Isaac Levitan. Part 1, His early life and paintings

Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)

Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)

From the portraiture and the religious works of the 16th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni I am moving in a completely different direction.  I am focusing on the Russian Empire and one of, if not the greatest Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century.  Today let me introduce you to Isaac Levitan.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born in August 1860 in the small schetl of Kibart.  A schetl is a small settlement with a large Jewish population.    Kibart was close to the border town of Verzhbolovo, and was then part of what was known as Russian Poland.  The town is now part of Lithuania and is known as Virbalis.  Levitan was one of four children who was born into an intellectual working class Jewish family.  His father, Elyashiv Levitan, was a language teacher, teaching French and German at the nearby school in Kowno (now Kaunus, Lithuania) He alaso supplemented his pay as a teacher by acting as a translator for a French building company, which was constructing a nearby bridge over the Lieponio River for the St. Petersburg to Warsaw railway.  Elyashiv spent a lot of his free time educating his children at home.  Both Isaac’s mother and father were interested in art and so, when their son and his brother Axel also showed an interest in it, they were only too pleased to nurture their children’s love of drawing and painting.

Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)

Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)

In the Spring of 1870 the family moved to Moscow and the following year his older brother Axel enrolled at the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  Two years later, in September 1873, Isaac also registered as a pupil at the college to study art.  His initial artistic training concentrated on copying but, after a year, he moved on to a class which focused on nature and art and soon he was embroiled in the genre of landscape painting, which was later to make him famous.  He had first-class teachers at the college, including the landscape painters, Alexi Savrasov, the head of the landscape department, his successor, Vasily Polenov and the Realist painter Vasily Perov, who was the founder of the Peredvizhniki often known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants, who were a group of Russian realist painters who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists’ cooperative.  The group later evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.

Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)

Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)

Isaac loved the challenge of landscape painting and was greatly influenced by the landscape work of the Barbizon painters as well as the work of the French realist painter Camile Corot.  Things were proceeding well for Isaac until 1875 when, at the age of fifteen, tragedy struck with the death of his mother and in 1877, after contracting typhus and having endured a long illness during which time he could not earn money, his father died.  Now Isaac was without financial support.  He had neither money to pay the college fees nor the money to live.  He was asked to leave the college due to non-payment of his tuition fees but was rescued by the kindness of friends who gave him the money so that he could continue studying and later, thanks to the College Council who appreciated his talent, the tuition fees were waived and furthermore they awarded him a small bursary.

A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)

A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)

In 1877, the year that his father died, the fifth Travelling Art Exhibition was held at the Moscow College of Art.  Isaac Levitan submitted two of his works with great hopes of a medal.  He had completed one of the works, Solnechnyi den Vesna (A Sunny Day, Spring) the previous year, whilst his other entry, Vecher (Evening) had been completed in 1877.  Levitan was disappointed in the judges’ decision.  He didn’t receive a medal for either work but was granted a diploma which allowed him to become an art teacher.

The year 1879 proved to be a year of turmoil and triumph for nineteen year old Levitan.  The turmoil occurred on the morning of April 20, 1879; Tsar Alexander II was attacked by a thirty-three year old former student, Alexander Soloviev, as he walked towards the Square of the Guards Staff.  The result of this assassination attempt was a crackdown on groups of people who were believed to be a threat to the Tsar.  The government issued an edict that there would be a mass deportation of Jews from the big cities of the Russian Empire.  This meant that Isaac’s family were forced to move out of the centre of Moscow to the eastern suburb of Saltykovka. Later that year, due to pressure on the local government officials by art lovers, Isaac Levitan was allowed to return to the city.

Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)

Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)

The triumph came that December, when Isaac entered his painting, Osenniy den Sokolniki (Autumn Day, Sokolniki) in the second students’ exhibition.  Levitan liked to paint views of different settings in the Moscow area. Considered to be one of the best works of this period is his poignant work entitled Autumn Day, Sokolniki, which he completed in 1879.   The painting reveals to us Levitan’s belief in the connection between nature and human feelings.  The painting is a depiction of a grey-clouded autumn sky and one can imagine the rustling sound of the wind through the trees causing the dying leaves to fall to the ground.  The path which disappears into the distance is the focal point of the painting.  It is empty with the exception of a woman dressed in black, who strolls towards us.

This work of art by Levitan was his reminder of his joy of walking along the forest path of his beloved Sokolniki Park.  The park lies to the northeast of the city and was so named because of its connection with falconry which took place there and was the favourite sport of members of the royal court (sokol is the Russian word for falcon).  This work of art received great revues and the following year it was purchased by the art collector and philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the famous Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  This marked the initial public recognition of Isaac Levitan and his art.  The painting can now be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

It was around the end of the 1870’s that Isaac Levitan met the writer Anton Chekhov.  The meeting came about as Anton’s brother, Nikolai, was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow College of Art.  This was to be a friendship which lasted all Levitan’s life.

In my next blog I will continue looking at the life of Isaac Levitan and feature some of his most important later works.

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Giovanni Battista Moroni – his religious works

In today’s blog I complete my look at the 16th century Italian painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, and look at some of his religious works.

Moroni had studied under Alessandro Bonvicino (Il Moretto) and in the 1540’s he eventually rose to become the main studio assistant at his Master’s Brescia workshop.  Moroni went on to ply his trade in Bergamo, his home town of Albino and the town of Trent during which time, the town hosted the Catholic ecumenical Council of Trent.  The first Council being held between 1546 and 1548 and Pope Julius III instigated the Second Council of Trent, which began in May1551 and ended two years later.  During these days Moroni received many commissions to paint altarpieces for the local churches.

The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)

The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)

One such religious work was The Last Supper which Moroni completed in 1569.  The setting for the work is a covered logia, which is part of an architectural setting through which we glance out at a distant blue-skied landscape.  The first thing that strikes you about this rendition of the famous religious scene is the man in black who stands behind those partaking in the meal.  We can tell by his dress that he is not one of the Apostles.  He stands behind St John and is acting as a waiter to the diners.  He is the dominant character in the painting but why was he included?  We know the painting was commissioned in December 1565 by the Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento, a regional Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament in the small Bergamo commune of Romano di Lombardia and was not completed until 1569.  There has been much speculation about the identity of the man in black with some people, such as the 19th century Italian art historian, Milesi Locatelli, who in his 1869 three-volume biography Illustri Bergamaschi. Studi critic-biografici,   and more recently Maria Calì in her 1980 book, “Verita” e “religione” nella pittura di Giovan Battista Moroni, both stated that it was the artist himself but why the confraternity would want Moroni to include himself is hard to rationalize.  Simone Facchinetti who co-wrote the book which accompanies the Royal Academy’s Moroni exhibition believes that the man in black is Lattanzio da Lallio, the parish priest of the Romano di Lombardia church at the time of the painting and his position of power over the confraternity and the fact that he was arranging the painting commission with Moroni, may have allowed/asked the artist to have himself depicted in the painting.

My next couple of religious works by Moroni are very interesting.  The depiction in each case is believed to have come from what was taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, often termed the Ignatian Spirituality.   The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditation, prayer, and contemplative practice developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God.  They were a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises.  When one prayed, St Ignatius believed that one should meditate on a biblical passage so as to bring the person praying closer to God.  He gave precise instructions on the matter of composition or envisioning the place.  The religious composition is the fruit of mental prayer.  It is a sort of vision arising in the mind of the one who is praying.  It is seeing with the eyes of the imagination a physical location in which the thing the worshipper wishes to contemplate is to be found.

A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)

A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)

The first painting is entitled A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian which was completed by Giovanni Battista Moroni around 1575.  The painting is housed in the Bergamo church, Chiesa di Sant’ Alessandro della Croce.  In this work a man in the foreground has turned towards us and points towards a painted scene of the Crucifixion which is being witnessed by St John the Baptist on the left and St Sebastian on the right.  The latter can be seen holding the arrows shot at him during the first attempt on his life.  Sebastian is often depicted in paintings tied to a tree or a pillar and shot with arrows but according to legend he did not die and was rescued by Irene of Rome, later Saint Irene.  Later, around AD 288, he was clubbed to death for openly criticising the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)

A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)

The second work depicts a man praying and at the same time concentrating his mind on a story from the Bible, which in this case is the baptism of Christ by St John. What we see before us is what, through deep meditation, the praying man has conjured up in his mind during prayer. The painting is entitled Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ which Moroni completed around 1555.   The young man, with his hands clasped in prayer, stands upright before the biblical scene he is imagining, separated from it by some architectural ruins.  In the background we have a Lombardy landscape and in the middle ground we see the two figures by a stream which almost certainly alludes to the River Jordan where Christ was baptised by John.  The painting is now part of the Gerolamo and Roberta Etro collection.  Gerolamo, an avid art collector, was the founder in 1968 of Etro the Italian luxury fashion house.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)

My final offering of a religious work by Moroni is The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine and was completed around 1550.  It is a beautiful and delicate work of art and is housed at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.  In the painting we see a depiction of St Catherine, an early Christian martyr of royal birth, seated next to the Virgin Mary, who cradles the Christ Child.  Catherine is receiving a wedding-ring from Him, which symbolises her spiritual closeness to God.  In her left hand she holds a palm frond which was adopted into Christian iconography to represent the victory of martyrs, a victory for the faithful against those who want to claim their soul.  St Catherine, who died in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 4th century AD, when she was in her twenties.  She was martyred at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius.

Torre civica, Bergamo

Torre civica, Bergamo

The setting for the painting is inside a room, which has a large window, through which can be seen a town.  It is thought that it is the town of Bergamo, as to the left, one sees the town’s Torre Civica, which was built in the twelfth century.  The small oil on canvas painting, which measures 86cms x 68cms, is thought to have been designed for private devotion.  Furthermore the original recipient of the work is thought to have been a young girl, who would then identify herself with the teenage martyr, Catherine.

Giovanni Moroni was part way through a commission to paint The Last Judgement in the church at Gorlago, a commune of Bergamo, close to his home town of Albino.   He never completed the commission as he died in February 1579.  Although his exact birth date is not known it is reckoned he was in his mid-fifties when he died.

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The portraiture of Giovanni Battista Moroni

Last week, I went to the Royal Academy which was staging three very different exhibitions.   Each one had its supporters and it was interesting to walk through each and compare the works on display.   I know that is somewhat foolhardy as one would never contemplate and compare the athletic prowess of a baseball star with a soccer star or a football star with and ice hockey player.  Each has a skill of their own and one cannot make a comparison across different sports so I suppose I should not contrast the works of Allen Jones with Anselm Keifer or Giovanni Moroni.  All are so different and it is up to one’s individual taste as to what  one believes is the most beautiful and the most eye-catching.

For me, the choice was a no-brainer.  I have always liked paintings from the 16th and 17th century and I have always admired the genre of portraiture and so my favourite, by far, was the Giovanni Battista Moroni exhibition which is on at the Sackler Gallery until January 25th.  In my next two blogs, I would like to whet your appetite by looking at the life and some of the works of art of one of the greatest Italian portraitists of the sixteenth century and by doing so try and persuade you to visit the wonderful exhibition.

Giovanni Battista Moroni was the son of architect Francesco Moroni and Maddalena di Vitale Brigati.  He was born around 1522 in the Venetian Lombardy region of northern Italy, in the commune of Albino, in the province of Bergamo.  It was a time close to the end of the Italian Renaissance period which had started back in the fourteenth century.  It was an exciting period of cultural change which brought about new styles of art, music, literature, and architecture.  This was a time designated as the Cinquecento also known as High Renaissance period and it was during this time that a secular theme started to manifest itself in the subject for paintings.  Moroni was apprenticed to Alessandro Bonvicino more commonly known as Il Moretto da Brescia who had a studio in Trento which at the time hosted the great meeting of Catholic clergy at the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563.  For Roman Catholicism, this was It was the most important ecumenical council which had been called to come up with ideas to counter the Protestant Reformation.

The Tailor by Giovanni Moroni (c.1570)

The Tailor by Giovanni Moroni (c.1570)

In this first blog about Moroni I want to concentrate on his portraiture and I have chosen four of my favourite works from the exhibition.  One of his most famous works and considered to be one of the masterpieces of sixteenth century portraiture, is entitled Il Tagliapanni (Portrait of a Tailor), which he completed around 1570.  What is mystifying about this portrait is the fact that the title of the work although telling us this is a portrait of an artisan the costume of the man before us would seem to have aristocratic connotations.   The setting for the portrait is a bare room, which is not well illuminated and which contrasts with the way Moroni has illuminated the head of the tailor form a light source coming from the left of the painting.  The lack of furnishings allows us to concentrate on the subject of the painting.  The figure, who stands by his cutting bench, is the tailor.   He is wearing doublet and hose.  He has a cream fustian jacket and wears full red breeches, which almost, but not quite, hides a similar coloured codpiece.  The colour of the clothing worn by the tailor was a change from Moroni’s normal male portraits as he had, as a rule, had his sitters dress in all-black clothing which was the Spanish fashion-style of male sitters.  Around his waist is a sword belt – another hint of aristocracy.  He looks out at us pensively.  Maybe he just considering carefully what he is about to do.  He has a pair of scissors in his right hand, on the small finger of which is a gold ring set with a ruby.  His left hand spreads out a piece of black cloth which he is about to cut. One can just make out the faint white lines on the cloth which are a guide to the pattern which he is about to cut out.  This is not an impoverished tradesman and much speculation has been made as to who is this man.  Because of the richness of his clothes, some art historians, like Francesco Rossi in his 1991 book Il Moroni, would have us believe that he was an aristocrat who has turned to selling fabrics.  Others believe that not to be the case.  However the manner which the tailor is depicted gives one a distinct impression that the tailor was financially secure.    In the Grazietta Butazzi a leading authority on the history of fashion an article appeared in the 2005 edition on men’s fashion between fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and they were adamant that the style of costume on Moroni’s tailor was not out of place with his professional status as a tailor and that it was similar to garments seen on prints of the time, which depicted men in his trade.

Gian Gerolamo Albani by Giovanni Moroni (1568-70)

Gian Gerolamo Albani by Giovanni Moroni (1568-70)

The next portrait by Moroni, which I am featuring, is of Gian Gerolamo Albani and with it comes an amusing anecdote.  Albani was a powerful politician and military man in the Lombardy Veneto region.   In 1563 he fell from grace and was exiled for five years on the Adriatic isle of Hvar and banished from Veneto .   Gian Gerolamo Albani had had to endure this fall from power following his implication in the murder by Albani’s son of a family member of the rival Brembati family, Achille Brembati.  From Hvar Gian Girolamo moved to Rome and in 1570, at the age of sixty-one, was made a cardinal in the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. Pope Pius V, who was born Antonio Ghislieri, and served his time in the Catholic Church as an inquisitor, was a friend of Gian Battista Albani and it was Albani that had once saved the life of the future pope.

Moroni favoured his sitters to adopt a three-quarter style profile but in this portrait of Albani he sits directly facing the viewer.   There is an aura of power about this man before us.  He sits upright in a Dantesca chair, book in hand.  He wears a luxurious black robe which is lined with lynx fur, which can also be seen appearing from slashes around the shoulders and cuffs.  This “slash and puff” fashion style will again be seen in the portrait of his daughter, Lucia.  Around his neck, adding an even more prestigious appearance is a gold chain on which hangs the lion of St. Mark, which alludes to Albani being a member of the Knights of the Order of St. Mark, an honorific Order of Chivalry title conferred on him by Andrea Gritti, who was at the time, Doge of the Republic of Venice.  The winged Lion passant  holding a drawn sword in one paw and an open book with the motto Pax tibi, Marce Evangelista meus (Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist) in the other.  On the reverse there was a portrait of the Doge and St Mark.

And so to the anecdote I mentioned about this portrait.  The seventeenth century Italian art biographer and painter, Carlo Ridolfi, wrote about the origin of this portrait in his 1648 book Le Maraviglie dell’arte: ovvero Le vite degli ’illustri pittori veneti, e dello sato, (The Marvels of art: namely The Lives of illustrious Venetian painters, and the state):

“…Gian Geralamo Albani, a gentleman from Bergamo, a member of the Albani family, finding himself in Venice, sought Titian out to have his portrait painted.  He was asked from which area he came and let it be known that he was from Bergamo.  ‘What’ replied Titian, ‘do you think you will get a better portrait from my hands than you would get in Bergamo from your Moroni?  Best leave this work to him, for it will be more valuable and more distinctive than mine’.  Sig. Albani then returned to Bergamo and told the story to Moroni who produced this stupendous portrait now belonging to Sig. Giuseppe Albani…”

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro ('La Dama in Rosso') by Giocvanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’) by Giocvanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)

Whether the story is true or false I will let you decide but Gian Albani must have been already aware of Moroni and his skills as a portraitist as some ten years earlier, Moroni completed a female portrait entitled Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’)She was one of Gian Albani’s daughters.  This is an exquisite work and can now be seen at the National Gallery in London.  The sitter for this work is Lucia Albani  Avogadro an Italian poet.  Lucia was one of seven children of Gian Gerolamo Albani, the head of the powerful Albani family of Bergamo.  This is not just a painting of a beautiful woman but a depiction of and an insight into of the fashion of the time.  Lucia Albani married Faustino Avogadro , her third cousin, when she was sixteen years old.  Her husband was a member of the powerful aristocratic family from Brescia.

She is depicted in three quarter profile seated on a Dantesca chair.  She wears a glittering red brocade dress with an open bodice which was popular in the 1550’s.  The silk was almost certainly given its exquisite colour by the use of the scales of the female cochineal insect from which the carminic acid is derived and which yields shades of red such as crimson and scarlet.   Once again we see the fashionable puff and slash style on the dress around the shoulders and upper chest .  This fashion style was popular with both men and women.  Portraits of Henry VIII often showed him wearing clothes which had the “puff and slash” stylisation.   The “puff and slash” effect was achieved by cutting slashes in the garment and pulling puffs of the undergarments through those slashes.

The lady sits upright  on the chair.  In her left hand is a fan which rests on her lap.  She is bedecked with expensive jewellery, including bracelets with agates, a ring on the finger of each hand, both set with precious stones.  Around her neck is a single strand of pearls which accompany a set of pearl earrings.  Her hair is swept to the back of her head in a most intricate fashion and is held in place by a gold chain with cabochon emeralds. Lucia was not just renowned for her beauty but for her literary skill as a poet but this portrait bears no reference to her literary work, it is simply a depiction of a beautiful lady and alludes to her aristocratic status.

Portrait of Faustino Avogadro by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)

Portrait of Faustino Avogadro by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555-60)

My fourth and final offering of portraiture by Moroni has a connection to the lady in the previous work.  The work is entitled Portrait of Faustino Avogadro and is sometimes referred to as The Knight with the Wounded Foot or A Knight with his Jousting Helmet.   Giovanni Battista Moroni completed the portrait somewhere between 1555 and 1560 and is currently housed in the National Gallery in London.  Avogadro stands in front of an old wall, the base of which is made of marble.  There is an element of decay about this backdrop with green vegetation growing out of the cracks in the wall and brown streaks of damp running down across the marble

Faustino is predominately dressed in black.  It is a familiar style of the mid 1500’s.  He wears a high-collared white shirt and short puffed black pantaloons.  Over his shirt we see a torp-coloured jacket and over this, lying open, is a gambeson or arming doublet.  This is a padded jacket which was worn as part of protective armour.  It could be worn separately, or combined with chain mail or plate armour. The garment was made using a sewing technique known as quilting and was made of linen or wool.  In battle, a thrust of the enemy’s sword could penetrate the rings of the chain mail and this often drove the damaged rings deep into the wound. A lightly padded garment, such as the gambeson worn under the chain mail reduced the risk of these types of injuries.

Avogadro’s right hand touches the hilt of his long sword whilst he rests his left arm on his lavishly crested helmet which is adorned with an ostrich feather.  Around him are pieces of armour scattered on the floor, the light glinting on the highly polished surface of the steel pieces.  Besides this being a portrait of an aristocratic gentleman it is a depiction which is testament to his military rank and his involvement in tournament combat.  If one looks closely at his left knee one can see a sort of supporting brace on it which is attached to his left foot.  Some art historians believe this contraption was the result of an injury; hence the painting’s “sub-title” The Knight with the Wounded Foot.  However, Cecil Gould, a British art historian and curator, who specialised in Renaissance painting and once a Keeper and was at one time Deputy Director of London’s National Gallery, wrote in his 1975 National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth Century Italian Schools that the brace we see in the portrait was more likely to be present to help remedy a congenital defect of the ligaments of the left ankle.  One would have thought that such a cumbersome contraption would have put paid to Avogadro’s taking part in tournaments, but apparently not.

Avogadro, like his father-in-law was involved in the deadly feud between the Albani and Brembati families with his servant being sentenced to death for his part in the murder of Count Achille Brembati in 1563.   Following this, Avogadro and his wife Lucia Albani fled their Bergamo home and went into exile in Ferrara to escape the aftermath and consequences of the murder.  A year later Faustino was dead.  It was reported that he fell down a well when he was drunk.  Fell or pushed?  One will never know for sure.  Four years later in 1568, his widow Lucia died, aged 34

In my next blog I will look at some of the religious paintings of Giovanni Battista Moroni.

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Alexandre Cabanel Part 4 – Portraiture

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89)

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-89)

 In my last look at the life and works of Alexandre Cabanel I want to concentrate on his genius as a portraitist.   In my last blog I had reached 1863, the year in which his most famous work, Naissance de Venus (Birth of Venus), was exhibited at that year’s Salon, which was subsequently purchased by Napoleon III and is now on display at the Musée d’Orsay.  The work received great revues despite the subject’s nudity which caused some adverse comments.   Cabanel, at the age of forty, was honoured that year, when he was bestowed with the status of Officer of the Legion of Honour and was elected a member of the Institut Impérial de France.  On January 1st 1864 he opened his own studio at the École des Beaux-Arts.  He was reputed to have been an excellent teacher, who was well loved by his students, many of whom went on to win the Prix de Rome.  Many of his students went on to regularly exhibit at the Salon.

 Cabanel’s reputation as a leading artist of the time was well established by 1860 and his mastery of portraiture was well known throughout Europe and he had become the favoured portraitist of the European aristocracy.  In the 1863 Salon besides his Birth of Venus painting he exhibited a portrait of Countess de Clermont Tonnerre who had married into one of the most famous old families in France.

Emperor Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel (c.1865)

Emperor Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel (c.1865)

Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie, had, up to this time, commissioned several royal portraits from Franz Xavier Winterhalter, Edouard Dubuffe and Hippolyte Flandrin.  Their portraits of Napoleon III were acclaimed by critics and yet the royal couple were not completely satisfied and so, in 1864, decided to commission Cabanel to paint a new portrait of Napoleon.  For Cabanel, this was the ultimate commission.  The portrait was completed and exhibited in the 1865 Salon and won Cabanel a Medal of Honour.    What the critics liked so much about the work was its simplicity and sophistication.  This was not a normal portrait of a ruler in military uniform.  In this work, the Emperor is depicted wearing a simple black evening suit, under which we see his military sash.  The ceremonial robes can be seen draped on a chair at his side.  There was a sense of modesty about the Emperor although his depiction maintained an aristocratic tone.  It was if he was truly “one of the people” which may well have been part of what the ruler wanted his portrait to depict of him.  The 1886 edition of the Magazine of Art, which was an illustrated monthly British journal devoted to the visual arts, and which was published from May 1878 to July 1904 in London and New York included an article by Alice Meynell, who wrote that Cabanel’s royal portrait remit was to produce:

 “…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…”

The painting is now housed at the Musée du Château de Compiègne.

  The work was acclaimed a masterpiece, not only in Europe, but also in America and, along with Cabanel’s portraits of high-society European women,  it was this work by him which almost certainly inspired wealthy Americans to choose Cabanel to paint their portraits and portraits of their family members.  Portraiture had always been a lucrative genre but the fact that Cabanel was a man of means indicates that, for him, portraiture was not just a means of earning money but was an art genre he loved and many of his portraits were exhibited at the various Salons

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe by Alexandre Cabanel (1876)

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe by Alexandre Cabanel (1876)

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe was an American philanthropist and art collector. She gave large amounts of money to institutions of which her most significant gifts were two bequests to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York . She also left her large collection of popular contemporary paintings to the museum, together with $200,000.

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To have one’s portrait or a portrait of one’s partner painted by a well-known artist was a means of letting the world know that you had “arrived”.  You had made good and the “right” artist could depict you as a man or woman of class and wealth.  Around the 1880’s following the end of the American Civil War many people had amassed fortunes, much of which was spent on art – not just any art but the contemporary art of the European painters, especially works by the French artists.  In America, the period which spanned the final three decades of the nineteenth century was known as the Gilded Age.  The phrase Gilded Age derives from the many great fortunes created during this period and the way of life this wealth supported and the phrase was coined by Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, A Gilded Age, A tale of Today.

Mary Frick Garrett, by Alexandre Cabanel (1883)

Mary Frick Garrett, by Alexandre Cabanel (1883)

Mary Sloan Frick married Robert Garrett, the oldest son of John W Garrett, who was president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Robert Garrett & Sons Bank.  Cabanel painted this portrait whilst his sitter was on holiday in Paris in 1883.

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America’s industrial economy boomed.  It was a time of great wealth for the industrialists such as John D Rockefeller, with his oil, Andrew Carnegie, with his steel and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and steamboat tycoon.  For wealthy Americans like them, having a painting by a French artist hanging in one of the rooms of their large mansions signalled not just your wealth but alluded to your knowledge of European art and thus enhanced your air of intellectual prowess.  For these rich Americans what would be even better than just owning a painting by a well-known French artist, would be to have that artist paint your portrait or your wife’s portrait.  That would really impress your friends!

Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting by Alexandre Cabanel (1887)

Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting by Alexandre Cabanel (1887)

 In 1877, Olivia Peyton Murray married William Bayard Cutting, a member of New York’s merchant aristocracy, an attorney, financier, real estate developer, sugar beet refiner and philanthropist.  Ten years later he commissioned Cabanel to paint a portrait of his wife which can now be found at the Museum of the City, New York.

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Alexandre Cabanel’s reputation as an outstanding academic painter and portraitist was acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic and his work was in great demand.

Mrs. Collis Potter Huntington by Alexandre Cabanel (1882)

Mrs. Collis Potter Huntington by Alexandre Cabanel (1882)

Mrs Collis Huntington married Collis Potter Huntington, who was one of the Big Four of western railroading and who built the Central Pacific Railroad, which formed part of the first American transcontinental railroad.

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A man of wealth would like to be portrayed by an artist in quite a sombre mood depicting his serious business-like nature whereas they would like their wives and daughters to be portrayed in the finest clothes, with the most expensive of jewellery but the women were not to be portrayed as being frivolous instead they must be seen as intelligent figures who played, like their husbands or fathers, a key role in society.

In a book which was published to coincide with Alexandre Cabanel’s retrospective 2010 exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Michel Hilaire, the director of the Musée Fabre of Montpellier, where many of Cabanel’s work are housed, wrote of Cabanel’s life:

“…It was the end of a fulfilled life and artistic career characterised by hard work, but also full of success and esteem…”

Alexandre Cabanel died at his Paris home on the rue Alfred de Vigny close to the Parc Monceau Paris on January 23rd 1889, aged 65.

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 For an excellent article on Alexandre Cabanel and his American portraits you should go and read an excellent article by Leanne Zalewski :

http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring05/64-spring05/spring05article/300–alexandre-cabanels-portraits-of-the-american-aristocracy-of-the-early-gilded-age

Posted in Alexandre Cabanel, Art, Art Blog, Art History, French painters, Portraiture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandre Cabanel. Part 3 – The Birth of Venus

Alexandre Cabanel by Achille Jacquet (c.1883)

Alexandre Cabanel by Achille Jacquet (c.1883)

This is the third and penultimate instalment of my look at the life and works of Alexandre Cabanel.  Over the years I have looked at the life of many artists and so often I find that they were rebellious as far as their art and their art training was concerned.  They rebelled at the authoritarian way the Academies taught art and believed that their way was the true way.  However my current artist, Cabanel, was a true believer of the State-run Academies and Academic training.  He was a true Academician.  In the first two blogs about Cabanel, I featured his academic-style history paintings depicting people from mythology and the Bible.   In this blog I want to carry on looking at his life and concentrate on one of his most famous works of art, which is considered to be his greatest masterpiece.  I ended the last blog about Cabanel around the time of the World Exposition in Paris in 1855.  He exhibited a number of works at this event and was awarded the first-class medal and in November that year he was made Knight of the Legion of Honour.

 Allegory of the Five Senses by Alexandre Cabanel (1858)

Allegory of the Five Seasons by Alexandre Cabanel (1858)

Cabanel spent much of the next ten years carrying out decorative commissions.  One such commission was to decorate the elaborately carved ceiling of the grand salon of Hotel Chevalier de Montigny which had been purchased by the brothers Isaac and Emile Péreire, who had made their fortune in finance and industry.  This building in Paris is now home to the British Embassy.  During 1857 and 1858 Cabanel painted an Allegory of the Five Senses on the ceiling which was framed by four oval medallions signifying the arts of dance, poetry, fancy poetry and eloquence.  The Péreire brothers were so pleased with Cabanel’s work that six years later they commissioned him to add six vertical wall panels to the walls of the salon.  The panels featuring six female figures represented the hours of the day.

Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (1863)

Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel (1863)

In 1863 Cabanel produced one of his most celebrated works of art entitled Naissance de Venus (Birth of Venus).  It was exhibited at that year’s Salon and, in the year of Cabanel’s fortieth birthday, it marked the high point of his career.    The subject of this work of art was based on a story from classical mythology which told of the birth of Venus.  Although the paintings depicting this occurrence focus on the beauty of the event the mythology behind the tale is a little gorier as it tells how she arose from the foam of the sea shore. This miraculous creation came to being after Saturn castrated his tyrant father, the supreme sky god Uranus.   Saturn had sliced off Uranus’ genitals, and threw them into the sea. As the genitals drifted over the water, the blood and semen that issued forth from the severed flesh mixed with the sea water to foment the growth of the child who would become Venus.   The Greek poet Hesiod gives us a less graphic version of the birth of Venus writing that Venus (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.

Bacanal de los andrios by Titian (c.1526)

Bacanal de los andrios by Titian (c.1526)

In Cabanel’s painting, we see Venus resting on the crest of a wave, her long hair cascading around her body, surrounded by five putti.   Many art historians believe that the way Cabanel depicted the posture of his Venus could have been influenced by a painting by Titian and the way he depicted the naked lady in his 1526 work entitled The Bacchanal of the Andrians.

Odalisque with a Slave by Titian (1840)

Odalisque with a Slave by Titian (1840)

If we look at the posture of Cabanel’s Venus we can also draw a comparison with the way Ingres depicted the woman in his 1842 work entitled Odalisque and Slave.

 Nudity in works of art at the time of Cabanel were deemed acceptable only if they could be tied in to a mythological theme and by so doing, any hints of eroticism in the depiction were justified and any hint of a public outcry over a lascivious depiction was countered by talk of classicism.  Not all were “taken in” by such a justification as the popular French writer of the time, Emile Zola, decried Cabanel’s depiction of Venus saying:

 “…The goddess, drowned in a sea of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan, but not of flesh and blood – that would be indecent – but made of a sort of pink and white marzipan…”

 Another person that was not swayed by the classical argument for depicting nudity was the eminent French art critic Théophile Gautier who, in June 1863, wrote, an account of that year’s Salon, in the journal Le Moniteur universal and commented about Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus:

 “… One might say, one has drawn aside curtains to reveal a young woman asleep; she reclines on her bed, the crest of a wave, stretches out her arms, pulls up a leg, abandons herself to the waves that rock her, and surrenders her skeins of long hair like seaweed to the rhythm of the blue water.  The swell makes her body arch and accentuates her youthful charms all the more strongly…”

 Criticism of the work on moral grounds were voiced and it would appear that one such critic was close to Cabanel as in a letter he wrote to his niece on May 30th 1863, he tried to justify the depiction of the nude in his painting.  He wrote:

 “…I do not complain at the little sympathy that my theme provokes in you, yet occasionally it is a mistake to view a painting only in moral terms……usually the subject is merely a pretext to hint at or to express an underlying ideal, an ideal for which the public is more receptive on account of its familiarity with the subject…… I would be glad to eliminate such misgivings among the family in Montpellier…”

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1486)

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (1486)

The strange thing about the Salon of 1863 was that there was not just one Birth of Venus but three albeit one did not have that exact title.  The Birth of Venus had been depicted on a number of occasions in the past, the best known of these being Botticelli’s 1486 version.

Birth of Venus by Amaury-Duval (1863)

Birth of Venus by Amaury-Duval (1863)

However, besides Cabanel’s version, two other artists decided to feature the Birth of Venus in the work which they submitted to the 1863 Salon.  The first was a painting by Amaury Duval.

La Source by Ingres (1856)

La Source by Ingres (1856)

Duval had been a student of Ingres and his offering may have been influenced by his master’s work La Source which Ingres started whilst in Florence around 1820 but did not complete until 1856 when he was living in Paris.

Venus Anadyomène by Ingres (c.1848)

Venus Anadyomène by Ingres (c.1848)

 Another painting which could have influenced Amaury Duval when it came to the way he depicted the stance of Venus could have been another work by Ingres completed around 1848 entitled Venus Anadyomène.

The Pearl and the Wave by Paul Baudry (1862)

The Pearl and the Wave by Paul Baudry (1862)

The other Birth of Venus painting to rival Cabanel’s painting at the 1863 Salon came from Paul Baudry.  His work did not have the title “Birth of Venus” but instead because of the inclusion in the work of a depiction of an oyster shell, it was entitled La Perle et la Vague (The Pearl and the Wave) which he completed in 1862 and which now hangs in the Prado in Madrid.  In this work we see Venus not being supported by a wave but lying on a rocky ledge with the foaming sea as a background.  She turns her head towards us as she gazes backwards over her shoulder.  In a series of essays, Old Masters and New Essays in Art Criticism, the influential nineteenth American painter, writer and teacher of art at the Art Students League in New York, Kenyon Cox, praised the painting writing that it was:

 “…the most perfect painting of the nude” in the 19th century…”

 He went on in his essay to highlight the “grace of attitude”, of the well-rounded but slim body of the young woman, with her visible dimple in the shoulder.  He could not praise Baudry’s work enough calling it “a pure masterpiece”

Although the Salon had three Venus painting the general opinion at the time was that the one by Cabanel was the best.

 

Olympia by Manet (1863)

Olympia by Manet (1863)

The public and the authorities liked the work by Cabanel and accepted the classical justification for depicting a nude woman lying on the crest of a wave.  It is ironic that Edouard Manet’s risqué exhibit, Olympia, at the 1865 Salon caused a furore (see My Daily Art Display Oct 12th 2011).  Many conservative art critics termed the work immoral and vulgar.  So why would this painting of a nude woman suffer such criticism and the Birth of Venus works two years earlier escape such censure?  The answer is probably because the lady in Manet’s work was a courtesan or high-class prostitute and was devoid of any classical mythological or biblical connotation and the way she stares out at us in a provoking and challenging manner was thought to be a step too far and an unwanted reminder that her profession blossomed within Paris Society.

 Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus painting was bought by Napoleon III and now can be found in the Musée d’Orsay.  Cabanel sold the reproduction rights of this work to Goupil, the French art dealers.  They had their in-house artist, Adolphe Jourdan, make two smaller copies of the work which Cabanel later re-touched and signed as per his agreement with Goupil.  One, sold as a work by Cabanel, now hangs in the Dashesh Museum of Art in Manhatten having originally been purchased by Henry Derby the American bookseller and art collector.  The other copy was commissioned in 1875 from Goupil by John Wolfe, and his cousin Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, the daughter of a tobacco heir, John David Wolfe, and the only woman among the 106 founders of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  She was a philanthropist, patron of the Arts and avid art collector.  This version, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is slightly smaller.

 In my next blog I will take a final look at the life and works of Alexandre Cabanel and concentrate on his portraiture.

 I gleaned most of my information for this blog and the next ones about Cabanel from a great book I came across entitled Alexandre Cabanel – The Tradition of Beauty which was published to coincide with La tradition du beau exhibition of Cabanel’s paintings, which was held at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 2011 and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier in 2010.

 I also came across an excellent website which goes into much greater detail about Cabanel and is well worth a visit.  It is:

Stephen Gjertson Galleries

http://stephengjertsongalleries.com/?page_id=2851

Posted in Academicism, Alexandre Cabanel, Art, Art Blog, Art History, French painters | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alexandre Cabanel. Part 2 – the Prix de Rome and his return to Paris

I had reached the part in Alexandre Cabanel’s life story with him staying in the Villa Medici in Rome studying art, gifted to him as a reward for coming the “Second –First prize” winner in the Prix de Rome competition.  For Cabanel,  life in Rome was all about his art and very little to do with the outside distractions of the Eternal city.  He had admitted to his close friend Alfred Bruyas that he was lonely and just had his art as company.

Triumph of Galatea by Raphael (Villa Farnesina) (1514)

Triumph of Galatea by Raphael (Villa Farnesina) (1514)

One of the requirements of the artists, who had been awarded the Prix de Rome scholarship to further their studies at the Villa Medici, was that they would submit work for examination annually and those artists who were history painters would also make copies of ancient sculptures and the Old Masters.  Cabanel had already done this sort of thing before coming to Rome when he would copy works of art by Velazquez, and Titian which he saw at the Louvre.  Cabanel was a great lover of the works of Raphael and took the opportunity, whilst in Rome, to copy Raphael’s frescoes which adorned the Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere district of the city.  At this time in his life, Raphael was Cabanel’s favourite artist of the past.

Orestes by Alexandre Cabanel (1846)

Orestes by Alexandre Cabanel (1846)

As a history painter Cabanel had to study and draw life-sized figures from nature.  They also had to present, on an annual basis, one finished drawing based on a work by an Old Master, and one drawing from the antique. The works of art that the student produced were first exhibited at the Villa Medici in the April. Their work was then sent back to Paris in the May to be judged at the Institute and following that they were exhibited to the public in the autumn.    In 1846, Cabanel’s submission was entitled Orestes, who was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and who was the subject of many Ancient Greek plays and appeared in many stories by Homer.  Much to Cabanel’s horror his painting was severely criticised by the judges of the Academy who said it was an oversized and inept composition.  The painting is housed in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.

The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel (1847)

The Fallen Angel by Alexandre Cabanel (1847)

The next year, 1847, stung by the criticism but not deterred, Cabanel submitted a work entitled The Fallen Angel which is also part of the Musée Fabre collection.  Cabanel’s inspiration for this work was John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost and the fallen angels, Moloch, Belial, Mulciber, Mammon and Beelzebub.  In the work we see the “fallen” angel – fallen from grace and banished by God.  It is a classic portrayal of a naked man by an academic artist with the crafted way he depicts the musculature of the figure.  The angel has both arms raised and his fingers of his two hands interlocked hiding most of his face.  Despite this shielding of his facial expression, it does not hide from us his feelings as we can judge his mood by what we see in his eyes.  There is a look of vengeance and anger in his eyes.  He knows someone will pay for his ejection from the side of God.  He retains his pride but thinks about retribution. The subject shocked the exhibition jurists as no students had ever submitted from Rome a painting which featured the Devil.  This was a history painting submission and certain rules had to be followed and the jurists and academics who examined the work criticised it for bordering on a style of Romanticism.  In her book on Cabanel, Procès verbaux de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts (Minutes of the Academy of Fine Arts), Sybille Bellamy-Brown quoted the Academics’ remarks about the painting.  They stated:

“…The movement is wrong, the draughtsmanship imprecise, the execution deficient…”

Once again Cabanel was distraught at not being able to understand their criticism.  He wrote of his feelings with regards the criticism to his friend Alfred Bruyas, especially as he had worked tirelessly on the painting:

“…That’s my reward for all the trouble I gave myself not to submit an average piece of work…”

John the Baptist by Alexandre Cabanel (1849)

John the Baptist by Alexandre Cabanel (1849)

In 1849, his annual submission was a religious work entitled John the Baptist ,which like the other two works can be found at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.  In this work we see John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, surrounded on either side by his followers, both old and young.    To the left of the painting we see a staff planted firmly in the ground.  It takes the form of a cross and from the cross flutters a banner on which is written Agnus Dei, (Lamb of God).  The depiction is a dramatic one and, finally for Cabanel, it was well received by the Académie members back in Paris.  Cabanel, as a winner of the Prix de Rome, also had the right to be admitted to the Salon and works he submitted for inclusion at the Salons did not have to be scrutinised by the Salon jurists.  This work featured in the 1850 Salon and at the end of the exhibition was bought by the French State.

The Death of Moses by Alexandre Cabanel (1850)

The Death of Moses by Alexandre Cabanel (1850)

In his final year, 1850, his annual painting submission was The Death of Moses.  Set in the wilderness, the painting depicts Moses dying in the presence of God whilst in the background we see the Promised Land that the Lord said he would never see due to his lack of belief in the Lord.   Angels surround the dying Moses and comfort him.  The inspiration for such a depiction almost certainly came from the works of art by Michelangelo and Raphael which Cabanel had seen during his five-year sojourn in Rome.   For Cabanel, this was a major work of art and one, which in the beginning, began to worry him as to whether he could deliver the finished product.  His self-doubt can be seen in a passage from a letter he wrote 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…”

Cabanel left Rome and returned to Montpellier in 1851 and later that year returned to Paris.  He submitted his painting, The Death of Moses to the 1852 Salon and it received rapturous reviews.  The well respected and influential journalist and art critic of the time, Théophile Gautier, wrote in La Presse littéraire of May 16th 1852:

“…The Salon painting that most directly follows on from elevated, serious, profound art, whose prototypes are Michelangelo and Raphael is The Death of Moses by Monsieur Cabanel, Prix de Rome winner in 1845.  In his case, his stay at Rome, which sometimes can be detrimental to young artists, has indeed been profitable.  One can see how he has eaten the bread of angels and nourished himself on the marrow of lions…”

This was praise indeed and coming from such an influential source, Cabanel’s career in Paris could not have begun any better.

The Glorification of St. Louis by Alexandre Cabanel (c.1853-55)

The Glorification of St. Louis by Alexandre Cabanel (c.1853-55)

In 1855 the World Exhibition came to Paris for the first time.  It went on to be held in the French capital on four other occasions.  The Exposition Universelle, as it was known in France, was an international Exhibition held on the Champs-Élysées from May to November.  Part of this World Fair would be dedicated to exhibits of fine art and Cabanel quickly realised to have his paintings exhibited at such an event would gain him world-wide notoriety.  He submitted two of his works of art.  The first one was entitled The Glorifcation of Saint Louis which had been commissioned by the French state for the Gothic chapel of Sainte-Chapelle at the royal Chateau de Vincennes.  The chapel and the subject of the painting were connected as it was at this chapel that Louis IX’s relics of the Crown of Thorns were initially kept.  Cabanel also had an ulterior motive for painting this picture as it now established a connection between himself and the reigning monarch Napoleon III.  Cabanel knew that his future success would be assured if his art went hand in hand with a good working relationship with the monarchy.

Christian Martyr by Alexandre Cabanel (1855)

Christian Martyr by Alexandre Cabanel (1855)

The second work of Cabanel which appeared at the Exposition Universelle was entitled Christian Martyr.  Although the title would lead one to believe this was yet another work depicting the killing of a martyr it didn’t for it shows a group of Christians, at dusk, lifting the body of a martyred female believer from a boat up to a group of fellow believers above who are ready to carry her into a burial chamber.   The woman dressed in a dark yellow tunic lies lifelessly in the arms of the men who are lifting her up.  Her head lolls downwards and her face has the grey-green pallor of death.  It is a moving depiction and we see an elder standing behind the group of rescuers, with his arms outstretched in prayer for the soul of the martyr.  The man to the right of the scene leans against the parapet anxiously searching into the distance for the approach of the authorities.

The two paintings were also exhibited at the Salon of 1855 and The Christian Martyr painting was subsequently purchased by the Societé des Arts et des Sciences at Carcassonne for its Musée des Beaux Arts.

In my next blog I will continue to look at the life of Cabanel, his portraiture and one of his most famous works, The Birth of Venus.

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 I gleaned most of my information for this blog and the next ones about Cabanel from a great book I came across entitled Alexandre Cabanel – The Tradition of Beauty which was published to coincide with La tradition du beau exhibition of Cabanel’s paintings, which was held at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 2011 and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier in 2010.

I also came across an excellent website which goes into much greater detail about Cabanel and is well worth a visit.  It is:

Stephen Gjertson Galleries

http://stephengjertsongalleries.com/?page_id=2851

Posted in Academicism, Art, Art Blog, Art History, French painters, History Paintings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alexandre Cabanel. Part 1 – The early days and Rome

Self portrait by Alexandre Cabanel (1852)

Self portrait by Alexandre Cabanel (1852)

My featured artist today, Alexandre Cabanel, was one of the most well respected Academic artists of the nineteenth century.  In my next couple of blogs I will look at this remarkable artist and some of his paintings.  His works of art varied from portraiture to historical, classical and religious scenes all executed in an academic style.  The term Academic art, also referred to as academicism or eclecticism, is traditionally used to describe the style of art which was championed by the European academies of art, notably the Académie des Beaux-Arts.  For Cabanel, Academic art was the true art and during his lifetime he would clash with Impressionist painters and their artistic style.  Cabanel was also well known for his décorations d’intériur.

 Alexandre Cabanel was born in September 1823 in Montpellier, France.   He was the ninth child of Pierre-Jean Cabanel and Marie Anne Jean Cabanel.  Even at a young age he showed an early artistic talent and when he was eleven years of age he attended the drawing classes at the Montpellier’s free École des Beaux-Arts, which was run by the French genre painter Charles François Matet.  Matet  was also curator of the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.   Cabanel earned himself some money whilst studying by making copies of artworks which were housed in the city’s Musée Fabre which he then sold.   In 1836, thanks to Matet’s recommendation, the Montpellier council awarded Cabanel his first art scholarship to allow him to study in Paris.

 Three years later Cabanel’s artistic talent was recognised as being so good that he was awarded a second scholarship to return to Paris.  The scholarship was a blessing as his father, who was a cabinet maker, could not have afforded to send him to the French capital.    Alexandre did go, thanks to the municipal two-year grant and in the October of 1840, a month after his seventeenth birthday, Alexandre Cabanel enrolled at the School of Painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris as a pupil of François-Edouard Picot .  Picot was a well established painter who had studied under Jacques Louis-David and had tried to continue David’s artistic style, that of neoclassical values, to which, in his own works, Picot often added a more romantic flavour.

 For Cabanel the École des Beaux-Arts was not just an establishment which taught art it was a place where he was able to study literature, history and religion.  Cabanel received a good, well-rounded education and he thrived on the learning that was offered to him and in a way, it helped him convert his knowledge into visual imagery that would play a part in his future works of art. When his two-year scholarship came to an end in the summer of 1841 his mentor Picot wrote to the Montpellier authorities pleading on Cabanel’s behalf, for a further scholarship for his protégé and in return he would gain employment for Cabanel in the form of a major commission in the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.

Agony in the garden by Alexandre Cabanel (1844)

Agony in the garden by Alexandre Cabanel (1844)

In 1843 aged nineteen, Cabanel exhibited his first work of art at that year’s Salon.  It was entitled Agony in the Garden, which is currently housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes.  In this work Cabanel has placed the Christ figure off-centre.  Behind him are a group of his persecutors.

 All the time Cabanel was attending L’École des Beaux-Arts he had one aim – to have a painting of his accepted into the establishment’s coveted Prix de Rome competition, in which the winning work of art enabled the artist to receive a scholarship for them to study for a number of  years at the Villa Medici in Rome.  There were also Prix de Rome scholarships for the best proponents of architecture, sculpture, music and engraving.

Envoys of the Senate offer the Dictatorship to Cincinnatus by Alexandre Cabanel (1844)

Envoys of the Senate offer the Dictatorship to Cincinnatus by Alexandre Cabanel (1844)

In 1843 he managed to reach the preliminary round of the competition with his work entitled Odysseus is Recognised by his Servant and buoyed up by that minor success he entered the competition again in 1844 this time with his painting, Envoys of the Senate offer the Dictatorship to Cincinnatus but he was only awarded sixth place.

The Mocking of Christ by Alexandre Cabanel (1845)

The Mocking of Christ by Alexandre Cabanel (1845)

Better luck came in the 1845 competition when his work The Mocking of Christ, sometimes referred to as Christ at the Praetorium,  was judged and was awarded second place, with a fellow student of Picot, François-Léon Bénouville taking the top prize.   However second prize would not get the artist to Rome but the permanent Secretary to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Désiré Raoul-Rochette, pleaded Cabanel’s case to be allowed to go to the Villa Medici as no Grand Prize for Music had been awarded that year.  A lot of wrangling followed between Rochette and Jean Victor Schnetz,  who was director at the Villa Medici, and who was against awarding Cabanel a scholarship.  In the end Schnetz backed down and Cabanel was granted a simple scholarship to go to Rome, which was to last for five years and the Prix de Rome second prize given to Cabanel was converted into a “Second First Grand Prize”.  All winners of the Prix de Rome received a financial allowance to cover the cost of their trip to Rome plus they were given a sum of money to cover their personal expenses and those they incurred during the production of their work. They also received free room and board.  The artists who came to the Villa Medici were allowed considerable freedom to paint subjects of their own choosing, but throughout their tenure they were all required to complete certain projects.  This allowed the French government, which had funded the scholarships, a way of assessing the progress of the Prix de Rome winning artists.  For the artists it was also a chance to bring their work to the attention of the members of the Academy, who also judged their annual submissions to see if their artistic ability had progressed.

 In January 1846 Cabanel set off for Rome.  It was early on in his stay at the Villa Medici that he met a fellow Montpellier citizen, Alfred Bruyas, who was enjoying the delights of the Grand Tour.   Bruyas was the son of a wealthy banker.  He was formerly taught art and would like to have become a professional painter despite his father’s wishes that he should embrace the world of finance and become partner in his father’s bank.  Bruyas loved art and loved to paint but soon realised he would never become a great artist and so concentrated on becoming an avid and discerning collector of art and a patron of the arts.  Many of his friends were artists such as Gustave Courbet.

Alfred Bruyas by Alexandre Cabanel (1846)

Alfred Bruyas by Alexandre Cabanel (1846)

Bruyas supported Cabanel in these early days and in 1846, as a kind of repayment , Cabanel painted Bruyas’ portrait which now hangs in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.  In the painting, Bruyas is depicted as a gentleman-traveller , dressed in his velvet-collared frock coat with a fashionable yellow waistcoat and pink and white cravat.  He is standing on the terrace of the Villa Borghese in Rome.  Bruyas and Cabanel became great friends during their short time together and Cabanel became very depressed when his friend left Rome in the summer of 1846.  Cabanel  would write to Bruyas telling him of his feeling of great loss when the latter had left the Eternal City.  In one letter, he wrote:

 “…Several times of an evening, I have put down on paper details from my present life so as to send them to you in letters.  On re-reading them, however, even I found them joyless and full of sorrow that I burned them…”

 For many aspiring artists who went to live in Rome they loved the liveliness of the Italian capital with all it had to offer but ,according to Cabanel, all Rome offered him was the chance to paint and copy the works of the Italian Masters.  He cut a lonely figure which was summed up in a letter he wrote to Bruyas in 1847.  In it he wrote that all he had left for consolation was his art :

 “…I have been leading a rather an orderly life, one completely devoted to art.  I have remained as untouched, as pure as Rome’s vestal virgins of days gone by……………….What’s more, I am weary of chasing after happiness that turns out to be an illusion, what’s the use?  Especially when I believe that I have long found it in my art for instance; I devote myself to it with complete freedom just as one devotes oneself to love or poetry…”

 

La Chiaruccia by Alexandre Cabanel (1848)

La Chiaruccia by Alexandre Cabanel (1848)

In 1848 Cabanel completed three amazing paintings for Bruyas, all of which are now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.  They were to be hung together in the form of a triptych.  The first was a painting of an Italian lady in traditional country peasant costume.  It is entitled La Chiarrucia.  The woman who modelled for this work also sat for many of the artists who lived and studied at the Villa Medici.

A Thinker, a Young Roman Monk by Alexandre Cabanel (1848)

A Thinker, a Young Roman Monk by Alexandre Cabanel (1848)

The second of his three works, which was to be placed between the other two,  was entitled Un penseur, jeune moine romain,  (A Thinker, a Young Roman Monk)  and depicts a Franciscan monk lost in thought among the ruins of the Forum.

Albaydé by Alexandre Cabanel (1848)

Albaydé by Alexandre Cabanel (1848)

The third, and my favourite, was simply entitled Albaydé.  The character of the title comes from Victor Hugo’s poem Fragments of a Serpent, which was one from a 1829 collection of poems known as Orientalia. The scene would appear to be a harem .  Cabanel has depicted the young woman, an Oriental courtesan, through the lustful eyes of the poet as she lies back languorously and looks out at us seductively with half closed eyes.  The beauty of this woman emanates from her eyes which I saw described as doe-like.  Her silken robe is open to the waist exposing the curve of her breasts.  She clutches a periwinkle vine which lies across her thighs.  It is a very sensuous depiction and she and La Chiaruccia ,either side of the monk, must have made for quite a formidable combination on Bruyas’ wall.

In my next blog I continue with Alexandre Cabanel’s life story and look at more of his exquisite paintings.

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I gleaned most of my information for this blog and the next ones on Cabanel from a great book I came across entitled Alexandre Cabanel – The Tradition of Beauty which was published to coincide with La tradition du beau exhibition of Cabanel’s paintings, which was held at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne in 2011 and the Musée Fabre in Montpellier in 2010.

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