty

The Legacy of a 19th Century Romantic Master

By Stephen Gjertson


Self-Portrait at 26 Years. Oil on canvas, 24½ x 21⅛. Private collection, Paris.

Alexandre Cabanel is one of the great French artists of the 19th Century. He was a product of the finest teaching tradition available at the time, that provided by the private ateliers in Paris. His work displays originality and sincerity coupled with a profound sense of respect for the great art of the past. His drawing is fine, expressive, and informed by personal selection, knowledge, and a quest for both natural and ideal beauty. His design is sophisticated and his color is harmonious, natural, and decorative, as necessary. His method varies from suave enamel to virtuoso paint handling. He was an artist of integrity, a confident and skillful master of his craft.

Early Years

Alexandre Cabanel entered the world on September 28, 1823, in the town of Montpellier in southern France, just off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. During the Reformation the town had been a stronghold of Protestant resistance to the Catholic French crown. Louis XIV made it the capitol of Bas Languedoc. After the French Revolution the town became the capitol of the smaller Hérault. The son of a carpenter, Cabanel began studying art at the local school of fine arts at age eleven. His instructors, impressed by the young man’s skill in drawing, offered him a teaching position, which he refused. Cabanel’s father could not afford further training, but in 1839 the talented sixteen-year-old won first prize in a local competition and received a municipal scholarship that enabled him to study in Paris. There, he trained for six years in the atelier of François-Edouard Picot.

François-Edouard Picot, Cupid and Psyche, 1817. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 7¾ inches x 9 feet 6½ inches. Private collection.

Picot was a fine painter who had studied with Jacques-Louis David. He painted two grand ceilings in the Louvre and the fine Enthroned Christ above the altar in the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. He was well respected and ran a prestigious and successful atelier. According to Isidore Pils, an earlier pupil of Picot and Cabanel’s senior by ten years, Picot taught students their metier without imposing upon them a particular style, a quality that would later be said about Cabanel. The atelier practices were devoted to helping students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to paint complex figurative works, preparing them to compete successfully for the Prix-de-Rome. The curriculum consisted of drawing and painting the live model and painting compositional sketches of assigned themes, usually from history, myth or the Bible. The goal of most students was to register at the École and enter the yearly contest for the coveted Prix-de-Rome. To win this prize meant five years of additional study at the Villa Medici in Rome and official recognition. For the dedicated and talented, it gave some assurance of academic success. Picot himself had won the contest in 1813 and his envois of 1817, Cupid and Psyche, was a Neo-Classic masterpiece—a landmark work for a young pensioner.

Pils explained that Picot “obtained good results by establishing in his studio . . . a system of preparatory competitions by way of preparing for the École des Beaux-Arts. Once a month, the students’ painted figures and sketches were assembled, and the five best of each were chosen in preparation for a final judgment held every three months. A silver medal, which Picot had specially struck for the purpose, was presented for the best of the fifteen figures and the best compositional sketch. The prize-winning works were exhibited in the studio, forming a little museum that was of interest to both old and new pupils and encouraged a spirit of emulation. The jury consisted of the master himself and five pupils who were not themselves competing for the prize.” Picot’s instruction was evidently successful, since he trained a large number of Prix-de-Rome winners, including Pils in 1838.

Oedipus Separating from Jocasta, sketch, 1843. Oil on canvas, 13 x 16 9/16. Musée Comtadin-Duplessis, Carpentras.

Cabanel threw himself into the atelier curriculum with great zeal. The following October he registered as a matriculant in the École des Beaux-Arts, qualifying him to compete in the Prix-de-Rome competition. In Picot’s atelier he absorbed the best of the academic tradition, developing his skill in drawing and composition and acquiring a love for literary subjects. Cabanel’s early compositional sketches reveal his progress in historical painting. The subjects, evidently chosen by Picot, are taken from literature and the Bible: The Return of Ulysses, The Death of Priam, Oedipus Separating from Jocasta, and The Feast of Esther with Hamon and Ahassuerus. In 1843 he entered the contest for the Prix-de-Rome. At this time, the competition consisted of three parts. The first was a painted sketch of a specific size, executed in one day (while under guard), of a subject dictated by the professor on duty. The chosen subject was Ulysses Recognized by His Nurse. Cabanel’s sketch gained him access to the second phase of the contest, which was a figure study from the model, also of a specific size, that had to be completed in four seven-hour sessions. He was disqualified from the final phase of the competition.

Cincinnatus Receiving the Envoys from the Senate, 1844. Oil on canvas, 45 x 57⅝. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

The following year, 1844, Cabanel again entered the contest, this time making it to the final round. The subject was Cincinnatus Receiving the Envoys from the Senate. According to the Roman historian, Livy, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was known for his simplicity. In approximately 460 B.C., the Roman senate appointed him dictator. When the lictors brought him the news, they found him plowing his fields, the scene depicted by the contestants. Cabanel’s work placed sixth, behind those of Léon Benouville, Jules-Eugene Lenepveu and the winner, Félix-Joseph Barrias. Cabanel’s work was the best of his history paintings to date and it is actually very fine, better in many ways than those singled out for praise by the critics. The figures are well disposed and characterized against a very poetic landscape. The orange drapery on the nearest ambassador is particularly well designed. Benouville’s entry is also better than the one by Barrias, which is boring by comparison and contains figures that are too small for the space. During this year Cabanel also entered his first painting in the Salon, Christ in the Garden of Olives. The work by the precocious twenty-one-year-old received favorable notice. It was immediately purchased by his hometown and is now in the Cathedral of Saint Roch.

Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1843-1844. Oil on canvas, 72⅞ x 57. Presbytery of the Church of Saint-Roch, Montpellier.

Jesus in the Praetorium, 1845. Oil on canvas, 57½ x 44⅝. École National Supérior des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

In April of 1845 Cabanel entered the competition for the Prix-de-Rome a third time. The subject for the painted sketch competition was The Deliverance of Saint Peter. Of the one hundred sixteen sketches submitted, a little over twenty contestants were chosen to continue. Cabanel’s sketch was ranked second by the judges and Léon Benouville’s was ranked sixth. The second stage of the competition, the painted studies from the figure, was judged along with the previous sketches and no more than ten contestants were selected to continue. Cabanel did well in this stage of the contest. After the judging he was ranked second and Benouville was ranked ninth. The definitive phase consisted of a compositional oil sketch, done in twelve hours, of a subject chosen by the judges. The subject for this year was Jesus in the Praetorium. The judges kept tracings of these drawings for later comparison to the final works. The students were then put into small, sequestered cubicles and given seventy-two days in which to complete a painting of the subject on a canvas of specific size. Judges ranked the final paintings on September twenty-seventh, the day before Cabanel’s twenty-second birthday.

Léon Benouville, Christ in the Praetorium, 1845. Oil on canvas, 57½ x 44½. École National Supérior des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

Critics were divided over the merits of the final works, but agreed that the two best were by Cabanel and Benouville, who was also a student of Picot. The First Prize went to Benouville, whose painting was more unified in design than Cabanel’s. Cabanel’s was more energetic in movement, but less unified in line and tonal pattern. In a word, the work by Benouville was more classical and that by Cabanel was more romantic. Cabanel’s painting received good reviews. Delécluze thought that the two were both excellent. He wrote that in Cabanel’s version the subject was “vigorously expressed . . . . And all of the figures of the people who crudely mock or cruelly strike Jesus are painted with talent and verve, so as to create a natural and effective contrast with the calm of the principle figure.” The head of the soldier mocking Christ is very expressive and Cabanel’s drawing for it is quite beautiful. The somber earth palette with accents of red is typical of Prix-de-Rome winners of the period.

The Roman Sojourn

Soldier Insulting Christ, head study, 1845. Charcoal, pencil and white chalk on paper, 10⅜ x 8⅜. Musée Bibliotèque Ingimbertine, Carpentras.

Cabanel’s work won the Second Prize, which did not qualify him for the Roman scholarship. However, based on the merit of his work, the jury recommended to the Minister of the Interior that a second pension in Rome be found for him. They elected to allow him to go in place of the Grand Prize for musical composition, which was not awarded that year. Cabanel’s Second Prize was changed to a Second First Grand Prize, allowing him to go to Rome with Bénouville. It is difficult for artists and critics today to fathom the skill and artistry possessed by these young Prix-de-Rome winners. To compete they had to be less than thirty years old, and most were much younger — the age of contemporary college students. Cabanel was twenty-two; Benouville was twenty-four. They had studied rigorously under fine and knowledgeable painters from a much earlier age than art students today. Cabanel began his artistic training at age eleven and had studied seriously for twelve years when he finally left for Rome. To even compete students had to have won numerous drawing and compositional competitions that proved their skills, and they needed to have the backing and support of their teachers. In modern terms, they would be considered masters competing for their Ph.D. in the fine arts. The quality of their student work surpasses that of most mature painters living today.

The Villa Medici, Rome.

Winners of the Prix-de-Rome received an allowance to cover their trip to Rome and a yearly stipend to cover their personal expenses and those incurred in the production of their work. They also received free room and board. Cabanel arrived at the Villa Medici in early 1846, excited to see in person the Renaissance masterpieces about which he had heard and seen in engravings or copies. Like all pensioners of the academy, he longed to learn from the great masters and to apply their lessons to his own work. With the enthusiasm and idealism of youth Cabanel again immersed himself in his studies. The pensioners experienced considerable freedom to do works of their own choosing, but were required to complete certain projects during their tenure which allowed the government to assess their progress. Pensioners worked industriously with the hope of attracting the attention of the members of the Academy, who judged the yearly work and progress of the students.

In addition to Bénouville and his older brother, the landscape painter, Achille, who had won the Prix-de-Rome in landscape the same year, other notable Prix-de-Rome winners studying during this time were Felix Barrias, Eugene Lenepveu, and Gustave Boulanger. In his final year William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Paul Baudry joined him. Like his fellows, Cabanel eventually hoped to catch the eye of art critics, the government, and the wealthy. The first provided a means for recognition; the latter provided the commissions and patronage that a young artist returning from Rome needed to earn a living.

Orestes, 1846. Oil on canvas, 87 x 93. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Béziers.

Within the first two years, history-painting students were required to complete one life-sized figure from life, one finished drawing based on a work by an older master, and one drawing from the antique. Student works were exhibited at the Villa Medici in April. They were sent to Paris in May to be judged at the Institute and then shown to the public in the fall. The life-sized painted figures were always male, with subjects taken from Antiquity, literature, or the Bible. The first work that Cabanel sent from Rome in 1846 was Orestes. Orestes was the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and the brother of Electra. When his father returned from the Trojan War Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, murdered him. The young Orestes went into exile and swore to get revenge. After he reached adulthood, he secretly returned home and plotted with his sister Electra to murder both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. As a consequence of his deed the three Furies tormented Orestes, following him everywhere he went. They only stopped hounding him after he sought judgment for his crime at the Aeropagus in Athens and was acquitted.

Alfred Bruyas, 1846. Oil on canvas 29⅛ x 24 7/16. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Gift of Alfred Bruyas, 1868.

Cabanel’s painting is a dramatic, atmospheric work that shows a slightly over life sized Orestes taking refuge in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. An olive branch lies on the altar to the right. Behind him, lurking behind other suppliants, are the furies, with glowing eyes and snakes for hair. Lying on the floor is the bloody sword with which he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The resigned gesture of Orestes in the painted sketch is more unified than the energetic and attenuated gesture in the final work. The envois was not well received by the academy.

During his stay in Rome, Cabanel met Alfred Bruyas, the son of a wealthy banker from his hometown. They had met years before in Montpellier. Bruyas was interested in art and had studied with the painter, Charles Matet. He had recognized the limits of his ability and shifted his focus to promoting and collecting. Thereafter, he set aside a portion of his large fortune for the formation of a collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures by contemporary artists. In 1846 his parents sent him to Rome for the sake of his health. There, he befriended several artists and reconnected with Cabanel. The two remained close friends in the 1840s and 50s and Bruyas dedicated his first catalog, published in 1851, in part to Cabanel, a “painter of history.” In 1846, soon after both young men had arrived in Rome, Cabanel painted a portrait of Bruyas. He presents him at the beginning of his collecting career—young, polished, and self-assured. The painting shows the twenty-four-year-old patron in front of the gardens of Rome’s Villa Borghese.

The Fallen Angel, 1847. Oil on canvas, 47⅝ x 74¾. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Cabanel’s 1847 envoi, The Fallen Angel, is a personal, late Romantic masterpiece. Inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, the magnificent nude angel lies on the ground with his hands clenched and a malevolent look in its eye. His colorful wings lie in a sweeping curve that is picked up and swept into the background by a host of heavenly angels soaring through the sky behind him. The gesture of the fallen angel and the patterns of the angels in the sky form a beautiful series of interlocked silhouettes. The brighter color is beginning to show the influence of the Italian decorators. As his career progresses, Cabanel’s palette will lighten and brighten into the jewel-like colors of the French and Italian Rococo. This work disturbed the academy when it was sent back to Paris.

Albaydé, 1848. Oil on canvas, 38 3/16 x 30 11/16. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Gift of Alfred Bruyas, 1868.

In 1848 Cabanel painted three works for Alfred Bruyas: Albaydé, La Chiaruccia, and Man Contemplating, A Young Roman Monk. Albaydé was Cabanel’s first painting inspired by a Romantic literary work. It was drawn from Victor Hugo’s Orientalist poem Fragments of a Serpent, where the poet lusts for “The lovely doe-like eyes of Albaydé.” Cabanel depicted the pale figure of Albaydé as both an object of visual pleasure and as an allegory. Albaydé was prepared as part of a triptych, the theme being the uncertain transition from youth to adulthood. Albaydé represented youthful innocence gone awry. It is compelling that she is depicted as a seductive, if disheveled Oriental courtesan, in an environment that implies a sumptuous Islamic lounge, a harem, and an opium den. Its careful finish, sophisticated linear design, and subtle idealism places it firmly within the French academic tradition. La Chiarruccia depicts a young Italian peasant girl carrying a basket of flowers, a precursor to later genre works by himself and Bouguereau. Two years earlier Louis-Stanislaus Faivre-Duffer and Félix Barrias created similar works of a young Italian girl dressed in the same attire that was commonly seen in the Roman countryside. Man Contemplating, A Young Roman Monk shows a finely characterized bearded Monk lost in thought against a Roman cityscape.

Man Contemplating, A Young Roman Monk, 1848. Oil on canvas, 35 7/16 x 27 15/16. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Gift of Alfred Bruyas, 1868.

In their fourth year pensioners had to copy a painting by a great master or the painted or drawn fragments of at least three figures taken from a fresco or an original work of their choice, with the director’s approval. (The painter Jean Alaux was director of the French Academy at Rome from 1847-52. Alaux had won the Prix-de-Rome in 1815.) The copies had to be the same size as the original, unless the originals were monumental. In such a case, the copies had to be life-sized. Cabanel chose figures from Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Earl Shinn, in his work, The Art Treasures of America, called Cabanel’s copies “magnificent” and said that they were “pointed out in the Beaux-Arts school to students, as the highest attainment ever made by the copyist’s immortalizing art.”

Saint John the Baptist, 1849. Oil on canvas, 76¾ x 55¾. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Also in 1849, to satisfy the requirement for another life-sized figure painting, Cabanel painted Saint John the Baptist, a work that shows the influence of Guido Reni and the frescoes of Raphael in the Vatican and Farnesina. Cabanel shows an energetic and committed Saint John preaching in the wilderness, surrounded on the left and right by young and old followers. On a staff shaped like a cross to his right flies a small banner, on which is written in Latin the primary message of the prophet, Agnus Dei, Lamb of God. Jesus was the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. The symbolic work is solid and well painted, with warm and healthy color. The upraised arms are slightly over modeled but the over all effect is very dramatic. This work was well received by members of the academy. As a winner of the Prix-de-Rome, Cabanel’s work was automatically admitted to the Salon. Nevertheless, it still had to be considered by the jury. Cabanel utilized this privilege to exhibit this work in the Salon of 1850 and it was purchased by the state.

Portraying the Pensioners

Félix Massé, 1847. Oil on canvas, oval, 24 x 19¼. Private collection.

It was a tradition for the Prix-de-Rome pensioners in painting to execute self-portraits and portraits of their fellow students. Some students painted themselves in their studio as a souvenir of their stay. While in Rome, Cabanel painted three self-portraits as well as portraits of fellow pensioners Félix Massé (winner in music, 1844) and Alfred Nicolas Normand (winner in architecture, 1846). He also drew a portrait in black chalk of Louis-Félix Chaubaud (winner in sculpture, 1848). In 1846, the sculptor, Jean-Baptiste Claude Eugene Guillaume (winner in sculpture, 1845), cast a round bronze relief of Cabanel in profile.

In their fourth year students also had to paint or draw an original composition that featured twelve or more figures and that measured at least twenty-six inches in each dimension. Cabanel chose a rather obscure religious subject, Saint Paul Among the Saints of Cesarea. The work was influenced by Raphael’s Vatican frescoes in the Stanza della Signatura. Cabanel had copied the lower right-hand portion of the Dispute Over the Holy Sacrament earlier that year, and the gesture of Paul is identical to that of the man directly to the right of the altar. The painting contains several fine figures, such as the old man in white seated on the left and a good grouping of figures in the right foreground. However, the design suffers from a lack of unity and patterning and the work failed to please the Institute.

The Death of Moses, 1850. Oil on canvas, 55⅛ x 80⅜. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

The Death of Moses

The Death of Moses, study, 1850. Watercolor, 6⅞ x 9⅜. Academy of France at Rome, Villa Medici.

In the student’s fifth and final year, they had to complete a history painting of their own choice, not to exceed thirteen feet three inches in any dimension. For his final envoi Cabanel choose an original and awe-inspiring subject, The Death of Moses. Cabanel depicted Moses dying in the wilderness before God, while seeing from afar the Promised Land that he was forbidden to enter. Such a profound theme was obviously intimidating for the young artist, as he recounted in a letter to his brother: “I have imposed upon myself a large, very difficult, formidable task, since I seek to represent the image of the Eternal Master of the sky and the earth—to represent God—and next to Him, one of His most sublime creatures, deified in some way by His contact. This should give you an idea of my all-absorbing preoccupations. Still, this terrible task advances, but not without cruel mishaps. I know that that’s how it is on the path where my instincts have led me, and which is undoubtedly the most beautiful of all the arts, but one has to be strong and love it passionately in order to handle the obstacles one encounters.” These are the words of a serious and dedicated young artist who, surrounded by many of the world’s greatest masterpieces, is intent on painting works that will live up to their magnificent example.

Cabanel’s inspiration came from the two greatest Renaissance artists whose works he had studied in Rome: Michelangelo and Raphael. The picturesque billowing drapery, the surrounding angels and the monumental figure of God are clearly reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Cabanel patterned the head of Moses after Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici. Political events during Cabanel’s final year in Rome led him to a painting by Raphael, which he had previously not seen. In the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution to reinstate the authority of the Pope, students at the Academy were forced to flee the upheaval in Rome and settle temporarily in Florence while French forces occupied the Villa Medici. With a short stay in Naples, this was Cabanel’s only trip outside of Rome during his studies in Italy.

The Death of Moses, squared study, ca. 1851. Graphite, pen and brown ink, gray wash, heightened with white gouache on paper, 7⅞ x 11. Dahesh Museum of Art, New York.

At the Pitti Palace, Cabanel saw Raphael’s painting The Vision of Ezekiel. The hair, face, and gesture of God in The Death of Moses are likely influenced by this work. One of his squared preliminary studies differs from the finished painting in several respects, notably the gesture of God and the gestures of the angels to the right of Moses. In the drawing, Cabanel borrows more obviously from Michelangelo’s Creation of the Sun, the Moon, and the Planets, a reference that he subdues in the final work. The drawing’s curved top suggests that Cabanel originally contemplated an arched frame for the painting. Cabanel has been criticized for borrowing from Raphael and Michelangelo, but such criticism is foolish. Painters from all periods have found inspiration in their illustrious predecessors and The Death of Moses is an original conception inspired and informed by the past. Cabanel studied the Italian masterpieces carefully while in Rome and profited from them.

Cabanel painted two almost identical versions of The Death of Moses. The Dahesh Museum in New York owns the original and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier owns a half-size reduction done by the artist and bequeathed to the museum by his nephew and pupil Pierre Cabanel in 1918. The painting at the Dahesh—the one exhibited at the Salon—is a little cramped. To alleviate the problem, Cabanel added extra space around the figures in the later reduction. The actual painting varies in quality. The figures in the dark are loosely and thinly scrubbed-in and lack form and finish, much weaker than his more solidly painted earlier works. The upper angels and the wings of the angel on the right are painted with greater subtlety and delicacy.

The Return to Paris

Beginning a Career

Veleda, 1852. Oil on canvas, 50⅜ x 35. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

After Cabanel returned to France, he exhibited The Death of Moses in the Salon of 1852. It won a second prize medal and helped to establish the young artist’s reputation in Paris. Once he was back home, Alfred Bruyas again became one of his primary patrons. The pictures he painted for him reflected the influence of the Italian art that he had studied while in Rome. Veleda, painted for Bruyas in 1852, is another animated Romantic work. Veleda was a priestess of the Germanic tribe of the Bructeri. In March 70 AD the Batavian leader Julius Civilis captured the legionary base at Vetera. The commander of the Roman garrison, Munius Lupercus, was sent to Veleda. When describing this incident, the Roman historian Tacitus explained who she was: “Veleda was an unmarried woman who enjoyed wide influence over the tribe of the Bructeri. The Germans traditionally regard many of the female sex as prophetic, and indeed, by an excess of superstition, as divine. This was a case in point. Veleda’s prestige stood high, for she had foretold the German successes and the extermination of the legions.” For an unknown reason, Munius Lupercus was killed on his way to Veleda. A few months later, the Batavians captured the flagship of the Roman navy, which they proceeded to tow up the river Lippe to present it to the prophetess. Cabanel shows her seated on a rocky ledge above the water; her right hand is outstretched as she prophesies the defeat of the Romans. A lyre rests in her lap. Behind her stands Julius Civilis, hands held out in joy as she predicts his victory. This work is the first of many mysterious or tragic heroines painted by Cabanel and shows his taste for melancholy subjects and the suave finish of the Florentine Mannerists.

Self-Portrait at 29 Years, 1852. Oil on canvas, 24 9/16 x 18½. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Gift of Alfred Bruyas, 1868.

In 1852 Cabanel also painted a self-portrait for Bruyas. It is a simple and austere bust-length likeness of him at age twenty-nine. His intense gaze and resolute expression convey a sense of solemn purpose, befitting a serious artist at the beginning of his career. The somber, lower keyed palette of blacks and browns, alleviated only by the light of the face and a spot of white on the collar, add to the effect. By gift (1868) and by his will (1878) he donated one hundred and forty-eight paintings to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. His collection included a large number of works by Cabanel as well as works by artists as diverse as Barye, Bonvin, Courbet, David, Delacroix, Diaz, Géricault, Ingres, Millet, and Tassaert.

It was an eccentricity of Bruyas to have himself painted as often as possible. His bright red hair and beard, his misty blue eyes and pale complexion made him an interesting person for the artist to both paint and characterize. Champfleury mentions his aristocratic hands with the little finger curving out, adorned with precious intaglio rings, and their whiteness, which Bruyas loved to have admired. “He is discreet, solitary, melancholy,” said the writer. “He has the soul of a pretty woman who is bored, combined with mysticism and sensuality.”

Théophile Silvestre who, in 1876, published a fully annotated catalog of the Bruyas collection, postulates that Bruyas had his portrait painted so often because he wished to give many artists the opportunity to interpret the same model. By allowing them complete freedom, each artist could depict him as they saw fit and every work would be done according to their individual temperament.

February, Hôtel de Ville, destroyed.

The Decorations of the Hôtel de Ville

April, May, June, Hôtel de Ville, destroyed.

The architect Jean-Baptiste Cicéron Lesueur (1794-1883) commissioned Cabanel to decorate 12 triangular pendentives illustrating the Allegories of the Months of the Year for the Salon of the Caryatids in the Paris Hôtel de Ville. Each month is characterized by an appropriate theme: January, The Pilgrim Recounting His Travels to his Family; February, The Masquerade; March, The Flood; April, The Awakening of Nature; May, The Lovers; June, The Hay Reapers; July, The Harvesters; August, The Fruit Harvest; September, The Grape Harvest; October, The Fall of the Leaves; November, The Hunt; December, The Study. Cabanel executed the paintings during 1852-53. His friend and compatriot, Léon Benouville, contributed four paintings depicting the seasons. This was Cabanel’s first opportunity to paint decorative works for one of the most beautiful and significant buildings in Paris. He rose triumphantly to the task and created the finest decorations of his lifetime. The influence of Michelangelo and Annibale Carracci is evident in the simple, muscular figures. The designs are superb and the figures and accessories are beautifully disposed within the spaces. His choice of motives for each month is delightfully inventive. Although small in size their conception and execution is monumental.

October, November, December, Hôtel de Ville, destroyed.

This was the first of many public commissions that Cabanel would receive. Regrettably, the Hôtel de Ville was destroyed by fire in the Commune of 1871. The works are known through a complete set of engravings by Achille Jacquet and several of Cabanel’s very fine cartoons. In 1884 Théodore Ballu, the person in charge of rebuilding the Hôtel de Ville, proposed that Cabanel help decorate the new building, but the artist died before he could do so.

A Gift for Portraiture

With the portrait of Mrs. Jules Paton and her Son (untraced), exhibited at the Salon of 1853, Cabanel began his career as a portrait painter of the first rank. The gesture, breadth and stylization of Emilie Paton resemble that of Madame Inés Moitessier painted by Ingres two years earlier. From the outset, critics praised his ability to capture the character of his sitters. During his career Cabanel devoted a great deal of his time to portrait painting, often at the expense of history painting. After he returned to Paris from Rome, Cabanel painted over two hundred portraits, approximately one hundred thirty-six of which were women. He presented his sitters with simplicity, grace, and nobility. This manner eventually attracted a wealthy and cosmopolitan clientele. Aside from his many French and European patrons, Cabanel was to become the portrait painter of America’s Gilded Age. A procession of important and fashionable sitters came to his studio expecting, and receiving, portraits that exhibited elegance, refinement, and good taste.

The Second Empire

Mrs. Jules Paton and her Son, 1853. Oil on canvas. Location unknown.

Cabanel’s return to France and his first successes at the Salon coincided with the advent of the Second Empire, the imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870, between the Second and the Third Republics.

Napoleon III, study, ca. 1865. Oil on panel, 16⅛ x 12⅝. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Acquired by William T. Walters, 1887-1893.

Louis-Napoléon was the nephew of Napoleon I. When the constitution of the Second Republic was finally made known and elections for the presidency were held in December 1848, Louis-Napoléon won a surprising landslide victory. His early rule was marked by conflict between himself and those who wanted a return of the Bourbon dynasty. He courted Catholic support by assisting in the restoration of the Pope’s temporal rule in Rome. He tried to please secularist conservative opinion at the same time by combining this with peremptory demands that the Pope introduce liberal changes to the government of the Papal States. He appointed a liberal government and established the Napoleonic Code there (the French civil code, established under Napoleon I in 1804. The code forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs go to the most qualified), which angered the Catholic majority in the assembly. He soon made another attempt to gain Catholic support, however, by approving the Falloux Law in 1851, which restored a greater role for the Catholic church in the French educational system.

After years of debate, Napoleon III finally seized dictatorial powers in December 1851, the forty-seventh anniversary of Napoleon I’s crowning as Emperor, and the forty-sixth anniversary of the famous Battle of Austerlitz, hence another of Louis-Napoléon’s nicknames: “The Man of December.” Parliament now became irrelevant, as real power was completely concentrated in the hands of Louis-Napoléon and his bureaucracy.

Exactly one year after the coup, in December 1852, after approval by another referendum, the Second Republic was officially ended and the Empire restored, ushering in the Second French Empire. An important legacy of Napoleon III’s reign was the rebuilding of Paris under Count Alfred Émilien O’Hara van Nieuwerkerke, but his tenure was marked with general unrest and civil conflict. He was a poor leader and involved France in two bitter wars, first in Crimea and then the devastating Franco-Prussian War. In Prussia, during September 1870, the Emperor was captured at the Battle of Sedan and was deposed by the forces of the Third Republic in Paris two days later. Napoleon III spent the last few years of his life in exile in England, with his wife, Eugenie, and their only son. He died and was buried there in January 1873.

Nymph Captured by a Satyr, 1860. Oil on canvas, 95¾ x 56. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France.

Unlike his cousins, the Duc de Morny and Princess Mathilde, Napoleon III was a novice concerning art. He relied on the advice of Count Nieuwerkerke and the Marquis Philippe de Chennevières. Nieuwerkerke was a sculptor of Dutch descent. He was appointed Director of Fine Arts of the Emperor’s household and finally, in 1870, Superintendant of the Imperial Museums. Until the fall of the Empire, he played a highly important role, acting as a minister of cultural affairs. He was responsible for four museums (the Louvre, Luxembourg, Versailles, and Saint-Germain-en-Laye), for the objets d’art in the imperial palaces, for imperial commissions of paintings, sculptures, and engravings, and for the organization of the Salon.

Chennevières, an art historian, was appointed Director of Fine Arts in 1873. He ordered that the copies of great works of art made by French artists that were in the École des Beaux-Arts, be distributed among provincial museums. He was responsible for the renovation and decoration of the Panthéon, a project to which Cabanel would contribute a major work.

Cabanel became acquainted with these two men, who essentially ran the system of Fine Arts in France throughout the last two decades of his career. In 1861 Nymph Captured by a Satyr was his first painting to be acquired by the new regime. Nymph Captured by a Satyr is a splendid decorative group in the manner of Charles Coypel or François Lemoyne and, ironically, even bears a certain resemblance, in the spirited drawing and painting of the Satyr, to the work of some Flemish painters, including Rubens. Unfortunately, the painting has suffered abuse from behind and the figure of the nymph is severely cracked.

The Glorification of Saint Louis, 1853. Oil on canvas, 14 feet 6 inches x 14 feet 2½ inches. Musée Fabre, Montpellier (On loan from Versailles).

An Important Early Commission

The Glorification of Saint Louis

Christian Martyr, study, 1855. Oil on canvas, 24⅛ x 16⅝. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

In 1853 Cabanel was commissioned to paint The Glorification of Saint Louis for the royal chapel at Vincennes. He exhibited the large work in the Salon of 1855, where it won a first class medal, and then it was displayed in a place of honor at the International Exhibition of 1862. Many years later, the painting was taken down, rolled up and stored in the museum of Lunéville. On January 2, 2003 a fire ravaged the museum, destroying the splendid final envois by Bouguereau of Saint Cecelia’s Body Brought into the Catacombs. Fortunately, the Cabanel escaped destruction, was restored, and is now hanging in the stairwell of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. King Louis was a beloved monarch who represented Catholic ideals and reformed values. He is flanked on his right by Strength and on his left by Faith. Together, they hold above his head a crown of thorns. The magnificent painting shows the king seated on a throne surrounded by a crowd of officials and suppliants. The work is that of an assured and accomplished master, in full command of his art. The painting of Saint Louis helped to establish his academic and official credentials. In 1855 he received the Légion d’Honneur.

That same year Cabanel also exhibited Christian Martyr. His production during this time is characterized by a rise in religious feeling, that of a young artist seeking to renew traditional iconography. Departing from pictorial tradition, his Christian Martyr does not represent the moment of execution. It shows a group of Christians at dusk lifting the body of a martyred female believer from a boat to a group of believers ready to carry her into a burial chamber. Cabanel painted a careful study for the work that is in better condition than the final painting. The cool color and evening atmosphere portrayed in the study is lost in an almost illegible mass of brown in the final painting. Much of the work is simply a loosely painted sketch over the toned canvas. The drawing is visible almost everywhere. It is disappointing that the large final work retains few of the study’s qualities. That year he also exhibited a poetic, yet bold and decorative work titled Autumn Evening (untraced).

Michelangelo in His Studio Visited by Pope Julius II, 1859. Print colored with gouache heightened with gum arabic, 17 x 29⅜. Musée Goupil, Bordeaux.

In the later 1850s Cabanel turned from religious subjects to literary and historical themes. In 1857, his three entries to the Salon were Michelangelo Visited in his Studio by Pope Julius II, Othello Relating his Adventures, and Aglaé and Boniface. The art dealer and publisher, Adolphe Goupil, commissioned the first work. He was inspired by the work of the young artists who had returned from Rome and wanted to publish a series of prints devoted to the lives of the great masters. Cabanel paid tribute to Michelangelo, whose work so moved him in Rome and whom he called “my sublime master.” Although the painting is untraced, we know it from the colored Goupil engraving by Pierre Castan. Cabanel represented Michelangelo seated in thought, mallet and chisel in hand, contemplating his unfinished sculpture of Moses. Around him are other sculptures in various states of finish and an imaginary painted grisaille study for a group of angels in The Last Judgment. The Pope and several cardinals, greeted by a bowing servant, are approaching through a door on the right. The work is both imaginative and moving.

Othello Relating his Adventures, 1857. Oil on canvas, 45½ x 51½. Speed Art Museum, Louisville.

Othello Relating his Adventures does not illustrate a scene from Shakespeare’s play, but rather an event Othello describes in a speech in scene 3 of Act 1. In the event described, he relates the story of his life from year to year: his battles, sieges, and fortunes that he has encountered. Cabanel shows him in the midst of his narration, leaning on the balustrade of a Venetian palazzo’s marble portico. He wears Moorish clothing and stands with his right arm outstretched and his left resting on the hilt of a long sword. Desdemona, seated on embroidered pillows, listens to him enraptured, leaning on the knee of her father, Brabantio, who gazes upward at Othello. The costumes, rug, and draperies are luxurious. The color is warm and sumptuous. Hidden from their sight in the lower left is the malevolent Iago, intently listening to Othello’s narrative. The design leads the eye from Othello to the figure of Desdemona and her father and then down to Iago. Desdemona’s light drapery makes a beautiful pattern that catches the eye and leads it back to Othello. Unfortunately, the light on Othello’s lower left leg is too pronounced for its place in the shadow and distracts from the figure of Desdemona.

Aglaé and Boniface, 1857. Oil on canvas, oval, 23½ by 25½. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Bequest of Elisabeth Ludwig Fennell.

Algaé and Boniface is a languid and sweet work, painted in an oval format. The romantic painting was so popular that there are five recorded replicas and reduced versions of the work. The beautiful Aglaé and her servant Boniface are depicted languishing in their shared decadence shortly before they renounce their self-indulgent lifestyle to seek divine forgiveness. Their aimless stares convey the meaninglessness of their unfulfilled existence. Aglaé embodies Cabanel’s preference for mysterious and tragic heroines. Such classical subjects were commonly used as veiled references to contemporary decadence. Aglaé was a socially ambitious and lascivious Roman noblewoman known for her public shows and parties. She had an intimate relationship with her male servant, Boniface, who was himself addicted to debauchery and an alcoholic, alluded to by the overturned cup.

Boniface, (Drawing of Tony Robert-Fleury), 1857. Black chalk. Musée Bonnat, Bayonne.

Cabanel did a beautiful drawing for Boniface using his friend and fellow artist Tony Robert-Fleury as a model. Fleury had studied with Paul Delaroche and Léon Cogniet. Cabanel’s drawing is both vigorous and beautiful, due in some measure to the fair features of the model, with his strong nose, Peter Ustinov-like lips, delicate beard, and abundant hair. Cabanel may have been influenced in his choice of subject by painters such as Ary Scheffer, whose religious themes were very popular at the time. Scheffer’s Saint Augustine and Saint Monique (which was exhibited in 1855) depicts another couple who had experienced a religious conversion. Critical and public response to Algaé and Boniface was primarily favorable. Théophile Gautier stated that the painting expressed the fatigue resulting from a voluptuous lifestyle merged with the visual beauty of the ancients. Emile Zola’s label for Cabanel, as the “genius of the classical,” could have justly been applied to this painting, for it has a subject from classical antiquity, highly finished technical execution and a well-proportioned and balanced composition. The original work was acquired by financier Isaac Péreire, who would commission Cabanel to paint two decorative ensembles for his home.

Allegory of the Five Senses, 1858. British Embassy, Paris.

Two Early Decorative Commissions

The Péreire Mansion

The Hours, 1864. Charcoal, watercolor washes in fixative on vellum paper, mounted on canvas, 96½ x 34⅞. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

In the changing society of the Second Empire a new aristocracy arose that was associated with high finance and industry. During the 1850s the brothers Isaac and Emile Péreire become significant financiers, establishing themselves as the primary rivals of the Rothschilds. Before turning to finance and real estate, they had already amassed a fortune on an extensive rail network that had been built from Paris to Saint Germain in 1835.

In 1855, the Péreire brothers purchased the Hotel Chevalier de Montigny, an eighteenth century building on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the structure that now houses the British Embassy. They entrusted the renovation of the building to the renowned architect Alfred Armand, whose portrait Cabanel would paint twenty-eight years later. They brought together a team of notable young artists to decorate the interior: William Bouguereau, Charles Jalabert, Auguste Gendron, Félix Barrias, and the sculptor Jules Cavelier.

The Hours, 1864. Oil on canvas, 96½ x 34⅞. British Embassy, Paris.

Isaac Péreire commissioned Cabanel to decorate the elaborately carved ceiling of the grand salon. During 1857-58 he painted an Allegory of the Five Senses, framed by four oval medallions signifying the arts of dance, poetry, fanciful poetry, and eloquence. The fanciful poetry medallion is a very beautiful piece of decoration. The harmony of color and the pleasing disposition of shapes and spaces is noteworthy. The Five Senses are arranged on a balustrade around the circular ceiling. The sumptuous decoration of the room was greatly admired and Cabanel’s works were greeted with enthusiasm when they were unveiled on February 2, 1859.

Cabanel’s ceiling was so successful that, five years later, Péreire commissioned him to complete the decoration of the room with a series of six vertical wall panels of female figures representing the Hours of the Day. Each panel features two intertwined and related figures. Recently restored preparatory cartoons show the beauty and vitality of the drawings. Cabanel’s best drawings are among the glories of Western art.

In these works Cabanel reveals his study of the Italian decorators—Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Paolo Veronese, and Andrea Pozzo. From that study, his talent, and his training, he developed a personal and ingratiating style. No matter what the subject, the artist must endeavor to decorate the surface with pleasing lines, tone and colors that are unified and harmonious. The placement, proportion, and shapes of his elements must be consciously arranged to bring this about. Works done on a wall or ceiling must be designed to harmonize with the surrounding architecture, which Cabanel does with great finesse. Later in 1859 the Péreires commissioned Cabanel to paint six portraits of their family, including one of Emile and the wife of Isaac. It was a busy year for Cabanel. He also painted seven other portraits.

The Choirmaster’s Widow, 1859. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.

That same year, Cabanel’s shift toward genre painting is evident with intimate The Choirmaster’s Widow, whose melancholy theme and medieval accouterments are reminiscent of some contemporary German interiors. The refined drawing and sentiment, however, are clearly French. The grieving widow listens to the music of her deceased husband, surrounded by their children and his elderly mother, who sits on the left, caressing a cat. Near the window, a handsome young man, perhaps the husband or paramour of the beautiful organist, listens to the music in rapt admiration. Cabanel’s painting portrays a profound sentiment without becoming overly sentimental.

The Florentine Poet, 1861. Oil on wood, 12 x 19⅞. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The John Hobart Warren Bequest, 1923.

In the Salon of 1861 Cabanel exhibited another popular work, The Florentine Poet. He painted five various-sized versions of this painting, at least one of which is quite small, almost a miniature. The workmanship of this lovely painting is especially refined and shows that Cabanel was capable of painting successfully on many scales, from over life sized decorations to small genre paintings. The work was inspired by the picturesque and romantic memories of his stay in Italy. The poet recites his verse to an enrapt audience of elegantly dressed listeners. The beautiful Renaissance costumes are reminiscent of those in Othello.

The Dream of Life, 1861. J. P. Morgan Bank, Paris.

The Say Mansion

In 1855, Constant Say commissioned Cabanel to decorate one of the rooms of his mansion. Son of Louis Say, he was the heir of a major industrial dynasty in northern France, based on the production of sugar beet and cane refining in the Caribbean. In 1855, he bought the mansion from the Marquise de House, Place Vendome. The J. P. Morgan Bank is now headquartered in the building.

Water, 1861. Oil on canvas, 37½ x 74⅞. J. P. Morgan Bank, Paris.

Like the Péreire brothers, Constant Say was a cultivated businessman. He commissioned the young artists Cabanel, Baudry, and Jalabert to decorate his new home. Cabanel was again entrusted with the ceiling of the Grand Salon, for which he conceived and designed The Dream of Life, an attractive ensemble, surrounded by an opulent adornment of white stucco and gold. Like many Baroque and Rococo ceilings, the design features four groups of figures in the corners surrounding an expanse of open sky, from the center of which is suspended an elaborate chandelier. Each group represents a stage of life: Youth, The Family at Rest, Working in the Field, and Poetry. Above the four doors he painted figures representing the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Cabanel completed the works by 1861. The figure of Water, a nymph lying on a wave framed by putti, was a forerunner of what would prove to be his most famous and celebrated work, The Birth of Venus, painted two years later.

The Birth of Venus, 1863. Oil on canvas, 51¼ x 88⅝. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The Birth of Venus

Titian, Bacchanal of the Andrians, detail, c. 1518-19. Oil on canvas, 69 x 76. Prado, Madrid.

The Birth of Venus is an iconic image of the 19th Century and is one of the best-known examples of French academic painting. Cabanel exhibited the work in 1863 to widespread acclaim. Part of the charm of Cabanel’s paintings is his remarkable ability to create modern and personal works that, nevertheless, are deeply rooted in the great tradition of Western art. For the French aristocracy of the time, the link to traditions prior to the Revolution evoked memories of the aristocracy at its height. The subject has inspired numerous masters throughout the centuries, from Botticelli and Ingres to Bouguereau. References to paintings by older masters, as well as the recent classics, are continuously present in Cabanel’s art. As with most of his major works, The Birth of Venus can be viewed in light of such artistic influences. The pose of Venus is similar to a female figure in The Bacchanal of the Andrians by Titian and the nude in Odalisque and Slave painted twenty-one years earlier by Ingres, who probably borrowed the gesture from Titian. The flying putti remind us of Boucher’s The Triumph of Venus and are the precursor of Bouguereau’s more complex painting of the same subject. In ancient Rome, Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the goddess of beauty and love, was named loveliness after her greatest attribute, whereas in the Greek language she is named “foam born,” after the manner of her birth. There are two versions of the story of her birth. In Hesiod’s more popular version, Aphrodite sprang from the foam of the sea as a fully developed woman. Zephyrus, the God of the west wind, then carried her across the sea on a clam shell, to Cythera and then to Cyprus. There, Aphrodite was welcomed by Horae, daughter of Themis, who dressed her up and adorned her with precious jewels before taking her to the Immortals at Olympus. Homer’s version of the account, the older of the two, never became widespread.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque with Slave, 1839-40. Oil on panel, 28½ x 39½. The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Grenville L. Winthrop Bequest.

The most popular and complete artistic rendering of this story is most likely Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizzi (c. 1485). In the 17th and 18th centuries, artists such as Poussin and Boucher preferred depicting the triumph of Venus as she is carried across the sea to Cyprus, as opposed to the moment of her birth. In terms of design, this allowed them to introduce more elaborate elements, such as a triumphal chariot drawn by dolphins, swans or doves. In these compositions, Venus and putti, as well as the sea nymphs, could be depicted in motion to make a more animated design. In the 19th Century, most painters preferred to leave Zephyrus and Horae out of their compositions, concentrating on the moment of Venus’ birth. Literary sources describing this have inspired artists to depict her standing rather than reclining. Bouguereau, in his The Birth of Venus of 1879, preferred a standing Venus on a clamshell amidst centaurs, sea nymphs, and a host of flying putti. It is a masterpiece of its kind, displaying all that is finest of the academic tradition. Ingres, in his Vénus Anadyomène of 1848, chose the standing position as well, but placed Venus on a cloud of foam amidst putti who are presenting her with a mirror. Amaury-Duval also depicted Venus standing on the shore of the sea. As early as 1860, the Venus of Ingres was considered a modern classic of the nude, inspiring numerous artists, including Cabanel. In the context of the Second Empire, the sense of elevated and noble morality was praised by the administration, a sentiment personified in the work by Cabanel.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Venus Andyomène, 1858. Oil on canvas, 64⅛ x 36¼. Musée Condé, Chantilly.

In 1863, when The Birth of Venus was exhibited at the Salon, it was admired and purchased by Napoleon III. Cabanel’s Venus, with her pale skin, perfect proportions, classical face and long hazel hair won him a gold medal as well as the Legion d’Honneur. The Birth of Venus is the pictorial representation of Napoleonic morality and a representation of the Empire’s ideals. It is also an important painting representing Cabanel’s conception of ideal beauty. He painted it in a high middle key with no dark accents, which would have undermined the languid, restful mood. The original painting, in the Musee d’Orsay, is framed in soft gold with lovely shells in the corners, a nice touch that amplifies the theme.

Eugène-Emmanuel-Amaury Pineu-Duval, The Birth of Venus, 1862. Oil on canvas, 77½ x 43. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.

Cabanel sold the reproduction rights of the painting to Goupil. In addition to producing lucrative engravings based on The Birth of Venus, Goupil had an in-house artist make two smaller copies of the work, which Cabanel later retouched and signed as part of his agreement with Goupil. Today the reproductions, with attributions to Cabanel, are in the collections of the Dahesh Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The first reproduction, painted at Goupil’s by in-house artist Adolphe Jourdan, is now owned by the Dahesh. The painting is superior to the one owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Goupil sold Jourdan’s replica as a Cabanel in 1870 for the considerable sum of 20,000 francs. Cabanel received half of the profits for retouching and signing the replica, fulfilling his part of an agreement he made with Goupil. The copy was originally purchased by H. W. Derby. Derby was an art collector who was closely involved in the process of purchasing works included in his collection. For Derby, the process of collecting was personal, cherished, and involved traveling abroad, so it can be assumed that he may have purchased or commissioned this work directly from Cabanel. What appealed to industrialists along the East Coast of America was certainly not the authoritarian regime of the Second Empire, but its positive approach to morality and its refined taste. The conservative attitude of the Second Empire toward representations of the nude, as well as its appreciation of classical beauty and proportions, was attractive to the American audience. Henry C. Gibson then purchased the painting in 1871 at the sale of the Derby collection. Gibson was a major art collector as well as a banker. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest man in Philadelphia.

The Birth of Venus, 1875. Oil on canvas, 41¾ x 71⅞. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of John Wolfe, 1893.

The second replica was commissioned in 1875 by John Wolfe, a tobacco heir from New York. He left the painting to his cousin, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She gifted the work, along with her entire collection, to the museum in 1893. This copy is clearly inferior to the original and the replica owned by the Dahesh, perhaps due to improper cleaning. The modeling of Venus is blotchy and crude by comparison, particularly along the lower edge of the figure. The handling elsewhere is also crude, showing little of the suave and skillful method of Cabanel’s original.

Napoleon III

Hippolyte Flandrin, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, 1862. Oil on canvas, 83½ x 58. National Museum of the Chateau of Versailles, Versailles, France.

Louis Napoleon and his wife commissioned several official portraits by two eminent painters, Franz Xavier Winterhalter and Edouard Dubuffe. In 1862 they commissioned Hippolyte Flandrin, the greatest student of Ingres, to paint the emperor’s portrait. Flandrin’s splendid work, now in Versailles, showed him as a forceful leader in official attire. The portrait was admired by the critics for its noble gesture, superb drawing and modeling and impeccable painting method, but was not appreciated by the imperial entourage, who thought it too aggressive. In 1864 they commissioned Cabanel to paint a new portrait for the Tuileries. He treated the imperial attributes as secondary elements and showed Napoleon III in civilian clothes. Cabanel’s full-length portrait of the Emperor was liked less by critics than Flandrin’s, but it was much more popular at court. Cabanel’s portraits were already in demand, and during the emperor’s reign he rivaled Dubufe and Winterhalter as the official portrait painter to the Napoleonic aristocracy. Alice Meynell said that Cabanel had been commissioned to paint “a portrait which should be more expressive of the stability, suavity, and prosperity of the Empire, and he not only succeeded in this, but produced a work which was in many solid qualities the finest example of his talent.”

Emperor Napoleon III, 1865. Oil on canvas, 93¾ x 67. National Museum of the Chateau, Compiegne.

Cabanel’s portrait of Napoleon III won the artist a Medal of Honor at the Salon of 1865 and was praised on both sides of the Atlantic for its simplicity and sophistication. Roger Riordan, writing for the Art Amateur, claimed that it was Cabanel’s best portrait to date. French writer Henry de Chennevières praised Cabanel’s modest representation of the emperor as a bold, modern, and original conception. Rather than portray the Emperor in his military uniform or imperial finery, Cabanel depicted him wearing a simple black evening suit; the imperial robes lay on a chair behind him. Nevertheless, under his coat, he still wears his military sash. The combination of modesty with an aristocratic air impressed the Americans, as well as the French, and may have motivated wealthy Americans to choose Cabanel to paint their portraits. The artist’s reputation as the painter of the emperor provided an equally cogent incentive.

A Sought-After Portrait Painter

The many portraits that Cabanel painted of female European aristocrats enhanced his reputation. While his early portraits of French women tended to be quite complex, in the manner of Ingres, to whom he was frequently and unfairly compared. Cabanel’s portrait of the Duchess of Vallombrosa (location unknown), exhibited in the Salon of 1870, is similar to his later portraits of American women, who preferred simple backdrops and limited accessories. The portrait of the Duchess, one of his few female portraits reproduced in contemporary publications, received positive reviews in periodicals such as L’Artiste and Le Temps. A critic for L’Artiste called the portrait a “masterpiece,” in which the soul shone through the eyes. Herton, writing in Le Temps, admired the “aristocratic elegance” of the work but, nevertheless, complained that the portrait had a “boneless” quality, a remark that calls to mind similar comments about many of Ingres’ figures of women. Cabanel’s selection and design are definitely intended to create a work of beauty, not only in his portraits of women but his portraits of men as well. The principle of beauty was a fundamental tenet of his art and he consistently made choices to achieve what he perceived it to be.

Cabanel’s Portraits of Americans

In the wake of the Civil War American entrepreneurs accumulated vast fortunes. As a result, a social and cultural milieu was being forged to match that wealth. As it had throughout history, art played an important role in creating that milieu. Wealthy Americans decorated their homes with art, primarily that by contemporary French academic painters, as American artists trained in Paris returned home to advise collectors on whose work was the best. Well to do industrialists were eager to have portraits painted of themselves and their families and many Americans turned to French painters. The Peales and Gilbert Stuart were gone. The French painters were well trained, skillful, and had a grand tradition of portraying people of wealth and power. Fine American portrait painters would arise in the future, but French artists would train most of them.

The Vicountess Étienne de Ganey, 1865. Oil on canvas, 60¼ x 36⅝. Location unknown.

The portraits of men painted by French artists tended to be fairly simple, straightforward, and natural. Most wealthy women desired to be represented as sophisticated socialites—a role that was more adequately expressed artistically by their gesture, dress, environment and accessories. Cabanel was particularly skillful at creating the image desired by these women. By the 1870s, many American collectors, such as William Astor, William T. Walters, William H. Vanderbilt, and Jay Gould, to name a few, had purchased Cabanel’s historical paintings. Others, like silver mine millionaire John William Mackay, and the inventor of the reaper, Cyrus Hall McCormick, had commissioned portraits of themselves and their spouses by Cabanel. Cabanel was well known as a portrait painter and in the 1870s and 80s he was the painter of choice for many Americans, particularly women, who desired an aristocratic image to match their wealth. In 1879 Cabanel was, with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Ernest Meissonier, the most well-known French artist in America.

Cabanel’s reputation in the United States was preceded by his success in Paris where, by the 1860s, he was already in demand as a portrait painter of the European aristocracy, especially women. An established decorator and history painter, the number of Cabanel’s portraits indicates that he must have enjoyed painting them, and he chose to exhibit them frequently in the Salon. Of course, they also provided him with a steady income. Bouguereau painted young peasant girls, Fantin-Latour painted still lifes, and Cabanel painted portraits. His portrait of the Countess Clermont-Tonnerre (location unknown), exhibited in the Salon of 1863, and the fine portrait of the Viscountess of Ganey (an American) attracted critical attention in France as well as in the United States for their distinctive style. Americans who desired a portrait by Cabanel had to travel to Paris to sit for him—Cabanel never came to the United States. For most, this would not have been a problem, since they frequently made overseas trips. Socialites from the United States often went abroad to mingle with the European aristocracy. Some wealthy American families, like the Mackays, kept mansions in Paris where they regularly entertained guests.

Léon Bonnat, William T. Walters, 1883. Oil on canvas, 56½ x 40 9/16.

While many American women sat for Cabanel during their overseas trips, many men often sat for Léon Bonnat (1833-1922), whose renown as a portrait painter nearly equaled that of Cabanel. Bonnat’s portraits were somber and dignified. Bonnat was a fine painter and an excellent draftsman, but he was more of a realist than Cabanel. His austere paintings were less colorful, with few accessories, reminiscent of works by Diego Velázquez and Juisepe Ribera. Men tended to consider Bonnat a “manly” painter and he was, thus, a natural choice for male sitters such as William T. Walters. He became popular with wealthy Americans in the late 1870s following the enthusiastic reception of his portrait of the celebrated French actress Madame Pasca at the Salon of 1875. Bonnat’s reputation as a portrait painter of men was solidified the following year by the success of his portrait of Adolphe Thiers, the first of several French presidents that he painted. Cabanel’s male portraits often shared similarities with those by Bonnat, including the somber tonality and brown color, such as that of John Mackay, who is seated in a room resembling an office. He holds a pair of leather gloves in his left hand, as if he is ready to go out. The only accessory is a desk behind him. Cabanel’s female portraits, however, are more colorful than the dark and monochromatic portraits by Bonnat and often have a more elaborate setting and accessories, befitting women of culture and means.

Léon Bonnat, Madame Pasca, 1874. Oil on canvas, 87⅛ x 52. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

American patrons seldom approached artists directly to commission paintings. Instead, dealers such as George A. Lucas and Samuel P. Avery acted as agents between American clients and Cabanel, Bonnat, and other European artists. Lucas was originally from Baltimore and worked in Paris, and Avery was based in New York, but made frequent trips to Paris. Both men kept diaries in which they recorded their business arrangements. Lucas negotiated with Cabanel and Bonnat on behalf of Baltimoreans Robert Garrett and his wife Mary Frick Garrett (later Mrs. Henry Barton Jacobs), to have their portraits painted in Paris, and accompanied them to the artists’ studios. Robert sat for Bonnat and Mary sat for Cabanel, who began her portrait in early June of 1885 and completed it in late September.

John William Mackay, 1878. Oil on canvas, 50 7/8 x 33½. Private collection.

There are no references to portrait arrangements with Cabanel in Avery’s diary, although he mentioned seeing a portrait of Arabella Worsham, later Mrs. Collis Potter Huntington on September 5, 1882. Although he did not explicitly state that she made arrangements through him, this was likely the case. The diaries contain little information about the prices Cabanel charged for his portraits, except for the amount the Garretts paid: 20,000 francs, (about $4,000 at the time), to Cabanel and 20,000 francs to Bonnat. It may be assumed that Cabanel charged similar prices for his other portraits. The diaries do divulge amounts for other artists: in May 1879, Bonnat asked for 25,000 francs to paint a full-length portrait, or 15,000 francs for a three-quarter-length portrait, of one General Brown. In 1880, Carolus-Duran asked Lucas for 15,000 francs for a full-length portrait and 12,000 francs for a three-quarter-length portrait of a woman. By the 1890s, Carolus-Duran charged $4,000 to $8,000 for a portrait.

Portrait of a Young Girl, 1886. Oil on canvas, 24 x 19 5/8. Shimane Art Museum, Shimane.

Praised as a portrait painter of women, Cabanel expressed that he was particularly adept at painting portraits of American women. In an interview translated in an American journal, he said, “I have painted the portraits of a great many Americans, the delicacy and grace and refined type of American beauty being peculiarly congenial to my brush.” C. Stuart Johnson, writing in New York’s Munsey’s Magazine, stated that Cabanel was the best portrait painter of his time. Cabanel had the ability to lend his sitters an air of gentility and urbanity, and to give them an aristocratic allure. The terms “elegance,” “grace,” and “refinement” appear frequently in comments on Cabanel’s portraits. An obituary noted that “no modern artist delineated ladies with more simple grace or elegant reserve than Cabanel.” But Cabanel’s contemporaries saw even more in his portraits than elegance and grace. Perhaps C. H. Stranahan best summarized the contemporary appeal of these portraits in her History of French Painting, published in 1888, just prior to Cabanel’s death. She wrote of Cabanel: “As a portrait painter he is especially the master of every grace attractive to woman: a consummate skill in accessories; great judiciousness in rendering what his subtle reading of the human face gives him; great power and knowledge of hands, to which he ascribes much character; a tendency to poetic interpretation, which leads to his throwing a veil of mystery over the expression, and to giving to all women a tinge of interesting sadness; he avoids accentuation, even leaving in a softening vagueness the too marked characteristics.”

In Edith Wharton’s famous novel set in the Gilded Age,The Age of Innocence, Cabanel’s name was mentioned three times, twice in the context of his famous portraits. A French critic also noted Cabanel’s popularity with Americans: “The effect produced among the American colony in Paris may be readily imagined, and at the present time every American of any pretensions rushes to Cabanel’s studio.” Pretensions in this context probably refers to American social and cultural aspirations to rival those of the Europeans. Cabanel’s masterful combination of expression, gesture, fashion, and finish imparted to each woman not just a pleasant appearance, but an enchanting presence, as exemplified in the portraits of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, Mary Frick Jacobs, and Olivia Cutting.

Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, 1876, detail.

Catherine Lorillard Wolfe

Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, 1876. Oil on canvas, 67½ x 42¾. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection. Bequest of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, 1887.

One of Cabanel’s finest portraits of an American woman is certainly the charming and elegant likeness he painted of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe in 1876. She posed for the artist in Paris. Wolfe was an active and generous collector of works by French artists. A year before Cabanel painted this portrait, her cousin, the banker John Wolfe, had commissioned the artist to paint a smaller replica of The Birth of Venus. It was he who first advised her of the quality of Cabanel’s work. Cabanel’s three-quarter length portrait of Wolfe is obviously the work of a beaux-arts master with the ability to perceive nature at its best and most beautiful. It exemplifies the attention the artist paid to his sitter’s gesture and especially to their hands which, in his opinion, were too often neglected in portraiture. The regal gesture and subtle idealization and grace of the hands and face of the forty-eight-year-old New Yorker accounts for much of his popularity as a painter of women.

Study for the Portrait of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, 1876. Red chalk on paper. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Wolfe had a reputation as a pious woman, a great philanthropist, and a gracious hostess, and in her portrait she appears ready to welcome guests. What struck critics most were Wolfe’s lady-like comportment, and her well placed, beautifully rendered hands. One American critic admired the “cultured gesture” of the hands, while another called the portrait “an exquisite specimen of Cabanel’s skill as a painter of dames du monde,” and added that Wolfe’s “fine personality” permeated the picture. A third commented: “Cabanel is a born courtier and while retaining a likeness to a surprising degree has lent to the traits of our late fellow townswoman an aristocratic look, softened away the traces of age, given to her hands and figure the distinction that few ladies inherit and painted an elaborate costume with a brilliant brush.”

This description of Cabanel’s portrait seems accurate when compared with an engraving of Wolfe, possibly from a photograph, in which she wears a stern expression, a prim dress, and long gloves that cover limp hands. Cabanel transformed Wolfe’s appearance from unremarkable to striking. He paid close attention to the clothing as well as to the hands. He carefully painted Wolfe’s gorgeous white satin evening dress with its plunging neckline trimmed with Russian sable and its lace-trimmed cuffs, an example of the latest in contemporary fashions from Paris, possibly by Worth, the most sought-after fashion designer of the time. Cabanel was especially skillful at rendering the shimmer of satin and the softness of fur, and made prominent a chic detail in her gown: the colorful striped fabric gathered in her bustle swag. It was expected of the upper class gentlewoman to make at least one annual pilgrimage to Paris to refresh her wardrobe, and Wolfe made frequent trips to Europe. Unfortunately, the varnish has yellowed so much that her silver gown is now a light yellow.

Wolfe was the first female subscriber to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequeathed to it her art collection—including her portrait—along with an endowment of $200,000 for its upkeep. She also left a large sum of money to Grace Church on Broadway and Twelfth Street in New York City, which owns a loosely painted replica of her Cabanel portrait from the hand of the prolific American portraitist Daniel C. Huntington.

Mrs. Collis Potter Huntington

Mrs. Collis Potter Huntington, 1882. Oil on canvas, 85¼ x 50½. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Archer M. Huntington.

Arabella Huntington, known as Belle, was an art collector and philanthropist. At the time she had her portrait painted, she was probably widowed from John Worsham, who had been the owner of a gambling parlor. She later married New York railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington, and then Collis’ nephew, Henry E. Huntington. Her son, Archer Huntington, bequeathed her portrait to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1940. In her almost life-size, full-length portrait painted in 1882, she wears a rich red velvet gown with black lace trim around the sleeves and décolletage. Her accessories include small, dark blue earrings, a prominently placed, shiny gold wedding band, a bright red corsage, and an open fan made of red feathers, which she holds in her right hand. Leaning on a swath of heavy fabric draped over a gilt-wood carved open armchair, she exudes poise and confidence. Barely noticeable is her pince-nez, an allusion to her notoriously bad eyesight.

Cabanel felt that this portrait was one of his best, and regretted that Huntington carried the portrait off without allowing him to exhibit it in Paris, although he exhibited it in his studio. In all of these portraits, Cabanel captured the public image that the sitters of the Gilded Age desired to present, and that suited their social needs. The public for these portraits were members of the same social class who would have seen them in each other’s homes, and understood the importance, and cost, of owning such a work. A portrait by Cabanel was “a consecration of elegance.” In their portraits, the sitters wear the most fashionable evening dresses, which would have been worn only to social events such as a ball or the opera; the social venues over which they dominated. As the women were not depicted wearing much jewelry—a display of jewelry would have been considered in poor taste—these gowns were the main indicators of their wealth. The stylish gown, coupled with a dignified bearing and reserved facial expression, formed the appropriate image.

Mary Frick Garrett

Mary Frick Garrett, 1885. Oil on canvas, 55 x 35. Baltimore Museum of Art.

Mary Frick Jacobs was a childless philanthropist and one of the leading hostesses in Baltimore, presiding over many lavish balls held in her grand townhouse. At the time her portrait was painted she was married to Robert Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Jacobs bequeathed her art collection, including the portrait, to the Baltimore Museum of Art. In her portrait of 1885, she gently grasps a lorgnette, monogrammed with her initials, in her left hand, as if she has stopped briefly at Cabanel’s studio for a quick sitting before going to the opera. The inclusion of this prop—Stranahan’s “judicious use of accessories”—hints at her cultured status, since the opera was considered an elite leisure activity and every society member had, or coveted, a box at the opera. She is wearing a pale ivory gown similar in style to Cutting’s, which is set off against the same dark-colored tapestry background Cabanel used for both Cutting’s and Wolfe’s portraits. Her soft, rounded shoulders and long neck are devoid of jewelry. A ring and a bracelet are the only accessories she wears. Jacobs wistfully gazes out at the viewer with her head slightly tilted to one side, while on her lips she wears a slight, wan smile, reminding us of Stranahan’s comment regarding Cabanel’s ability to lend to his sitters’ faces “a tinge of interesting sadness.” Although a romantic idealist, Cabanel painted her with a surprising amount of candor, sympathetically depicting her rather homely face and droopy left eye, presumably a characteristic feature.

Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting

Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting, 1887. Oil on canvas, 68 x 54. Museum of the city of New York, New York.

Olivia Cutting was a philanthropist and the wife of railroad baron, William Bayard Cutting. She sat for Cabanel in 1887, two years before Cabanel’s death, when she was in her early thirties; her husband sat for Bonnat. Like Wolfe, Cutting is portrayed in a stylish evening gown, her waist thinned to an almost unattainable width. She wears an off-the-shoulder pale rose satin gown adorned with nothing more than a single pearl at the center of her décolletage and a single-strand pearl necklace around her slim neck. In her hands she displays a partially opened fan, a common accessory of the fashionable society woman. Wealthy women could wear low-cut evening gowns and maintain propriety while their poorer counterparts could not. The potentially risqué appearance of her dress is offset by Cabanel’s representation of the sitter in a dignified and self-assured pose, a necessity for a well-bred woman, and by her particularly charming expression. Émile Zola, one of Cabanel’s detractors, made the somewhat sarcastic and yet truthful observation in 1868 that Cabanel “transforms the body into a dream.” While Zola may have considered that quality uncomplimentary, Countess Laincel-Vento, author of Les Peintres de la Femme, praised Cutting’s portrait for its aristocratic appearance and the sitter’s “divinely elegant shoulders” and “dreamy youth.” Unfortunately, it seems that the portrait has either been over cleaned or Cabanel’s medium has caused the paint to become blotchy on the face and shadow of the neck, detracting from the otherwise beautiful modeling of the flesh.

Among Cabanel’s female American sitters in his later career were Eva Mackay and Mary Victoria Leiter, both of whom, shortly after their portraits were painted, married European aristocrats. It is interesting to speculate to what extent their portrayal by Cabanel played a role in the arrangement of their successful marriages. Certainly the portraits were meant to impress, and both of these women’s portraits were exhibited (and advertised) at the Salon. Cabanel painted Mackay’s portrait in 1880, two years after he had painted her father. He exhibited her portrait in the Exposition Nationale of 1883. Although identified in the Salon catalogs with only the sitters’ initials, upper class Salon-goers would recognize them. Her portrait was said to be so fine that even one of Cabanel’s detractors, French critic Edmond About, had to sing its praises. Unfortunately, the present location of the portrait is unknown.

Mary Victoria Leiter

Mary Victoria Leiter, 1887. Oil on canvas, 51 x 37. Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, England. National Trust for Places of Historic Interest, United Kingdom.

Mary Leiter was the daughter of Levi Leiter, a dry goods millionaire who co-founded Leiter & Field, now known as Marshall Field’s, and also served briefly as president of the fledgling Art Institute of Chicago. Cabanel painted her portrait when she was a debutante and aspiring to be socially prominent. Leiter and her mother sat for the artist on a trip to Paris in 1886, and Mary’s portrait was exhibited at the Salon the following year, where it attracted favorable attention. She was known for her beauty and sophisticated demeanor, two of her most praised social assets, which are clearly reflected in her portrait. Shortly after her successful society debut in Washington D. C. the Leiters traveled to England where Mary won the heart of George Nathaniel Curzon, later Marquess of Kedleston, in 1890. They married in 1895, and Mary Curzon became the vicereine of India from 1899 to 1905, the highest political position held by an American woman of the time. Today her portrait hangs in Kedleston Hall, in Derbyshire, England.

While most contemporary critics praised the grace and elegance of Cabanel’s portraits, there were some who complained of his lack of interest in his sitters’ individual traits and character. One American critic complained that Cabanel flattered his sitters like he idealized the figures in his mythological paintings and that he concentrated on lovely representations rather than character, a criticism that is unfounded, as is clearly seen in the portraits discussed here. Cabanel most certainly did depict the character of the sitter. In doing so, however, he looked for the most beautiful aspects of the sitter without sacrificing their individual character. French critic Charles Blanc referred to Cabanel’s portraits of women as representations of his sitters’ “Sunday faces.” What these critics failed to see, or refused to concede, is that Cabanel was constrained by his sitters’ social code. These women were expected to hold themselves with dignity and aloofness as they were to be seen and admired. Any display of eccentricity in a formal portrait would have been alarming to their peers. Cabanel was expected to deliver a public image for his sitters of cool detachment, with the aura of wealth, dignity, and reserve expected of upper-class American society woman in the 1870s and 1880s.


Miss Fanny Clapp, 1881. Oil on canvas, 28¾ x 22. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.

Looking out of the picture to meet the gaze of the viewer, the portraits of Wolfe and Huntington convey an impression of strong, self-possessed women. The portraits of Cutting, Jacobs, and Leiter show the sitter’s softer side, displaying that “interesting tinge of sadness” Stranahan mentioned. Cabanel’s portraits are sometimes painted in a little looser method depending, perhaps, on the number of sittings he could get. Some of them have suffered the vicissitudes of time and over cleaning. After Cabanel’s death in January, 1889, many patrons began to prefer the services of the younger portraitists who painted in a looser, alla-prima method—artists like Carolus-Duran, Giovanni Boldini, and John Singer Sargent; yet Cabanel’s more carefully finished method lived on in the portraits painted by his student, Théobald Chartran, who was popular in the later half of the 19th Century. Had Cabanel himself lived, he would have successfully continued painting portraits of Americans, as did Bonnat.

At his death, the accolades of his contemporaries reveal how much Cabanel’s reputation remained linked to portraiture. “No one better than him,” wrote Henry Delaborde, “has understood the woman who is truly a woman of the world. He was the exceptionally clever interpreter and poet of their easy grace and the charm of nuance that comes from their race, education, and habits. He managed to personify them without ulterior motives. From the young girl dressed for a party to the grandmother in mourning; from the confidence and ingenuous joy of a life at its dawn to the serene sadness of a life that is ending, disillusioned by events that tested the belief in happiness here, but nonetheless still loyal to the memories and customs of the environment in which it has passed. In a word, in the ranks of the elite society who were most often his models, Cabanel never encountered anyone that he didn’t desire to paint with dignity, melancholy, or grace.”


Paradise Lost, 1866. Oil on canvas, 17 feet x 12½ feet. Maximilian Museum, Munich. Destroyed.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost, angel study, 1863-1867. Black chalk heightened with white, 18½ x 12. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy.

By the 1860s Cabanel, along with Bouguereau, had firmly established himself as a leading artist of his time. In 1867, he exhibited three paintings at the Exposition Universelle, The Birth of Venus, Nymph Captured by a Satyr, and Paradise Lost. The first two were earlier triumphs at the Salon and had been acquired by Napoleon III. The third, Paradise Lost, was commissioned under the auspices of King Maximillian II of Bavaria. Maximilian had desired for some time to create a school in Munich for elite Bavarians, such as those in Stuttgart and Paris, and he began construction of the Maximilian Museum in 1852. He was interested in history, and wanted to offer students a “historical gallery”—a series of paintings that traced the history of humankind from Genesis to modern times. In 1862 the architect Leo von Klenze, who directed the work, commissioned Cabanel to paint a work depicting Original Sin. Under an agreement dated October 26, the artist agreed to deliver within two years a painting of 17 feet by 12½ feet, in a method that prevented any blackening or cracking, and without varnish. Cabanel completed the work in 1867 for his successor, King Louis II. The work was meant to be part of a larger decorative project depicting Adam and Eve for the Maximilian Museum in Munich. In Paradise Lost, the ashamed Adam and the prostrate Eve at the base of the Tree of Life are expelled from Paradise.

Adam, 1863-67. Sanguine on beige paper, 18⅞ x 11. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

The original painting received immediate praise when it was unveiled at theExposition Universelle in 1867, and the King was so pleased by the finished work that he awarded Cabanel the Knight’s Cross of the First Class of the Order of Saint Michael Bevire. In his review of Cabanel’s entries to the 1867 Exhibition Universelle, Olivier Merson wrote that the painting was, “The capital piece of the artist. . . a triumph of the art.”

The monumental painting was a traditional theme that had been treated by the greatest masters. Cabanel utilized his knowledge of composition, color and drama to great advantage. The ambitious work reveals his desire to follow in the great tradition of Raphael and Michelangelo. The original painting was destroyed in the bombardment of Munich in 1945. The only painting of the complete work that still exists is a study in which he hadn’t completely solved the major design problems. Photographs of the final work show that he successfully solved these problems. It is through sketches and painted studies that we can trace its development. Cabanel did some of his most beautiful drawings for this painting. They are among the best drawings done in 19th century France.

God, the Father, 1863-67. Red and brown conte crayon on tan wove paper, 22½ x 16⅞. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer, Jr. to the Potter Palmer Collection of Little Masters.

Cabanel’s Eve after the Fall is a study for Paradise Lost. The posthumous sale of Cabanel’s work on May 22-25, 1889 included numerous preparatory studies for that painting. Included were two painted studies of Eve, the large replica, and 35 drawings and painted studies. Cabanel sought “to master the human figure,” as he wrote to his brother after receiving the Prix-de-Rome, and the large number of preparatory works for this painting attests to Cabanel’s extraordinary draughtsmanship and his untiring effort to achieve his artistic goals. The extraordinary drawing of God in the Art Institute of Chicago is a superb example of Cabanel’s power as a draftsman. It shows his synthesis of the drawing of Raphael and Michelangelo with his personal expression of line and form. The drawing of the angel to the right of God is another powerful and beautiful drawing. Cabanel’s drawing, like that of all fine draftsmen, is more than the mere imitation of nature. His drawing seeks expression, but not at the expense of truth to nature or fidelity to conception. Cabanel looks to nature’s vast storehouse for inspiration, to achieve meaning and beauty. He has no interest the ugliness of gross exaggeration or distortion. He seeks to precisely express form without losing the abstract beauty of what is being rendered. The drawing of Satan is a particularly fine example of expressive academic figure drawing.

Satan Driven out of Paradise, study for Paradise Lost, 1863-67. Charcoal and graphite, 18 x 21¾. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Madame Carette, 1868. Oil on canvas, 49⅛ x 33½. Musée National du Château de Compiègne.

Now a familiar to the court of Compiegne, Cabanel painted the portrait of Madame Carette, maid of the Empress Eugénie in 1868. The idealized portrait of this rather plain woman forms a striking pattern when viewed from a distance. Apentimento reveals that he painted her right forefinger over the already painted left, in an effort to break up the line of the left arm and hand. He painted the dress with remarkable skill. That year he also painted Ruth Resting for the Empress Eugénie. The painting shows the seated Moabite widow resting at the end of the day after gleaning in the barley fields of Boaz. Boaz is a close relative of Ruth’s Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, and has been kind to her for the loyalty she has shown Naomi. Ruth tells Naomi of Boaz’s kindness and she gleans in his field through the remainder of the harvest season. According to Jewish Levirate law Boaz is obliged to marry Ruth, so her deceased husband’s family line will not die out. Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor at night and tells her to “uncover the feet” of the sleeping Boaz and ask him to marry her in accordance to this law. Cabanel painted a sketch for a work of Ruth and Boaz shortly afterward. It shows her at sunrise, sitting at the feet of the sleeping Boaz, waiting until he awakens to discuss the subject. The figure of Boaz is finely conceived, but the final painting was never realized.

Cabanel’s Non-American Portraiture

Eugène Rouher, 1861. Oil on canvas, 102¾ x 71⅝. Musée Mandet, Puy-de-Dôme, Riom.

During the first ten years after returning from Rome, Cabanel painted close to thirty portraits of French artistocrats and their wives and families. His distinguished portrait of French statesman Eugène Rouher is a particularly fine and influential work. The location of the original is at present unknown, but two copies of it exist. The gesture mirrors, in reverse, that of Napoleon III painted by Flandrin a year later. The desk on which his left hand rests and the chair to his right are also similar to those in the painting by Flandrin and may have influenced him.

Prince Konstantin Gorchakov, 1868. Oil on canvas, 26⅜ x 22. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Rouher was born in Riom, where he practiced law after taking his degree in Paris in 1835. In 1846 he sought election to the Chamber of Deputies as an official candidate just prior to the Guizot ministry. It was only after the establishment of the Second Republic, however, that he became deputy for the department of Puy-de-Dôme. Re-elected to the Legislative Chamber in 1849 he succeeded Odilon Barrot as Minister of Justice, with the additional office of Keeper of the Seals. From the tribune of the Chamber he described the revolution of February as a “catastrophe,” and he supported reactionary legislation, notably the bill for the limitation of the suffrage. After the coup d’etat in 1851, he was entrusted with the redaction of the new constitution, and on his resignation of office in January, 1852, became vice-president of the Council of State. After the formal establishment of the Empire, Napoleon III rewarded him with a grant of £40,000 and the estate of Cirey. In 1855 he became minister of agriculture, commerce and public works and in 1856 senator. He created France’s excellent system of railways without making them a state monopoly, and he conducted the complicated negotiations for the treaty of commerce with England which was concluded in January 1860, and subsequently arranged similar treaties with Belgium and Italy. Cabanel painted him standing in his office at the height of his success, his official sash over his shoulder.

After the success of his portrait of Napoleon III in 1865, Cabanel was in constant demand as a portrait painter. During his career he painted portraits of the most important and influential people throughout Europe, including many of the Russian royalty, such as Prince Konstantin Gorchakov, son of Prince A. M. Gorchakov, and Countess Elizabeth Vorontsova-Dashkova.

The Duchess of Luynes and her Children, 1873. Oil on canvas. Chateau de Dampiere, Dampiere-en-Yvelines.

Cabanel’s 1873 portrait of The Duchess of Luynes and her Children is very fine. The spotting of the lights in the painting form a very pleasing pattern and the drawing of the figures within the very elaborate interior is solid and quite beautiful. However, it is difficult to properly assess Cabanel’s portraiture today. Of his more than two hundred portraits—approximately half of his body of work—about 174 are currently untraced. We are, therefore, able to see less than a quarter of them. Hopefully they still exist and will surface for reevaluation in the future.

Miss Christina Nilsson


Miss Christinea Nilsson as Pandora, 1873. Oil on canvas, 27⅝ x 19⅜. The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.


Swedish operatic soprano Christina Nilsson possessed a brilliant bel canto voice and was considered a rival to the Victorian era’s most famous diva, Adelina Patti. Nilsson became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1869. After four years of study in Paris, she made her operatic début in 1864 at the Théâtre Lyrique as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. After this success she sang at major opera houses throughout Western Europe and America. In 1873, Cabanel painted two portraits of her. The first was a very poetic bust-length portrait of Nilsson as Pandora, the woman in Greek mythology who opened a forbidden box, releasing all the troubles that afflict humanity. Cabanel then painted a less successful three-quarter-length portrait of her as Ophelia, a role that she had earlier made famous. The portrait depicts Nilsson in a role in which she had “triggered the frantic enthusiasm of the Parisians at the Paris Opera.” She had also played Margaret in Charles Gounod’s Faust, an acclaimed role she played during the inaugural season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1883. After marrying a Spanish aristocrat and becoming the Countess of Casa Miranda, Nilsson devoted herself to collecting 18th century works and paintings by 19th century Barbizon masters, as well as select sculptures and tapestries.

The Triumph of Flora, 1870-73. Oil on canvas, 32 feet 10 inches x 9 feet 10 inches. Cabinet des Dessins, Louvre, Paris.

The Triumph of Flora

The Triumph of Flora, study, 1870-73. Oil on canvas, 42 x 26. Department of Graphic Arts, Louvre, Paris.

In 1869 the emperor commissioned Cabanel to paint a large decoration for the ceiling of the Pavilion de Flora in the Palais des Tuileries. This was the last commission that Cabanel received from the Second Empire before the exile of Napoleon III.

The Triumph of Flora is another example of Cabanel’s talent as a decorator. He combined the linear flow and fine drawing of Ingres with the decorative design of the value masses and color of the French Rococo to create a masterful and charming composition. Cabanel began the painting at the end of 1869, but was forced to halt work on the project at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Like the Hôtel de Ville, the Tuileries was destroyed during the Commune of 1871. In 1872 Cabanel painted a second version of the work for the ceiling of the Cabinet des Dessins in the Louvre. The painting depicts a joyous, heavenly wedding celebration circulating around the triumphant Flora who is seated in a golden chariot.

Cabanel expressed his satisfaction with the work in a letter to his brother: “As far as I am concerned [the ceiling] is the best thing I’ve done to date. I took great pains, often making myself disliked, but nothing equals the satisfaction at finally seeing a finished work all one’s own, a work which is the marrow of your bones, the essence of your heart, in a word, a true creation.” His “great pains” are seen in the many drawings and studies that he did for the project in an effort to fully realize his conception. Of particular beauty are the painted studies of the complete ceiling done in both watercolor and oil.

The Death of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870. Oil on canvas, 74⅛ x 100⅛. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The Death of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta

During this time Cabanel also painted another great Italianate work: The Death of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. This tragic scene was inspired by an incident that occurred in Rimini, Italy in the mid-thirteenth century and was put into verse by Dante in Canto V of The Divine Comedy. The beautiful Francesca da Rimini was forced by her father, for political reasons, to marry the lame and ugly Lanciotto Malatesta. Francesca was attracted to her husband’s handsome brother, Paolo, who had served as a proxy at the wedding. One day they were sitting on a bench together reading a story of the illicit love of Sir Lancelot, knight of the Round Table, for Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur. The amorous tale kindled their love for each other. Her husband caught them when they were exchanging their first kiss and killed them both with a single stroke of his sword.

The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, studies, 1870. Red chalk, above: 9⅞ x 15 15/16; below: 12 3/16 x 16⅞. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Cabanel infused the incident with the passion and pathos of a true romantic. Rather than choosing the moment of love’s first kiss, as had Ingres fifty years before, Cabanel chose to portray the tragic moment following the fatal stroke. Paolo, holding his wounded side, may yet be alive, his limp right arm still around the shoulders of the dead Francesca. The heads of the lovers are nestled next to each other. The upper portions of the figures are bathed in the subdued light emanating from a small window in the upper left. The painting is impeccable and the drawing precise. Befitting the theme, the color is slightly sour, but muted. Cabanel told the story with care. The book that has dropped from Francesca’s hands reminds us that the lovers were reading Lancelot at the time of their death. The murderer, bent over by his affliction and partially hidden behind a thick hanging drapery as he backs out of the room, is still clutching his bloody sword.

The development of the painting may be followed in a series of fine drawings and painted studies. Cabanel seems to have established the prostrate gesture of Francesca quite early, but he worked diligently to find the right counterpoint for Paolo. It progressed from an elongated, outstretched figure to the more contained triangular gesture of the final painting. He painted a small sketch of the work with the left arm of Paolo stretched out to his left. He later changed Paolo’s straight left arm, weakly supporting his weight, to a bent arm clutching his mortally wounded side. This change added to the drama of the story and helped to bring the viewer’s eye back to the beautifully characterized heads of the two lovers. Four painted reductions exist of the popular work.

Giacomina, 1871. Oil on canvas, 63 x 30. Private collection.

By 1870 Cabanel was one of the most successful artists and teachers in France, leading one French critic to exclaim, “M. Cabanel is not an artist; he is a saint. He doesn’t make art; he makes perfection. He does not deserve criticism; he deserves paradise.” In 1871 Cabanel arranged a trip to Florence. While there, he met the Ambassador of Russia to Italy—perhaps on the intervention of the Tsar Paul von Derwies. The ambassador proposed a commission to paint the portraits of Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feoderovna. He invited Cabanel to travel to Saint Petersburg, but the artist’s health will not allow him to go. Unwilling to face the Russian winter, he postpones the trip until the spring of the following year and returned to Paris during the autumn.

Baronness Paul von Derwies, 1871. Oil on canvas, 55 1/16 x 41⅜. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

While in Florence Cabanel painted Giacomina, a painting of a young girl outdoors in Florentine costume. This slight and poetic work is a testament to his fascination with Medieval and Renaissance art and classical literature. Giacomina was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1872. Cabanel’s interest in Italy dated from his days there as a pensioner at the Villa Medici. When he returned to Italy again in 1879, he re-affirmed his appreciation for the art of the Venetians when he executed a watercolor copy of The Triumph of Venus, Veronese’s ceiling decoration in the Ducal Palace.

It is difficult to comprehend the amount of finished work that Cabanel was able to produce. In 1871 for example, he painted eleven portraits and six other works in addition to Giacomina. This includes the fine portrait of the wife of German Baron Paul von Derwies. Reminiscent of the portraits of Franz-Xavier Winterhalter, this work is a good example of Cabanel’s ability to achieve fine characterization allied with a noble grandeur without haughtiness. Everything about the portrait is superb. The pilaster in the background is similar to the one in the background of his portrait of the Countess Elizabeth Vorontsova-Dashkova.

Left and two central panels of The Life of Saint Louis, Panthéon, Paris.

The Panthéon

Schoolboy at the foot of Robert Sorbon, study, 1974-77. Black pencil and chalk heightened with white chalk on beige wove paper, 18⅞ x 12⅝. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

The Panthéon looks out over all of Paris. It is located in the 5th district on the top of Mount Saint Geneviève, a hill on the left Bank of the Seine. It was originally built as a church dedicated to Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of the city. Her tomb is in the center of the monument under the grand dome. The Panthéon is a Neoclassical building with a façade modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. David d’Angers sculpted the bas-relief on the pediment, The Homeland, Liberty and History Handing Crowns to the Great Men. Directly below, the inscription in gold letters above the entrance reads, “For great men the grateful homeland.” Flanking the main entrance are sculptures of the Baptism of Clovis, and Atilla and Saint Geneviève. A small dome similar to Bramante’s Tempietto surmounts the building.

Stephen Boileau, Provost of Paris, 1874-77. Black pencil and chalk heightened with white chalk on beige wove paper, 21⅝ x 27⅝. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.



In 1744 King Louis XV (1710-1774) vowed that if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined abbey of Saint Geneviève with an edifice worthy of Paris’ patron saint. After the king regained his health, he entrusted the Marquis of Marigny with the fulfillment of the vow. Marigny charged his protégé, Jacques Germain Soufflot (1713-1780), with the plans, and construction of the church began. Soufflot designed the structure like a vast Greek cross (all arms of equal length) with a massive portico of Corinthian columns and a large crypt. He laid the foundations in 1758, but financial difficulties delayed its completion until 1789, after Soufflot’s death. His pupil, Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, finished the building.



Saint Louis Rendering Justice, Ending Judicial Fighting, and Founding the Institutions that made Him Famous, 1878, detail. Panthéon, Paris.

Because it was completed at the start of the French Revolution, the new Revolutionary government ordered Antoine Quatremére de Quincy to change the building from a church into a secular temple and burial place for heroes of the Revolution. The Church of Saint Geneviève became the Panthéon. Under the pressure of subsequent political events many of the bodies and memorials from the Revolution were removed. Reconsecrated after Napoleon III established the Second Empire in 1851, it remained a religious institution until 1885 when it again reverted to a secular republican monument for the funeral of Victor Hugo. The building is now both a national shrine and a national mausoleum for illustrious French personages. Among the many famous people buried in its vaults are Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Honoré Mirabeau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Curie, René Descartes, Louis Braille, and Alexandre Dumas.

Saint Louis a Prisoner in Palestine, 1878, detail. Panthéon, Paris.

The Decorations

Saint Louis, a Prisoner in Palestine, 1878, detail. Panthéon, Paris.

Napoleon I ordered the first painted decorations for the interior of the building in 1811, and from 1811-1824 Baron Gros (1771-1835) painted The Apotheosis of Saint Geneviève on the dome in the western choir. From 1821-1837 François Gérard (1770-1837) painted The Homeland, The Justice, The Death, and The Glory of Saint Geneviève in the four pendentives beneath the dome.

Saracen with a Sword, c. 1874. Black chalk, 19 7/16 x 12 11/16. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Karen B. Cohen Gift, 1988.

In 1873, when the Marquis Philippe de Chennevières became Director of the Fine Arts, he decided to complete the interior decoration of the church. Chennevières, as project director, commissioned a group of celebrated artists to decorate the building with murals depicting significant figures in the religious and national history of France—Saint Geneviève, Joan of Arc, Saint-Denis, Clovis, Charlemagne, and Saint Louis. Several artists, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean-François Millet, and Gustave Moreau among them, declined the commission. Paul Baudry (1828-1886) was originally commissioned to paint scenes from the life of Joan of Arc. He began the drawings, but died before beginning the paintings. The final list included some of the greatest French artists of the day: Paul-Joseph Blanc, Léon Bonnat, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (two mural cycles), Jules-Élie Delaunay, Jean-Baptiste-Édouard Detaille, Pierre-Victor Galland, Antoine-Auguste-Ernest Hébert, Jacques-Fernand Humbert, Jean-Paul Laurens, Jules-Eugène Lenepveu, Henry-Léopold Lévy, Théodore-Pierre-Nicolas Maillot, and Alexandre Cabanel.

The Life of Saint Louis, study, 1874-1877. Oil on canvas, 61½ x 100⅞. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Chennevières issued decrees to each of the artists stipulating the subjects of their murals. Most of the cycles consisted of one main panel and one side panel, either to the left or right. Two stone half-columns divide the main panels into three sections. The decree required that the three main panels be designed to appear as though they were a single composition that passed behind the half-columns separating them. Above each of the murals ran a frieze depicting a procession of important national, religious, and historical figures. In keeping with its function as a national monument, the frieze included patron saints of provincial French cities.

The project was initiated in 1874, during a time of continued religious and political debate in France. The Revolution had made of France a secular state. For years controversy raged over the proper use of the Panthéon. Many viewed the decorative program as an uncomfortable mixture of the Roman Catholic religion with political monarchy, a cycle the French had hoped to stop with the Revolution. In 1876 and 1881 republicans fought unsuccessfully to stop funding for the project. When republicans took power in 1879, Chennevières was forced to resign as director of the fine arts, but the decorations, already well under way, were allowed to continue. The new director made certain modifications to reduce the monarchical and religious emphasis of the program and the artists were given more latitude in interpreting their themes. Paul-Joseph Blanc, an anti-cleric like Jean-Paul Laurens, included portraits of many contemporary anti-Catholics in his very powerful frieze above the paintings of Clovis. Cabanel came from Montpellier, a bastion in former centuries of the Huguenots and a heavily Protestant area of France.

Cabanel’s final Public Decoration

The Life of Saint Louis

The Education of Saint Louis at the Knees of Blanche of Castile, 1874-1878. Oil on canvas, 15 feet 2 inches x 7 feet 3 inches. Panthéon, Paris.

Given the success of The Glorification of Saint Louis in 1855, Chennevières commissioned Cabanel to represent the life of Saint Louis on the southeastern side of the transept. To the irritation of the architect, Cabanel deviated from the stipulations in several respects. He treated the commission as a monumental triptych rather than one incident portrayed in three panels and flanked by another. King Louis IX was the only French King to be sainted. He was a popular monarch, known to be kind and fair with his people. Louis was the fourth child of Louis VIII, but the eldest to survive the early years, and he enjoyed a privileged childhood. He learned hunting, history, geography, and literature from the finest tutors. His mother, Blanche of Castile, raised him to be a thoughtful and enthusiastic Catholic. Cabanel depicts The Education of Saint Louis at the Knees of Blanche of Castile in his left panel. Clerics and monks surround him and a monk in the right foreground studies the Scriptures.

Monk Sitting, Reading the Bible, 1874-77. Black chalk. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Upon the death of his father in 1226, twelve-year-old Louis became king with his mother as regent. Blanche saw to it that he was crowned at Reims, even though many powerful nobles did not attend, and she successfully kept the nobles from rebelling. Continuing her late husband’s efforts, she put an end to the Albigensian revolt. With Blanche’s guidance, Louis successfully imposed a treaty on Raymond, the count of Toulouse, to settle a dispute over the Languedoc, and strengthened royal authority by temporarily shutting down the University of Paris to stop a student revolt. At age 15, Louis personally led troops to meet the invading Henry III, but the English king withdrew and truces were renewed. Louis also took an interest in art, architecture, and literature, sponsoring the construction of buildings and literary endeavors. He encouraged his chaplain, Vincent of Beauvais, to write an encyclopedia (the Speculum Magus). His court was lively with pleasant conversation encouraged by the vivacious monarch. Louis endeavored to correct the abuses made by officials in his absence. He appointed investigators and passed two famous ordinances that outlined the responsibilities and duties of royal officials. He also outlawed prostitution, ordeal by battle, and judicial duels, and he imposed penalties on counterfeiting. His measures strengthened royal authority and justice and stabilized the currency, assisting in increased commerce and trade. While Louis was king, the University of Paris was an unparalleled magnet for students from throughout Europe.

Saint Louis Rendering Justice, Ending Judicial Fighting and Founding the Institutions that made Him Famous, left panel, 1874-77. Panthéon, Paris.

The two central panels depict Saint Louis Rendering Justice, Ending Judicial Fighting and Founding the Institutions that made Him Famous. Saint Louis, seated on his throne, is surrounded by various groups of figures. On his right is Thibaud de Champagne and a bishop. To his left is Robert d’Artois and another bishop. Directly below him is Etienne Boileau, Provost of Paris. In the center of the right central panel stands Robert of Sorbon with a seated schoolboy at his feet examining the plans for the Sorbonne. Some discuss policy, others of the bourgeoisie, including a Crusader, ask for succor or aid.

Saint Louis, a Prisoner in Palestine, 1878. Oil on canvas, 15 feet 2 inches x 7 feet 3 inches. Panthéon, Paris

In 1244 Louis determined to go on a Crusade. His own kingdom was at peace and the Holy Land was in jeopardy, with Jerusalem in Muslim hands and Damascus recently seized by the Sultan of Egypt. It took more than three years of preparation, but when he set off in August of 1248 he took along 100 ships, 35,000 men, and his wife and children, leaving his mother to serve as regent once more. The Crusade started off well with the capture of Damietta, Egypt, but when Louis moved on to Cairo the flooding Nile made his next conquest, the capture of the citadel of al-Mansurah, a long-fought siege that exhausted his army. With most of his men struck by plague, Louis ordered a retreat to Damietta, a march during which the Egyptian forces harassed the ill crusaders and ultimately captured them in April 1250. King Louis eventually negotiated his freedom and that of his barons for a costly ransom and, much to the chagrin of his Crusaders, he decided to remain in the Holy Land. There he was able to overcome the stigma of his military defeat by forging advantageous alliances. He stayed there four more years and only returned home when he learned of Blanche’s death.

In the right panel, Cabanel depicts Saint Louis, a Prisoner in Palestine. Weak and sick, leaning on his chaplain Henry of Marbourg, Louis stands in the doorway of his tent with his barons, bravely facing his Saracen captors. In front of him, their swords stained with the blood of Sudan, the Saracens offer Louis the insignia of his sovereignty.

Saint Louis Bearing the Crown of Thorns, 1874-77. Black chalk and pencil, heightened with white chalk on beige wove paper, 19⅝ x 12⅝. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

In the frieze above is a procession beginning on the left around Saint Louis bearing the crown of thorns and continuing through Knights and Bishops. As in the friezes by the other artists, each figure is a specific historical personage.

Unlike the other artists, however, Cabanel treated his work like a huge altarpiece comprised of a central theme of two panels flanked two side panels and surmounted by a frieze. Cabanel’s numerous painted and drawn studies reveal the tremendous care that he lavished on the project, working on it during four years, from 1874-78. Contemporary criticism was mixed, but Cabanel’s works are among the best in the building. The color is very beautiful and the paintings read well from a distance. They are not as decorative in value or pattern as the paintings by Puvis and are more like large easel paintings than decorations. However, they are drawn and painted with great breadth and finesse and, as a whole, convey an exceptional impression of dignity and nobility. They were the last decorations that Cabanel painted.

Today the Panthéon stands as a testament to a culture that viewed the visual arts as an essential part of its social, religious, and political heritage, and a monument to several of the great decorative artists of France whose work so nobly enriched that culture.

Tamar and Absalom

Tamar and Absalom, 1875. Oil on canvas, 80 x 97⅝. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nice.

In 1875, while Cabanel was working on his paintings for the Panthéon, he painted Tamar and Absalom. Tamar and Absalom, and their half-brother Amnon, were children of King David of Israel by different mothers. Amnon lusted after his young half-sister Tamar. After she consistently rejected his amorous advances, he brutally raped her. David was furious after he heard about it, but he did nothing. However, her brother, Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, did not allow Amnon’s crime to go unpunished. When the opportunity presented itself, Absalom avenged Tamar by killing Amnon. In Cabanel’s colorful painting, Absalom comforts his devastated sister while he vows to avenge her rape. In the background is her distraught servant. Cabanel used a study that he painted of an Arab for the head of Absalom. The painting method is unusually vigorous for Cabanel, quite different from the seamless enamel surface of his paintings in the Panthéon. There seems to be some evidence of over cleaning in the lower part of Tamar’s torso, a factor that makes it difficult to properly understand what is happening in that part of the painting.

The Great Paintings of Cabanel’s Last Decade

Cabanel in his studio, 1887. Among the studies and sketches on the walls are his 1849 envoi from Rome, Paul and the Faithful in Caesarea (above left), his 1872 version of The Ecstasy of Saint John the Baptist (below left), his 1846 envoi from Rome, Orestes (above right), and his portrait of Alfred Armand.

Sarah and Tobit in Prayer, 1883. Oil on canvas. Location unknown.

During the final decade of his life, Cabanel worked with unabated enthusiasm and painted some of his finest works. Like many 19th century academic artists, Cabanel was attracted to literary and historical subjects. The training and ideals of the academy informed his art, and the great artists of the past whom he admired had painted similar works. By education and temperament Cabanel was a lover and an upholder of this Western artistic tradition. His subjects were familiar to his audience through general upper-class culture, books, plays, and the Scriptures. However, he sometimes chose subjects that were out of the ordinary. He seldom painted outdoor genre works comparable to those by Bouguereau and only occasionally painted Oriental subjects that became increasingly popular during the second half of the 19th Century. Instead, he liked to illustrate more obscure incidents from familiar stories. Cabanel’s biblical subjects included The Daughters of Jeptha, Rebecca, and the unusual Sarah and Tobit in Prayer. The subject of this painting is taken from the book of Tobit, considered apocryphal by Protestants and Jews, but canonical to Catholics. Cabanel paints the story of Tobias and Sarah’s prayer in chapter eight: “And as he went, he remembered the words of Raphael, and took the ashes of the perfumes, and put the heart and the liver of the fish thereupon, and made a smoke therewith. And when the evil spirit had smelled it, he fled into the utmost parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him. And after that they were both shut in, Tobias rose out of the bed, and said, “Sister, arise, and let us pray that God would have pity on us.” Then Tobias said, “Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers, and blessed is thy holy and glorious name for ever; let the heavens bless thee, and all thy creatures. Thou made Adam, and gave him Eve his wife for a helpmate: of them came mankind: thou hast said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; let us make unto him an aid like unto himself.’ And now, O Lord, I take not this my sister for ill, but uprightly: therefore mercifully ordain that we may become old together. And she said with him, Amen.”

Cabanel had a fondness for Florentine and Shakespearean themes, such as Hamlet. Classical mythology and history, which had been a bountiful source for much past art, also inspired him. Among other works, he painted Ariadne Abandoned, Hero, Penelope Awaiting the Return of Ulysses, several unusual paintings of Phaedra (Phaedra in the Dark Forest, and The Insomnia of Phaedra), and Lucretia and Sextus Tarquin. Cabanel painted Ariadne Abandoned at the same time as he painted The Nymph Echo. He considered them as a pair, since both women were tragic figures from classical mythology.

Lucretia and Sextus Tarquin, 1877. Oil on canvas, 73⅛ x 47⅛. Location unknown.

Cabanel’s painting of Lucretia and Sextus Tarquin is an unusual and interesting work. The story—of both infamy and honor—is told by the Roman historian, Livy. In book fifty-seven of his History of Rome he relates: “One day when the young men were drinking at the house of Sextus Tarquinius, after a supper where they had dined with the son of Egerius, Tarquinius Conlatinus, they fell to talking about their wives, and each man fell to praising his wife to excess. Finally Tarquinius Conlatinus declared that there was no need to argue; they might all be sure that no one was more worthy than his Lucretia. ‘Young and vigorous as we are, why don’t we go get out horses and go and see for ourselves what our wives are doing? And we will base our judgement on whatever we see them doing when their husbands arrive unannounced.’ Encouraged by the wine, they all cried, ‘Yes, let’s go!’ and went on horseback to the city. Darkness was beginning to fall when they arrived and they went to the house of Conlatinus. There, they found Lucretia behaving quite differently from the daughters-in-law of the King, whom they had found with their friends before a grand feast, preparing to have a night of fun. Lucretia, even though it was night, was still working on her spinning, with her servants, in the middle of her house. They were all impressed by Lucretia’s chaste honor.” Later, Sextus confronts and rapes Lucretia. For her disgrace at his hands, Lucretia subsequently commits suicide to assuage the stain on her honor. Rembrandt painted the moment of her suicide, but Cabanel painted the moment when Sextus first meets the virtuous Lucretia as she sits at her spindle. The viewer, who was familiar with the story, would know what later transpired. As he did in other works, Cabanel chose to illustrate the moment before or after the violent action (Phaedra).

Phaedra, 1880. Oil on canvas, 6 feet five inches x 9 feet 5 inches. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.


Phaedra, study for the Nurse, 1880. Black chalk on brown paper, 19⅝ x 12⅝. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Phaedra is an exemplary work and strongly representative of Cabanel’s achievement and success during the final decade of his life. He donated it to the museum in his hometown. The story of Phaedra is one of the gloomiest tragedies in Greek legend. Phaedra was the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and Pasiphae, the sister of Ariadne and the second wife of Theseus. She had a stepson named Hippolytus. He failed to pay homage to Venus and the goddess, in revenge, determined to destroy him. She inspired his stepmother with an intense and unnatural passion for him, which led her to make advances which the youth indignantly rejected. Phaedra then accused Hippolytus to his father, and Theseus, his jealousy aroused, demanded his life from Neptune. Consequently, Hippolytus was thrown from his chariot while driving on the seashore, and dragged along the sands till he was dead. The artist shows the unhappy woman, tormented by the memory of her crime, watched over in her chamber by her anxious and weary attendants. It was in this scene of Racine’s tragedy that the famous French actress, Rachel, achieved her most magnificent tragic success upon the stage, and in it Sarah Bernhardt reached the apex of her art.

Ernest Normand, Queen Vashti Deposed, 1890. Oil on canvas, 63⅜ x 96¼. Gallery Oldham, Manchester.

The figure of Phaedra’s languid body stretches across the canvas. Nearly as white as the sheet draped over her, her body dramatically contrasts with the vivid colors of her environment. The details of the architecture, furs, fabrics and the servant’s costumes are beautifully rendered and create an atmosphere of exotic luxury. Cabanel used the wife of a prominent banker as his model. That he could represent the significant classical figure of Phaedra in this way, both frail and banal, was heavily criticized at the Salon of 1880, where the painting’s mass of insignificant details was also taken to task. Nonetheless, it was precisely the painting’s fusion of banality and excess that made it a fitting, nostalgic allegory to Second Empire society. The gesture of Phaedra influenced the fine painting of Esther by the English painter, Ernest Normand: Queen Vashti Deposed.

Queen Vashti Refusing the Presence of King Ahasuerus, 1880. Oil on canvas, 51 x 39. Location unknown.


Political and literary trends after 1830 captivated the visual imaginations of 19th century artists for the exotic lands of the Orient. Many French and English artists, including Gérôme, journeyed to the Near and Far East for first-hand study; others used their imagination to create luxurious, erotic scenes and to reconstruct ancient worlds. Great biblical figures appear throughout art history, but during the 19th century artists endeavored to make them more archeologically and historically accurate in setting, accoutrements and clothing. Depictions of great heroines were popular and Cabanel displayed a penchant for monumental female figures within exotic settings. These paintings brought the artist acclaim from both the critics and the public.

In this work, quite different from Normand’s, Cabanel presents us with Queen Vashti, the daughter of King Belshazzar of Babylon and the great granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler who destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem. She was the wife of King Ahasuerus, and together they ruled over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. In the third year of the king’s reign, he gave an extraordinary banquet for all of his officials and ministers in which “there were couches of gold and silver,” a biblical description similar to Cabanel’s depiction of the majestic throne whereupon the Queen sits. On the seventh day of the banquet, the king ordered his eunuchs to fetch the Queen in her royal crown to show her beauty to his entire kingdom. This is the moment that Cabanel chose to depict. We see a eunuch at Vashti’s left, but the majestic queen remains sedentary and composed. She looks past him thoughtfully, her head, like her future, lost in the dim shadow. The fingers of her left hand grip the cushion below her. Queen Vashti refused to comply with the king’s command and she was deposed, setting the stage for the appointment of Esther as the new Queen.

A Young Page in Florentine Costume, 1881. Oil on canvas, 41 x 28¼. Private collection.

A Young Page in Florentine Costume

Octave Mirabeau wrote that Cabanel had “a hand accustomed to the conjuring up of forms, to tracing distinctive lines, the soul of a Prix-de-Rome winner with the eye of a photographer. Such is M. Cabanel.” The subject may be seen as a conscious statement to this effect. With its stylistic affinities to the fifteenth century, Cabanel was perhaps paying homage to the Renaissance masters he admired. Cabanel shows handsome young boy, brightly clad in page’s garb, holding up a sword in an elaborately decorated scabbard. The page makes a beautiful silhouette against an embroidered golden curtain. The values are subtly adjusted to achieve a flat, decorative effect that makes it very attractive from a distance. The boy’s head is beautifully rendered.

Portia and the Jewel Boxes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

In 1881 Cabanel returned to literature and illustrated an incident from Act 3, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. The scene is a contest for the hand of Portia, daughter of the wealthy Antonio, in marriage. Portia is a beautiful and intelligent woman of virtuous character with an immense dowry. She has several suitors, but loves only Bassanio. Bassanio, must choose between three jewelry boxes: one made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. On each box is an inscription. He must choose the sealed box that contains her portrait. If he chooses the wrong box, he had to immediately leave the country and remain single forever. Previous suitors had chosen the boxes made of precious metals. Although Bassanio had originally entered the contest for material gain, he now loved Portia and desperately wanted to make the right choice.

Bassanio softly comments upon the boxes and inscriptions, declaring at last, that although the rest of the world might be deceived by glitter, or ready to commit crimes for the sake of silver, he is inclined to think that the leaden casket, which threatens rather than promises, would be best. The inscription for the lead box read, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Amid mounting tension, he opened the lead box and found Portia’s portrait inside and a note praising him for not choosing by outward appearances.

Love’s Messenger, 1883. Oil on canvas, 31⅝ x 18⅝. Private collection.

Portia and the Jewel Boxes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, 1881. Oil on canvas, 34 x 48. Private collection.

Cabanel chose the tense moment as Bassanio reads the inscription on the lead box. The painting is designed like a magnificent tableau. The seated Portia looks away, afraid that he may make the wrong choice, while Gratiano, Bassanio’s friend, Nerissa, Portia’s lady-in-waiting, and other attendants look on. The setting is Portia’s Venetian villa and the Renaissance costumes are sumptuous and beautiful. Cabanel painted the work quite freely, with little of the finesse of Gérôme or Vibert.

Cabanel also continued to paint works from myth, history and the Bible. John Mackay commissioned him to paint Rebekah and Eliezer, a very fine work, now lost, but known to us through reproduction. It illustrates the story told in Genesis 24. Abraham sends his oldest servant, Eliazer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Eliazer travels to Mesopotamia and prays that he will find the right woman at a well outside the city of Nahor. At evening, the lovely Rebekah comes to the well and draws water for both Eliazer and his camels. Cabanel depicts Rebekah pouring water into the trough for the camels, an act of humble service. Love’s Messenger is a sweet, almost sentimental work that shows a young girl welcoming back a dove carrying a message from her lover, a familiar theme in 19th century art.

Rebekah and Eliazer, 1881. Oil on canvas, 23⅝ x 37⅜. Location unknown.


Ophelia, 1883. Oil on canvas, 30⅜ x 46½. Private collection.

Cabanel’s 1883 composition may have been influenced by the version of Ophelia painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1848 that features the protagonist in a similar reclining position with an arm outstretched for the branch. It is no surprise that Delacroix embraced the potency of Ophelia as a symbol of the Romantic Period and although he made numerous versions of the subject, it is more likely that Cabanel knew the work from the lithograph of the painting that was subsequently widely distributed. In contrast to later, more traditional depictions of this scene, where Ophelia is either contemplating her suicide or already immersed in the stream (as in the painting by the English painter Sir John Everett Millais) Cabanel chose to dramatize the moment when the tree branch snaps, no longer able to support her. He imbues his painting with a sense of dramatic and cogent sympathy: the weeping willow tree, from which she falls, is a familiar symbol of mourning. Particularly impressive is Cabanel’s masterly treatment of Ophelia’s shimmering, gold-trimmed silk dress and the flowers, both in the garland around her head and those trailing in the water. As she floats weightlessly upon the surface of the water, Ophelia is at once wistful, yet beguiling and seductive as Cabanel suspends her between life and death, capturing the moment that is yet to conclude this Shakespearean tragedy.

A Patricienne of Venice of the 16th Century, 1881. Oil on canvas, 51⅜ x 31⅝. Private collection.

Madame Anna Ogden Baker, 1884. 50⅞ x 34⅜. Location unknown.

Cabanel continued to paint portraits and in 1881 executed the superb portrait of the Countess Orozewska, known, because of her clothing, as a Patrician of Venice of the 16th Century. The stunning work is a tour-de-force. Her 16th century dress is painted with remarkable skill and her design and demeanor are flawless, in spite of some restoration and cleaning that are currently necessary. Cabanel’s 1884 portrait of Madame Anna Ogden Baker is another fine work, designed and executed with great skill. Her sumptuous flowered dress is a marvel of drawing and workmanship. Her expression is kind and sympathetic, and the selection and stylization of her arms and graceful hands is both subtle and beautiful. He painted close to fifty other portraits during the last ten tears of his life, including those of Mrs. Collis Potter Huntington (1882), Madame Édouard Hervé (1884), Mary Frick Garrett (1885), Mary Victoria Leiter (1886), Olivia Cutting (1887), and Mrs. Edward Loyal Field (1889). Many of his other portraits are as yet untraced. The charming portrait of Miss Fanny Clapp is characteristic of Cabanel’s more modest, bust-length portraits. The drawing and modeling of the flesh and the light viridian dress are rendered with particular delicacy. The sweetness of the young woman is clearly expressed.

Madame Édouard Hervé was the wife of Édouard Hervé, an author of historical works and founder of the Sun, a political newspaper. For this portrait, Cabanel has placed his model in front of a simple dark red wall. A large sofa and decorative pillows offer the only indication of her status. There is a hint of Florentine Mannerism in the gentle curve of the arms and the sensitive and delicate gesture of the hands. Cabanel chose an unusual light source for the work that put the sitter’s somewhat face into shadow similar to, but more pronounced than that of his portrait Olivia Cutting. This was, perhaps, the artist’s subtle attempt to focus attention on her chest and dress rather than her rather homely face. In 1889, Henry Fouquier cites the portrait of Mrs. Hervé among “the best known and most famous” of women’s portraits, “very beautiful, very elegant.”

Madame Édouard Hervé, 1884. Oil on canvas, 40⅛ x 29⅞. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.

In 1885, at the age of sixty-two years, Cabanel painted the last of seven self-portraits. The work was commissioned in 1883 by the Royal Academy des Beaux-Arts of Anvers. Cabanel was at the height of his fame, yet painted himself informally, standing in front of a canvas on his easel, a cigarette held loosely in his right hand. He is dressed in black. His palette and brushes rest on a table behind him. The colors on the palette are balanced by the small red rosette of the Commander of the Legion of Honor (which he had won the previous year) pinned on his left shoulder. While taking a break from his beloved painting, the aging artist looks at the viewer with dignity and confidence. The informality of this work might be contrasted with the more severe 1895 self-portrait by Bouguereau in the Uffizi.

Self-Portrait, 1885. Oil on canvas, 48½ x 36⅞. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.

Cabanel portrays himself as vigorous; nevertheless, his health was beginning to deteriorate. He suffered from asthma and chronic bronchitis. Early in 1885 he received a letter from Sister Sainte-Amelie of the Little Sisters of the Poor in which she alludes to a sickness from which he was suffering: “We hope our correspondence was sweet, as you continue to get better, and pray that the Good Lord will give you perfect health.”

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Victims Sentenced to Death, 1887. Oil on canvas, 32 x 56. Collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simon, Mexico.


Cabanel’s remarkable series of paintings featuring women in tragic circumstances and exotic settings culminated in 1887, two years before his death, with the exquisite Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners. The original painting is in Antwerp. Like others of his works, it was so successful that he painted a smaller replica that was still in his studio when he died. It is now in the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simon in Mexico. Cabanel took the unusual subject from chapter 80 of Plutarch’s Life of Antony: “After the defeat of Actium, Cleopatra, realizing the end of her reign was immanent, gathered deadly poisons which she had tested on prisoners condemned to death, in order to determine which would cause the least suffering for her own death.” Plutarch then relates that the Egyptian queen, finding that “quick poisons always worked with sharp pains, and that the less painful were slow, she next tried venomous animals, and watched with her own eyes whilst they were applied, one creature to the body of another.” She concluded that “nothing was comparable to the bite of the asp, which without convulsions or groaning brought on a heavy drowsiness and lethargy, the senses being stupefied by degrees.”

Tintoretto, Removal of the Body of Saint Mark, 1562-66, detail. Oil on canvas, 13 feet 9¾ inches x 10 feet ½ inch. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

There had been considerable interest in Cleopatra during the 19th century, including a short story by Gautier that described details such as a slave with a “large fan of ibis feathers.” In 1866 Gérôme had painted Cleopatra before Caesar, but Cabanel’s choice of subject was unique. He treats the grim scene with great finesse, showing Cleopatra’s indifferent reaction to the suffering of the dying prisoners, noting only their reaction to the various poisons. Her attendant fans her while she plays with a lotus blossom and watches the agony of her victims. To express her Egyptian character he portrays her, like Egyptian sculpture, in profile. A complete, painted study of her is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Béziers. Her pet leopard, lying dispassionately below her, mirrors the impassivity and grace of its master. The dead victim carried out before the colonnaded façade is reminiscent, in reverse, of Tintoretto’s Removal of the Body of Saint Mark (1562-66), which is also set in Alexandria. Cabanel modeled his building, including the hieroglyphics, on the Temple of Horus at Edfu, which he probably saw in early photographs. Everything about the painting is superb, from the fine, balanced design and subtle drawing to the extraordinary color harmony and rendering of details. His recreation of ancient history is remarkable and, along with other 19th century French and English painters, influenced the art of the film in the 20th Century.

Regrettably, the large original version of Cleopatra is in poor condition, from what appears to be over cleaning. The smaller replica in the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simon of Mexico is in much better condition. The beauty and expression of the painting must be ultimately judged by this version.

Cabanel the Teacher

A Legacy of Excellence

Cabanel was an influential teacher and his importance was profound. In 1863 he was appointed professor (along with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Isidore Pils) at the reorganized École des Beaux-Arts and he taught there until his death. His pupils numbered in the hundreds and their works regularly filled the Salon. The large number of his students is reflected in the fact that he served on seventeen Salon juries between 1868 and 1888; it was artists who elected the jurors. His pupils (like those of his master, Picot) often won the Prix-de-Rome. Among the best are Paul Joseph Blanc, Fernand Cormon, Pierre-August Cot, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Emile Lévy, Aimé Nicolas Morot, Edouard Debat-Ponsan, Henri Regnault, Georges Rochegrosse, and the English painter, Solomon J. Solomon. Each of them painted great works. American painter Julian Alden Weir observed that Cabanel “has more men than either Gérôme or Pils.” Through them, Cabanel did much to form the character of belle époque French painting. Writer C. H. Stranahan noted in his 1888 A History of French Painting, that “no fewer than 112 exhibitors in the Salon of 1886 signed themselves ‘Pupil of Cabanel’ and seven out of ten is often the proportion of his pupils accepted to enter into loge for the Prix-de-Rome.”

Solomon J. Solomon, Ajax and Cassandra, 1886. Oil on canvas, 119⅞ x 60⅛. Bellarat Fine Art Gallery, Victoria, Australia.

Henri Regnault, Automedon with the Horses of Achilles, 1868. Oil on canvas, 124 x 129½. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution.

Concerning Cabanel’s atelier, Alice Meynell noted that his method of teaching was similar to that of Gérôme. He therefore stressed fidelity to nature in their life studies as a way to acquire the skill necessary to express themselves more artistically in the future. He would also, like Picot, have had his students paint compositional sketches to familiarize them with the general principles of design. Like Gérôme and Picot, he was reputed to be a flexible teacher. One French critic observed that he refused to “fetter any temperament” or to inhibit the desires of “the most dissimilar minds.” An American writer said that his students were “as varied in style as they are numerous, which is an indication of their teacher’s greatness as a master: he develops talent without making slavish imitators.”

By personality and training Cabanel’s artistic interests lay within the Western artistic tradition represented by the principles of the French ateliers and Academy. Nevertheless, his refusal to “fetter any temperament” or to inhibit the desires of “the most dissimilar minds,” led him to make few antagonistic statements about new developments in painting during the latter part of his life. Speaking to his colleagues at the academy about Manet’s Portrait of M. Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter, he stated: “Gentlemen, there is not a single one of us here who could come up with a head like that outdoors.” He supported his fellow countryman Bazille so that one of his paintings was accepted at the Salon of 1868. At the Salon of 1879 he requested that a painting by Renoir which was placed too high on a wall to be properly viewed be hung lower.

Cabanel left this world on January 23, 1889, after a prolonged attack of asthma at the relatively young age of 65. Prior to his death he stipulated the destination of the contents of his studio, bequeathing much to the museum in his hometown of Montpellier. He left the portrait of Madamoisele Diaz d’Albertini unfinished on his easel. His death notice in the New York Times stated that he “passed away happy in the esteem, love, and respect of three generations of pupils and secure in a lasting fame.” Fame, however, is often fleeting, and Cabanel’s artistic legacy was condemned during the century that followed.

Even today, when 19th century academic art is being reassessed by art historians and the public, it is difficult to formulate a complete picture of Cabanel’s work. Of the slightly more than 400 paintings that he did after he returned from Rome in 1851, about 293 are untraced—almost three-fourths of his œuvre. We know what they are, but not where they are. Some are known through reproduction, but many are not. Until we can locate and see them, it will be difficult to fully assess Cabanel’s artistic achievement. Nevertheless, the quality of his best work cannot be ignored, and the significance of his accomplishment is once again being appreciated by a new generation of artists, connoisseurs, and historians who recognize its surpassing quality.

January, Hôtel de Ville, Paris. Destroyed.


William Bouguereau, Nymphs and Satyr, 1873. Oil on canvas, 102⅜ x 70⅞. The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

The debate about the merits of academic or “official” art and so-called “creative” or independent art in 19th century France has been raging for more than half a century. A typical way of dismissing the art of 19th century French painters associated with the Academy has been to single out for ridicule those artists who were, in their time, the most respected, honored, skillful and successful. Discredit them and you can automatically dismiss the lesser ones. In the past, the three primary artists chosen for censure have been Jean-Léon Gérôme, William Bouguereau, and Alexandre Cabanel. Their work was condemned as superficial, derivative, cloyingly sentimental, and uninspired. Gérôme was often singled out as the artist who said that impressionism was “the dishonor of France.” If mentioned at all, the names and art of Bouguereau and Cabanel were often linked together as representatives of “art pompier,” upholders of narrow-minded and outmoded traditions—purveyors of kitsch in the guise of fine art; artists who were opposed to the work of the impressionists. Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, a very important and well-known work, was stored in the Louvre and not shown to the public for many years until it was transferred to the Musée d’Orsay in 1978. Two other artists and I saw it in storage in the fall of 1974. The truth is this: Gérôme, Bouguereau, and Cabanel were each fine artists who painted masterpieces that are among the world’s great art. Gérôme painted The Gray Eminence and Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, Bouguereau painted Alma Parens and Nymphs and Satyr, and Cabanel painted twelve great pendentives for the Hôtel de Ville, The Life of Saint Louis in the Panthéon, and Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Prisoners Condemned to Death.

Stephen Gjertson at the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, 2010.

During the latter half of the 20th Century, the work of Gérôme and Bouguereau, always esteemed by those who appreciated fine work, was gradually and tentatively reassessed by less biased art historians and eventually featured in major retrospective exhibitions: Gérôme in 1972-73 and 2010-11, and Bouguereau in 1984-85. In France, great artists such as Hippolyte Flandrin, Jules-Élie Delaunay, Paul Baudry, and Jean-Paul Laurens were honored with substantial retrospective exhibitions—but not Cabanel. His work, when seen, was admired by artists and connoisseurs, but was not considered important enough by the museum world to re-evaluate and celebrate—until 2010.

In 2010, the Musée Fabre in Cabanel’s hometown of Montpellier organized the first major retrospective of his work since his death in 1889. In 1939 they hosted a smaller retrospective exhibition, but this monumental effort—which took five years to prepare—brings together over 280 paintings, drawings, studies, and cartoons from its substantial collection and other collections in France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, and Japan. The exhibition ran from July 2010 until December 5, 2010 and was held over until January 2, 2011. From the Fabre an abbreviated exhibition, with fewer drawings and studies, traveled to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, where it was on view from February 4 through May 15, 2011. I saw the exhibition in December with James Childs, a great artist and friend, another “pompier,” and it clearly revealed the richness, variety, strength, and beauty of Cabanel’s art. Cabanel’s work, and that of his best students, leaves behind an important and beautiful artistic legacy—a legacy that we can admire and enjoy.

This essay was conceived following a discussion about Cabanel with Louis Torres, co-editor of the online arts journal Aristos.

I wrote this article to give interested parties an overview of the life and art of Alexandre Cabanel in English. It was written and compiled from the following sources:

Boime, Albert, The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Phaidon, 1971.

Bonfait, Olivier and Le Normand-Romain, Antoinette, French Artists in Rome: Ingres to Degas, 1803-1873, the Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, 2003.

Grunchec, Philippe, The Grand Prix de Rome, Paintings from the École des Beaux-Arts 1797-1863, exhibition catalog, 1984.

Riordan, R., “Alexandre Cabanel,” Art Amateur, 1889.

Sterling, Charles and Salinger, Margaretta M., French Paintings in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Graphic Society, 1966.

Stranahan, C. H., A History of French Painting, “Training an Artist,” 1888.

Alexandre Cabanel and the Academic Process in 19th Century France, the Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, exhibition catalog, 1998.

Twenty-six contributing authors, Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889: La Tradition du Beau, exhibition catalog, Somogy, 2010, (in French).

Weinberg, H. Barbara, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and their French Teachers, Abbeville Press, 1991.

Zafran, Eric M., French Salon Paintings from Southern Collections, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1982.

Zalewski, Leanne, “Alexandre Cabanel’s Portraits of the American ‘Aristocracy’ of the Early Gilded Age,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Visual Culture.

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