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

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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

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.