Lauded during his lifetime as the successor of David, Ingres, and Delacroix, Cabanel began his artistic studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1840. In 1845, he was awarded the Prix de Rome, the first of numerous honors and medals that he would receive during his long and prolific career. His prowess as a portrait painter earned him the favor of Napoleon III and the patronage of the doyens of Gilded Age America. His appointment first as a member of the Institut de France in 1863 and, the following year, to a professorship at the Beaux-Arts impacted an entire generation of artists; together with Gérôme, Cabanel would teach more students than any of his colleagues or contemporaries. Cabanel was bestowed a permanent position at the Beaux-Arts on the jury responsible for admissions and awards in that same year.
Cabanel’s relationship with the annual Paris Salon was equally important. A regular exhibitor from 1843 of historical, religious, and classical subjects painted in the academic style, the artist received a silver medal in 1852, gold in 1855, and medals of honor in 1865, 1867, and 1878. For seventeen years between 1868 and 1888, Cabanel was elected to serve on the Salon jury. It was in this capacity, and in collaboration with William Bouguereau, that the artist would refuse to accept 2783 paintings to the Salon, thus compelling the creation of the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and deepening a growing rift between academic and avant-garde art.
These academic affiliations were countered by Cabanel’s success as a muralist and decorative painter, a career that began in 1852-3 with a set of twelve pendentives depicting seasonal aspects of each calendar month for the Paris city hall, the Hôtel de Ville; later large-scale works can be found in public and private buildings throughout France, including at the Hôtel Chevalier de Montigny, the Hôtel Say, the Louvre, Château de Vincennes, and the Panthéon. Cabanel’s largest and most important commission abroad was for Le Paradis perdu (1867), a monumental painting created for King Maximilian II of Bavaria as part of an elaborate interior iconographic program in Münich’s Maximilianeum.
Cabanel’s best-known painting is La Naissance de Venus (The Birth of Venus) (1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a picture that both reflected Cabanel’s debt to the Italian Renaissance masters and forecast his dedication to the idealistic perfection – and, contemporaries felt, the eroticization - of the female nude. Like so many of his works, it was purchased directly from the artist (in this case by Napoleon III), with several preparatory studies, sketches, and reductions created for additional sales. The success of these works led to relationships with several French and American dealers and printmakers, thus ensuring Cabanel’s enduring popularity in the United States, England, and further abroad. Two of Cabanel’s reductions of The Birth of Venus are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Dahesh Museum in New York. A répétition of Paradis perdu is included in the inventory of Gallery 19c.
This biography was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.