Alexandre Cabanel 1823-1889. La tradition du beau

Alexandre Cabanel 1823-1889. The tradition of beauty

Montpellier, Musée Fabre, from 10 July to 5 December 2010
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, from 4 February to 18 May 2011

1. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
, 1863
Oil on canvas - 130 x 225 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN

The Musée Fabre continues to make essential contributions to art history through its exhibitions. Thanks to this establishment several important artists now boast a reference work, published in accompaniment to a thorough retrospective of their oeuvre. Besides the entries corresponding to the paintings on display, there is an additional list of works which makes the publication a complete catalogue. Following the recent shows on Jean Raoux (see article in French) and François-Xavier Fabre (see article in French), another native son, Alexandre Cabanel is now the focus of an exhibition which is successful in every way.

And yet, this local artist did not at first appear to have left a lasting legacy. As is the case for many “academics”, he has spent a long time in purgatory. More seriously still, the only canvas which is really well-known is, in our opinion, not one of his best. We are of course referring to his Venus (ill. 1) which resides at the Musée d’Orsay, and presented here next to two other paintings from the Salon of 1863 to which it was compared, The Pearl and the Wave by Baudry (Madrid, Prado) and The Birth of Venus by Amaury-Duval (Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts).
The painter is however worth more than this slightly trivial canvas evoking an old-fashioned eroticism, as is perfectly demonstrated by the exhibition. Cabanel was an excellent painter and a view of his work shows us once again that “academic”, a term referring to training, and especially “pompier” , an adjective of still debatable origin, are words which do not reflect a pictorial reality since the styles of the different artists included in this so-called movement are each so different. In fact, and this is at times suggested in the catalogue (notably in Stephen Bahn’s essay), Cabanel might be associated to Romanticism. His subjects are often drawn from Shakespeare or themes treated in the first half of the 19th century by Romantic artists. The manner frequently recalls that of Chassériau, more than Delacroix. When one compares his angels in Paradise Lost (ill. 2) to Chassériau’s, or his figure of Veleda to some of this painter’s heroines, there are undoubtedly a certain number of analogies which merit further study.

2. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Head of an Angel, Study for the Lost Paradise, 1863-1867
Oil on maroufl paper on canvas - 65.3 x 45 cm
Béziers, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : All rights reserved

3. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1843-1844
Oil on canvas - 185 x 145 cm
Montpellier, church Saint-Roch (presbytery)
Photo : Marina Weissman/Armelle Demongeot.

4. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Albaydé, 1848
Oil on canvas - 98 x 80 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Didier Rykner

The visit is both chronological and thematic, thus enabling visitors to understand the artist’s evolution and the logic behind his inspiration. When entering, we are met with a self-portrait produced when he was only 13 which already reveals some fine qualities. But his career really began as in the case of most of the artists of that period, while he was at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and participated in the contest for the Prix de Rome which he won in 1845 with Jesus in the Praetorium, a beautiful religious composition confirming his talent. Next to it, there is the painting by Léon Bénouville which also attained the long-awaited award [1].
It is unfortunate that the curators did not choose to present the first painting Cabanel dispatched to the Salon in 1844, a Christ in the Garden of Olives immediately purchased by the city of Montpellier, and which was his first real attempt at historical painting (aside from the work done while at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts). This painting now resides at the presbytery of the church of Saint Roch in Montpellier which we encourage visitors to see [2] as it has just been restored. It has still not been correctly reproduced, in our opinion, even in the catalogue which simply publishes a small vignette [3] (ill. 3).

5. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
The Fallen Angel, 1847
Oil on canvas - 121 x 189.7 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : F. Jaulmes/Musée Fabre

6. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
The Death of Moses, 1850
Oil on canvas - 140 x 204 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : F. Jaulmes/Musée Fabre

Alexandre Cabanel, resources in hand, arrived therefore in Rome in early 1846 where he worked industriously in the hopes of attracting the attention of the members of the Academy, who judged the work of the students as well as their progress every year, by dispatching paintings back to Paris regularly. More particularly however, he, like all the other resident artists of the Prix de Rome in Italy, hoped to catch the eye of art critics and the government, the first were the conduit for recognition, the second provided the commissions that a young student returning from Rome needed in order to earn a livelihood.
Cabanel was fortunate in that he was quickly taken on by Alfred Bruyas whom he had met in Montpellier at a young age. While in Italy, he had painted three works for him which correspond by their subject and size, La Chiaruccia, a young Italian peasant girl carrying a basket of flowers, A Thinker, a Young Roman Monk and finally, Albaydé (ill. 4), his first painting with a title inspired by a Romantic literary work, Les Orientales by Victor Hugo. The last is a particularly remarkable canvas, notably for its subtle colours and sensuality, devoid of any vulgarity.
Orestes, his first work sent from Rome in 1846, is a beautiful painting due to its atmosphere and a palette of brown shades. The awkwardness of the drawing of the right leg, much too short thus disrupting the balance of the composition, seems surprising however for an already experienced painter. The painting dispatched in 1847, on the other hand, The Fallen Angel, is an authentic masterpiece of late Romanticism (ill. 5), as is also, in a very different genre, the last work he sent, in 1850, and for which the Musée Fabre has a second version, The Death of Moses [4] (ill. 6). The fact that he has been criticized for obviously borrowing from Raphael (for God the Father) and Michelangelo (for Moses) is absurd. Painters from all periods have always found inspiration in their illustrious predecessors. This is in no way a pastiche or a copy, but in fact a reinterpretation. Cabanel studied art carefully while in the Eternal City and profited from these contacts. Thus armed and in full possession of his talent, he was set to conquer Paris when his stay there ended.

7. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Portrait of Miss Fanny Clapp, 1881
Oil on canvas - 73 x 55.9 cm
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Veleda, 1852
Oil on canvas - 128 x 89 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : F. Jaulmes/Musée Fabre

9. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Victims Sentenced to Death, 1887
Oil on canvas - 165 x 290 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Photo : Didier Rykner

It will be interesting to visit the Gérôme retrospective opening at the Musée d’Orsay soon after seeing Cabanel. Both were preeminent figures in official painting circles during the second half of the 19th century and the catalogue, particularly the essay by Dominique Lobstein on the Salons, illustrates just how competitive they were. A comparison of the portraits which each painted will be particularly engaging.
We mention this last point as our only regret concerning the exhibition in Montpellier is precisely here, despite the enthusiasm expressed by Michel Hilaire in the catalogue. Our disappointment is perhaps due in part to the absence of many likenesses, among the most important and famous of that period, either because they are lost or simply not lent, when this is considered to be one of Cabanel’s most consummate skills. We would have liked, for instance, to discover the Portrait of Madame Jules Paton, alas lost, which Gautier compared to Ingres. The ones on display here, despite undeniable qualities in the depiction of the fabrics, seem a bit dull and do not really stand out (ill. 7).
The same cannot be said of his historical painting, always vibrantly inspired. Whether illustrating Celtic legends with Veleda (ill. 8), Shakespeare (Othello Recounting his Battles ; Portia-Scene of the Chests from the Merchant of Venice), Dante (The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta), and until the end of his life with Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Victims Sentenced to Death (ill. 9), rightly compared to cinematic art which would soon appear on screens, Cabanel demonstrates a strong inspiration and a fine sense of composition.
An entire section highlights one of the masterpieces we mentioned earlier : Paradise Lost. The original, a large format, commissioned by King Maximilian II of Bavaria was destroyed during the war but there are still many preparatory drawings, studies and replicas (ill. 10).
This gives us a chance to discuss Cabanel as a draughtsman. His most beautiful sheets, such as some of the studies for this painting, are among the best drawings of the entire French 19th century.
Cabanel is unparalleled in his handling of black and red chalk, at times heightened with white for a very subtle result, as in the study for the angel on the left (ill. 11).

10. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
The Lost Paradise
Oil on canvas - 108 x 82 cm
Paris, Private collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

11. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Angel, Study for the Lost Paradise, 1863-1867
Black chalk heightened with white - 47.1 x 30.4 cm
Nancy, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Claude Philippot

12. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
The Hours
Charcoal, watercolor wash - 245 x 88.5 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : F. Jaulmes/Musée Fabre

Despite the difficulty of presenting decorative painting in an exhibition, given that the walls cannot be moved at will, the section here is remarkably accomplished.
The décors from the Hôtel de Ville (or City Hall) disappeared, alas, during the Commune and we are only shown some preparatory drawings and engravings. However, the Louvre still has a ceiling, unfamiliar to the public as it is the consulting room of the Département des Arts Graphiques today [5]. A painted sketch (acquired in 1998) is displayed here, along with a watercolour. Even less known are the two salons Alexandre Cabanel painted for private patrons, one in the Pereire brothers’ residence [6] and the other for Constant Say [7]. Both of these ensembles are evoked through a virtual visit, but especially thanks to large preparatory cartoons, of actual execution size, held by the Musée Fabre and restored for the occasion (ill. 12).
Except for The Glorification of Saint Louis (see news item of 23/07/10) which looks like a mural due to its size, Cabanel only painted one religious décor, that of the Pantheon next to such artists as Bonnat, Puvis de Chavannes and Jean-Paul Laurens. He is the only one, as explained by Emmanuelle Amiot-Saulnier in the catalogue, to have treated this commission as a monumental triptych rather than one unique scene in order to illustrate the story of Saint Louis. We point out notably here, among all of the preparatory drawings and studies, the rediscovery of a large painted maquette held in a religious institution (ill. 13).

13. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Study for the Panthéon : The Life of Saint Louis, 1874-1877
Oil on canvas - 156 x 256 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Photo : Didier Rykner

We would like to conclude this review by returning once again, since a recent article in Le Monde would seem to affirm that the debate is still not closed, to the unending Manichean vision of art history, a direct inheritance of the 20th century, which still considers that on the one side there are the “bad guys” (with Cabanel obviously) and the “good guys” (generally speaking, the avant-garde of that time which goes from Géricault and Delacroix to the Impressionists including in between, Corot and Courbet). This implies that it is thus impossible to like both Paul Flandrin and Corot, Cabanel and Manet.
This battle ended in fact a long time ago and the latter definitively won out over the first. Why fight the same battle again when the victory has been clearly pronounced ? Liking Cabanel does not mean he is a greater artist than Edouard Manet, an absurd statement. They are not in the same league, either in their style, nor their ambitions. In fact, this dichotomy is a relative one : there is no solution of continuity between Claude Monet and Cabanel, if we were to take two extremes. Monet is close to Bazille, who is not too far removed from Carolus-Duran, who in turn can be compared to Cabanel for his portraits. The history of painting is much more complex than some would have us believe.
It would be false to pronounce Alexandre Cabanel the champion of the academic camp. The catalogue explains very clearly that he never – unlike Gérôme – made any antagonistic statements about the new style of painting, even going so far as to say about the Portrait of M. Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter by Manet, before his colleages at the Académie : “Gentlemen, there is not a single one of us here who could come up with a head like that outdoors”, to request that a Renoir painting placed too high up at the Salon of 1879 hang lower down or to support his fellow countryman Bazille so that one of his paintings was accepted at the Salon of 1868. His career as a professor – and he trained many students – also evoked in the exhibition here, is in fact proof of his open mindedness and equanimity.

We should by now have learned to appreciate Cabanel for what he is, in this we commend the retrospective in Montpellier for their helping hand. It will then travel on to Cologne. As this next stop could not begin until February, exceptionally the show will last five months until early December. There are still three months left then for art lovers to discover this great painter and make up their own minds.

General curators : Michel Hilaire and Sylvain Amic.

Collective work, Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889 : la tradition du beau, Somogy, 2010, 464 p., 39 €, ISBN 9782757203569

We also point out the issue of Dossiers de l’Art on Cabanel (Cabanel et la grande peinture au XIXe siècle). Some of the texts are taken from the catalogue, but it also includes some unpublished articles (9€ at newsstands).

Visitor information : Musée Fabre, 13 rue Montpellieret, 34000 Montpellier. Phone : +33 (0)4 67 66 13 46. Open every day except Mondays from 10 to 18h. Wednesdays from 13 to 21h ; Saturdays from 11 to 18h. Rates : 8 €, 6 € (reduced).

Musée Fabre website

Didier Rykner, jeudi 30 septembre 2010


[1] To be perfectly precise, Bénouville won the Grand Prix and a second Grand Prix was given to Cabanel thus allowing him to go to Rome, in place of the Grand Prix for musical composition which was not given out that year.

[2] We are sorry we did not get the chance to see it ourselves since we did not know this when we went.

[3] We would like to thank Marina Weissman and Hélène Palouzié for their help in obtaining this picture. The painting was restored by Marina Weissman and Armelle Demongeot.

[4] The first version today resides at the Dahesh Museum in New York ; this establishment is now closed but the collections are regularly lent out to exhibitions.

[5] Originally, it decorated a staircase, unfortunately eliminated in 1969 in a stupid act of vandalism which was all too frequent at the time.

[6] Located at 35, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, this Hôtel is today the home of the British Embassy.

[7] The Hôtel Say, 14, Place Vendôme, is the headquarters of the J. P. Morgan Bank.

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