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Creator / Alexandre Cabanel

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Cabanel's self-portrait.

"Of all the academic painters, Cabanel was both the most adored by the public and the most criticized."
Jean Nougaret, an art historian from the Montpellier Academy of Sciences and Letters.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) was a French painter of the Academicism artistic movement which, in other words, means he was a technician. And a virtuoso, at that, painting an extremely realistic self-portrait at thirteen.

Academic art is the Lawful Neutral of the arts because it sets strict rules of how art must be done. Some people regard it as Lawful Stupid since it heavily constrains creativity and doesn't put the expression of emotion as its highest priority — which is the primary reason why modern art was born.

Cabanel, however, is one of the few who managed to create meaning and convey complex emotions within the Academist conventions — probably, because of the helping of Rococo he added to his artworks. Cabanel is, in particular, the best representative of L'Art Pompier; i.e., those huge Neoclassicist allegorical (religious, classic, or historical) murals. And that explains why he was Napoleon III's preferred artist and the public's favorite. He also worked in oil on canvas.

As a fun fact, he had a lot of pupils. You can count those who also made a name of their own by the dozens, never mind those who didn't.

See also William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Joseph Lefebvre, painters who belonged to the Academist Movement too.

Relationship with art critics:

When Cabanel was a pupil, he faced a tough public in his fellow Academic artists. Paintings like The Fallen Angel were called sloppy and too Romanticist in style due to, respectively, not yet following perfect proportions (just near perfect, mind you) and displaying emotions too raw. This, despite always having submitted very by-the-rules works which provided him with a modicum of fame and the reluctant approval of the judges. It was only after he perfected his technique that he was acknowledged by the Academy as a proper artist and his art to be coveted by notable figures of his time.

Several years after his death, the Technician Versus Performer debate between academic and modern art ensured he was put to the wringer by exponents and defendants of the latter. His art was deemed lifeless, monotone, and too lacking in the "conveying emotion" department. He was used as the scapegoat representative of Academicism which, in turn, was regarded as everything wrong with the period's art.

Ironically enough, the "uneducated" public, adored (and still adores) some of his paintings, if only because modern art has gotten increasingly abstract and less straightforward since then. In other words, the beauty and message of a Cabanel are easier to interpret than those of a Mondrian. At least, to the average person.

Cabanel's artworks:

Historical Paintings

Mythological Paintings

Religious Paintings

Tropes found throughout Cabanel's paintings:

  • Art Imitates Art: Academicism was all about this trope — using a not-so-Small Reference Pool (Classical Mythology and Christianity) following strict rules of proportion and composition, which greatly hindered creativity and caused artists to repeat the masters' artworks over and over. Cabanel, despite disagreeing with it in his youth, won a contest by imitating Giorgione's Sleeping Venus. He later learned to give his own Original Flavor to such Neoclassicist paintings.
  • Christian Fiction: Something of an Enforced Trope because the Salon of Paris regarded artworks inspired by the Christian canon to be the most preferable subjects, above mythological and historical ones. As such, Cabanel's paintings during his early years were heavily dominated by religious pieces — e.g., The Death Of Moses (1851) and The Fallen Angel. Afterward, he took a liking to depict scenes from Classical Mythology and got commissioned by influential people to paint them in huge, allegorical murals. Even then, he continued to produce Christian pieces such as The Expulsion Of Adam And Eve From The Garden Of Paradise (1867) and The Daughter Of Jephthah (1879).
  • Concept Art Gallery: As Academicism heavily encouraged, Cabanel drew lots of sketches (today known as Master Studies or études) before working on the actual oil painting. Some are pose references while others are mock paintings to figure out the color palette. Most of them are available online or compiled in the 1989 art exposition "Déssins d'Alexandre Cabanel 1823-1889" of the Musée Fabre, France.
  • Creator's Oddball: During his formative years, Cabanel won two important art awards of the time that were indicative of his preference for Biblical Motifs. The Prix of Rome with his "Jesus in the Pretorium" and getting his "Christ in the Garden of Olives" admitted to the Salon of Paris. Some art historians speculate that he was playing it safe, what with making his characters' expressions as neutral as possible. However, a young Cabanel yearned to suffuse more emotion into his artworks, so he switched gears to Mythical Motifs and produced his "Orestes", a nude painting of the son of Agamemnon reaching his hand out. He soon returned to Christian themes with his (still very expressive) "The Fallen Angel" and, after a while, to apathetic, idealized paintings. It wasn't until some years later that he returned to Greek mythology and charmed the aristocrats with his Art Pompier frescos.
  • Creator Thumbprint: "Orestes" started a lifelong trend of depicting muscled men in his artworks. After all, it's easier to emote through sheer Body Language when your subject has muscles that bulge when tense or in awkward positions.
  • Dated History: His depiction of Cleopatra VII, Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Condemned Prisoners, is informed by the discredited idea that she was a scheming, amoral Femme Fatale whose sins led to her death and to the destruction of Egypt as an independent nation. Newer, better-verified records paint a different story. Cleopatra saw seducing Caesar and Antony as a legitimate way of convincing them to help restore order in a country quickly approaching lawlessness while at the same time preventing Rome from invading and enslaving the populace.
  • Deity Fiction: Several of his works feature deities as major characters, either from Classical Mythology and Christianity. For example, the Love Goddess Venus is the subject of his "The Birth of Venus". He also produced some Passion Play pieces, such as "Christ in the Garden of Olives" and "Jesus in the Pretorium".
  • Fan Art: Cabanel often took inspiration for his pieces from Greek theatre tragedies and some literary works. A product of the former is his "Orestes", from The Oresteia play. Another painting captures the scene when Orestes takes refuge in the Temple of Apollon, and a third one has him as a Marathon soldier. As for literature, Cabanel's "Ophelia" portrays the suicide of the titular character from William Shakespeare's Hamlet. His "The Fallen Angel" illustrates a very climatic scene from the epic poem Paradise Lost.
  • Follow-Up Failure: Cabanel was a virtuoso, so by the time he was 22, his religious-themed paintings enjoyed hard-earned approval from the art judges. One of his works was displayed in the Salon of Paris, the most prestigious art exhibition of the time, while another had won the Prix of Rome. Yet, the moment Cabanel dared to experiment a little, the judges and other masters decried him. Thus, they deemed his "Orestes" and his "The Fallen Angel" inadequate. Back then, if you weren't backed up by the Academy, your works weren't displayed, so Cabanel's oil paintings during this rebellious period had to be discovered much later by art historians to get recognition.
  • Passion Play: Some of his earliest artworks (from before he braved to paint scenes from Greek tragedies) capture key scenes on the events leading to Jesus' passion. Two of his most at-the-time recognized pieces are "Christ in the Garden of Olives" and "Jesus in the Pretorium". The former depicts Jesus praying to his father on the eve of his execution. The latter is right when he's being subjected to trial by Pontius Pilate.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment Academic Art is The Enlightenment's artistic offspring. Its main characteristics are idealism (portraying reality at the high end of the Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty and through muted emotions), Strictly Formula, and favoring allegorical artworks (i.e., with religious, mythological, or historical themes). Notable exponents of this movement include Cabanel. The only time when Cabanel rebelled against the Movement's conventions was during his formative years. Then, his art pieces were more open in the display of emotions and were deemed "too Romantic" by his art judges.
  • Shout-Out: Deeply inspired by The Renaissance as he was, Cabanel got the idea of depicting a muscular, contorted man covering his lower face with his arm from the "Day" sculpture found in the "New Sacristy" mausoleum.
  • Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Idealism is an artistic aesthetic featured in Academic Art, and therefore in Cabanel's paintings. As its name indicates, it's about idealizing reality to a standard of perfection and beauty that can only be found inside one's imagination. This means the artworks depicted no blood or dirt even when the scene would have required them and the textures were clean, smooth, and even outright shiny sometimes (in the case of metal surfaces and skin).
  • Strictly Formula:
    • Academicism enforces this trope by requiring perfect bodily proportions, flawless composition, and an idealistic aesthetic from any artwork. At the time, if the Academy rejected a piece, then it wasn't art. Cabanel mostly adhered to those principles in order to be allowed to do art but managed to squeeze originality into his works despite that; that's why he's chosen as the ultimate exponent of Academic Art.
    • His early allegorical paintings (e.g., The Fallen Angel, Orestes) are an interesting aversion. As a student, his technique was not yet the absolute perfection the Academy demanded and his imprinting of emotions was deemed more appropriate for Romanticism than for Academicism.
  • The Time of Myths: Two-thirds of his paintings depict scenes from either Classical Mythology or Christian religious canon. Gods and minor deities are represented as humanoids going about their business — being born, falling from heaven, etc. The remaining third sometimes exalts their human subjects by including mythical figures to accompany them in some way (as mentors or creatures to slay).

Conversational Troping Cabanel engaged in:

  • Technician Versus Performer: After having his The Fallen Angel harshly criticized and rejected by the Salon of Paris art judges, Cabanel commented to his patron that such was his reward for trying to be a performer instead of the technician that the Academists demanded of him.
    "That’s my reward for all the trouble I gave myself not to submit an average piece of work [...]"

Alternative Title(s): Cabanel