An oil portrait study of a young woman with downcast eyes against a green background.
Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) was born a carpenter’s son, but received a scholarship during his studies at the École des Beaux Arts in Montpellier, after which he moved to Paris to continue his training at the École des Beaux Arts there. Initially he primarily painted historical pieces and genre paintings, but it was through his Romantic paintings, many of which had Oriental themes, that he came to fame from the late 1840s onwards. He was made a knight in the Legion of Honour in 1855.
In 1863, Cabanel was appointed as member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and awarded the post of professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. His academic style was widely appreciated during his time, and famous Europeans and Americans ordered portraits from him. However, as a regular judge at the Salon in Paris, his academic views and vicious antagonism towards any and all new trends also regularly caused conflict between him and other artists. One incident in 1863 saw the Salon judges (including Cabanel) determine that each artist could exhibit a maximum of three pieces. Furthermore, Cabanel and co-judge William-Adolphe Bouguereau refused to admit a number of artists to the Salon, including Édouard Manet. Ultimately, 3000 of the 5000 paintings were rejected, leading to the first edition of the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition of Rejects) in the same year.
This controversy made the rejected painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) by Édouard Manet, a particular focus of criticism from Cabanel, into a source of inspiration for an entire generation of young impressionists. Cabanel himself achieved great success that year with this painting The Birth of Venus, a true exemplar of academic painting, which was sold to Napoleon III at the Salon.
Cabanel dedicated the painting shown here to “mon ami Dumont,” or “my friend Dumont,” undoubtedly referring to the Parisian sculptor Auguste Alexandre Dumont (1801-1884). Like Cabanel, Dumont was a Prix de Rome winner who had been appointed as professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he taught sculpture from 1853 until his death in 1884.
This painting dates from a time when Academic painting was still the dominant paradigm, but newer movements were gaining in prominence, further deepening the rift between the Academists and the Impressionists. This sketch by Cabanel is a clear example of the classic school.
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