Born On This Day: Alexandre Cabanel (1823 – 1889)

How have posthumous artists influenced art today? Our factfile series on seminal artists charts their influences, interpretations and echoes in modern times…


Full nameAlexandre Cabanel

‘Self-Portrait’ by Alexandre Cabanel, c. 1870.

Born:  28th September 1823, Montpelier (Herault, France).

Died:  23rd January 1889, Paris (France), after suffering a severe asthma attach the day before.

Education:  In 1834 (aged 10) he began studying at his local art school in Montpelier, after showing a gift for painting at school.  By 17 he was studying at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, under Francois-Edouard Picot.  At 22 he won the scholarship for the Prix de Rome (1845) after coming 2nd for the 2nd time in the contest, going on to study at the Villa Medici, Rome.


Connections:  The Paris Salon, William-Adolphe Bougeureau and Jean-Leon Gerome (fellow Salon jury members).  Alfred Bruyas, who was an art student and collector (also from Montpelier), who went on to buy many of Cabanel’s paintings from Portrait of Alfred Bruyas (c. 1846) onwards, eventually becoming his patron.  Jean-Baptiste Ciceron Lesueur, who as an architect commissioned Cabanel to decorate 12 pendentives at the esteemed L’Hotel de Ville, Paris.  The Periere Brothers – real estate and finance – who assigned him to paint the ceiling of the Grand Salon, Hotel Chevalier de Montigny.  Napoleon III, who also became Cabanel’s patron and awarded him the Legion of Honor medal, confirming him as a leading French artist.  Thus followed many commissions both by the emperor and French aristocracy.  Adolphe Goupil – art dealer and publisher – who commissioned Michelangelo in his Studio Visited by Pope Julius II (c. 1859) for publishing as an affordable art print for general public purchase.

Napoleon III, President of the 2nd French Republic. One of Cabanel’s patrons and supporters amongst the French aristocracy.

Influences Jacques-Louis David’s neo-classical style through his tutor, Picot.  Greco-Roman artistic tradition and styles, plus French artistic protocols from 16th-18th Centuries whilst studying L’Ecole des Beaux Arts’ full curriculum.  Leon Benouville – another pupil at Picot’s atelier and winner of Prix de Rome in 1845.  Roman antiquities and sculptural traditions whilst studying there from 1845.  

Artistic Phases & Genres:-


Notable Exhibitions:-

Notable Works:-

1855-1860 – Decoratifs pieces (murals) in the Grand Salon, Hotel Chevalier de Montigny (now the British Embassy where the pieces are still on display).

1863 – The Birth of Venus – Cabanel’s most notable painting, which was later purchased by Napoleon III.

1872 – The Triumph of Flora, Cabinet des Dessins, the Louvre.

1874-78 – The Glorification of St Louis, Pantheon, Paris – one of the most important public projects from the post-Franco-Prussian War period.

‘Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners’ by Alexandre Cabanel, c. 1887.  Showing the emergence of the Symbolist style, later extrapolated by the Symbolist Movements of France, Belgium and Russia, and ultimately showcased in the first Silent Movies, followed by ‘Arts Films’ well into the 21st Century.

Other Awards:-

1863 – Elected member of the Institut de France, and appointed Professor at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.

1865 & 1867 & 1878 – won the Grande Medaille d’Honneur in the annual Salons.

1868-1888 – Elected to serve on 17 Salons juries.


Modern Echoes:-

One of Cabanel’s most notable expositions, was one in which his own work was not included.  His aversion to the new avant-garde impressionist and abstract styles emerging in the 19th Century (due to their lack of adherence to the protocols of the Academic Style), meant that he and his fellow Salon Jury members (Bougeureau and Gerome) rejected many artistic pioneers from their exhibitions.  This caused an upsurge in public support for the new styles, and ultimately Napoleon III granted them their own exhibition.  The Salon des Refuses staged just around the corner from the Paris Salon, exhibited works by such greats as Manet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne.  This furore ultimately served to grace these brave, new artistic styles with the notoriety they needed to launch in the public consciousness, and, in more modern times, to be accepted in the art world.

Another of Cabanel’s legacies remains in the slew of pupils he tutored whilst a professor at the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.  Indeed, the New York Times remarked on this in his obituary:-

‘His pupils come from all nations and all ranks of society, and his protection was given to them constantly and with widest sense of friendliness… to one and all, the master, in spite of a strong personal and most classical tendency, gave encouragement to personal aptitude.’.

His pupils of significance number in their hundreds, but include:-

Rodolfo Amoedo, Henry Bacon, Pierre-Auguste Cot, Jules Bastien-Lapage, Charles Fouqueray, Jan Monchablon, and Antonio Sylva Porto.

Scene from the Silent Movie and Arts Film entitled ‘Intolerance’ by D.W. Griffiths. (Detail of Alfred Paget as Prince Belshazzar).

Stylistically, one can trace his legacy through the Pre-Raphaelites (operating through the latter half of the 19th Century), the later Symbolist Movements of France, Belgium and Russia (from 1857 through to the early 20th Century) and the early, silent movies they influenced (such as D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance and its Babylonian scenes, c. 1916, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of the ‘Silent Era’, and one of the first ‘Art Films’*).


*’Art Films’ have continued as a media genre into the 21st Century.


[Credits:  Feature Photo – ‘Self-Portrait’ by Alexandre Cabanel, c. 1852; Alexandre Cabanel – The Tradition of Beauty by Andreas Bluhm; Cabanel’s death and his Popularity, New York Times (26th January 1889); The Best Films of All Time – A Primer of Cinematic History, by Tim Dirks;;



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