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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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