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.
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.
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 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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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