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 Alexandre Cabanel  (1823 - 1889)

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About: Alexandre Cabanel


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Lived/Active: United States/France      Known for: history, genre, religious paintings

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BIOGRAPHY for Alexandre Cabanel

United States/France

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Often Known For
history, genre, religious paintings

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Alexandre Cabanel, born in  Montpellier, France on September 28, 1823, was a tremendously popular painter who personified official academic art at the top of the Salon hierarchy and with his contemporary Bouguereau stood as the antithesis of progressive movements, including impressionism.  Alexandre entered drawing school as a boy and continued at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1840 under Picot.  Soon after his debut at the Salon, he won the Second Prix de Rome (1845) with Christ in the Praetorium, a rather neo-Baroque crowd scene.  In Rome he painted Albaydé (Musée Fabre, Montpellier), a kind of Neo-Greek femme fatale.  In 1855, he exhibited The Glorification of St Louis, which D. Cady Eaton later called pretentious.  His Birth of Venus (Musée d’Orsay), inspired by Ingres’ Odalisque with a Slave (Fogg Art Museum), caused such a sensation in the controversial Salon of 1863 — the year of the Salon des Refusés — that Napoleon III purchased the painting and Cabanel received the Légion d’Honneur, as well as election to the Institut de France. 

Once established in the framework of the official art community of Paris, Cabanel was appointed, along with Gérôme, to a professorship in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, formerly an arm of the Institut.  Cabanel painted history, genre, and religious subjects, all of which were executed with the meticulous finish typical of the prevailing Salon masters.  He contributed murals to the series in the Panthéon (Life of St. Louis).  Zola and other early defenders of impressionism referred to his work as uninspired and insipid but most critics praised his compositions, though by 1904, Pattison frowned upon the idea that Cabanel “produced languid imitations of . . . imitations,” referring to his model Ingres, who in turn, had closely followed his idol, Raphael. 

As a teacher, Cabanel did not insist on indoctrinating pupils and he inspired numerous young painters who eventually became influential.  Weinberg (1991, p. 131) mentions how American students “could anticipate Salon acceptance through their affiliation with him.”  Perhaps his most famous student was Bastien-Lepage.  Tonalist landscape painter Birge Harrison (1890, p. 755) related how Cabanel condemned Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc (now in the Metropolitan Museum).  Cabanel’s American students included Augustus George Heaton, Henry Bacon, Edgar Melville Ward, Frederic Crowninshield, and Thomas Hovenden.  Alexandre Cabanel died in Paris on  January 23, 1889 at the age of sixty-six.  Although American collectors preferred Bouguereau’s works to those of Cabanel, the latter received many portrait commissions from Americans and Samuel Hawk purchased one of his historical genre pieces.

Strahan, Edward [Earl Shinn], Art Treasures of America. Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1879, pp. 24-25; Meynell, Alice. “Alexandre Cabanel.” Magazine of Art 9 (May 1886): 271-276; Cook, Clarence. Art and Artists of Our Time. New York: Selmar Hess,1888; D’Igny, Pierre. “The Salon Forty.” Arts and Letters 2 (June 1888): 355; Lafenestre, Georges. “Alexandre Cabanel.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 1 (April 1889): 265-280; Harrison, L. Birge. “The New Departure in Parisian Art.” Atlantic Monthly 66 (December 1890): 753-764; Pattison, James William. Painters since Leonardo. Herbert S. Stone and Co., 1904, pp. 161-164; Eaton, D. Cady. A Handbook of Modern French Painting. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1909, pp. 204-207; Sloane, Joseph C. French Painting between the Past and the Present: Artists, Critics and Traditions, from 1848-1870. Princeton University Press, 1951, pp. 114, 122; Burrollet, Thérèse. “Antidisestablishmentarianism.” in Academic Art, Art News Annual. Ed. Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery. New York: Collier Books, 1971, p. 105; Lethève, Jacques. Daily Life of French Artists in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972; L’art en France sous le Second Empire. Exh. cat. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1979, cat. nos. 184-186; Grunchec, Pierre. The Grand Prix de Rome: Paintings from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts 1797-1863. Traveling exh. cat. Washington, DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1984-85, cat. no. 84; Blaugrund, Annette. Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989, pp. 240-241; Shaw, Jennifer. “The Figure of Venus: Rhetoric of the Ideal in the Salon of 1863.” Art History 14 (December 1991): 540-570; Weinberg, H. Barbara. The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991, Chapter VI; Tillim, Sydney. “The Academy, Postmodernism and the Education of the Artist.” Art in America 87 (April1999): 61-63; Whitley John, in From Monet to Cézanne: Late Nineteenth-Century French Artists. The Grove Dictionary of Art series. Ed. Jane Turner. New York and London: 2000, pp. 51-53.

Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.

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