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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.