In my last look at the life and works of Alexandre Cabanel I want to concentrate on his genius as a portraitist. In my last blog I had reached 1863, the year in which his most famous work, Naissance de Venus (Birth of Venus), was exhibited at that year’s Salon, which was subsequently purchased by Napoleon III and is now on display at the Musée d’Orsay. The work received great revues despite the subject’s nudity which caused some adverse comments. Cabanel, at the age of forty, was honoured that year, when he was bestowed with the status of Officer of the Legion of Honour and was elected a member of the Institut Impérial de France. On January 1st 1864 he opened his own studio at the École des Beaux-Arts. He was reputed to have been an excellent teacher, who was well loved by his students, many of whom went on to win the Prix de Rome. Many of his students went on to regularly exhibit at the Salon.
Cabanel’s reputation as a leading artist of the time was well established by 1860 and his mastery of portraiture was well known throughout Europe and he had become the favoured portraitist of the European aristocracy. In the 1863 Salon besides his Birth of Venus painting he exhibited a portrait of Countess de Clermont Tonnerre who had married into one of the most famous old families in France.
Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie, had, up to this time, commissioned several royal portraits from Franz Xavier Winterhalter, Edouard Dubuffe and Hippolyte Flandrin. Their portraits of Napoleon III were acclaimed by critics and yet the royal couple were not completely satisfied and so, in 1864, decided to commission Cabanel to paint a new portrait of Napoleon. For Cabanel, this was the ultimate commission. The portrait was completed and exhibited in the 1865 Salon and won Cabanel a Medal of Honour. What the critics liked so much about the work was its simplicity and sophistication. This was not a normal portrait of a ruler in military uniform. In this work, the Emperor is depicted wearing a simple black evening suit, under which we see his military sash. The ceremonial robes can be seen draped on a chair at his side. There was a sense of modesty about the Emperor although his depiction maintained an aristocratic tone. It was if he was truly “one of the people” which may well have been part of what the ruler wanted his portrait to depict of him. The 1886 edition of the Magazine of Art, which was an illustrated monthly British journal devoted to the visual arts, and which was published from May 1878 to July 1904 in London and New York included an article by Alice Meynell, who wrote that Cabanel’s royal portrait remit was to produce:
“…a portrait which should be more expressive of the stability, suavity, and prosperity of the Empire, and he not only succeeded in this, but produced a work which was in many solid qualities the finest example of his talent…”
The painting is now housed at the Musée du Château de Compiègne.
The work was acclaimed a masterpiece, not only in Europe, but also in America and, along with Cabanel’s portraits of high-society European women, it was this work by him which almost certainly inspired wealthy Americans to choose Cabanel to paint their portraits and portraits of their family members. Portraiture had always been a lucrative genre but the fact that Cabanel was a man of means indicates that, for him, portraiture was not just a means of earning money but was an art genre he loved and many of his portraits were exhibited at the various Salons
Catharine Lorillard Wolfe was an American philanthropist and art collector. She gave large amounts of money to institutions of which her most significant gifts were two bequests to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York . She also left her large collection of popular contemporary paintings to the museum, together with $200,000.
To have one’s portrait or a portrait of one’s partner painted by a well-known artist was a means of letting the world know that you had “arrived”. You had made good and the “right” artist could depict you as a man or woman of class and wealth. Around the 1880’s following the end of the American Civil War many people had amassed fortunes, much of which was spent on art – not just any art but the contemporary art of the European painters, especially works by the French artists. In America, the period which spanned the final three decades of the nineteenth century was known as the Gilded Age. The phrase Gilded Age derives from the many great fortunes created during this period and the way of life this wealth supported and the phrase was coined by Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, A Gilded Age, A tale of Today.
Mary Sloan Frick married Robert Garrett, the oldest son of John W Garrett, who was president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Robert Garrett & Sons Bank. Cabanel painted this portrait whilst his sitter was on holiday in Paris in 1883.
America’s industrial economy boomed. It was a time of great wealth for the industrialists such as John D Rockefeller, with his oil, Andrew Carnegie, with his steel and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and steamboat tycoon. For wealthy Americans like them, having a painting by a French artist hanging in one of the rooms of their large mansions signalled not just your wealth but alluded to your knowledge of European art and thus enhanced your air of intellectual prowess. For these rich Americans what would be even better than just owning a painting by a well-known French artist, would be to have that artist paint your portrait or your wife’s portrait. That would really impress your friends!
In 1877, Olivia Peyton Murray married William Bayard Cutting, a member of New York’s merchant aristocracy, an attorney, financier, real estate developer, sugar beet refiner and philanthropist. Ten years later he commissioned Cabanel to paint a portrait of his wife which can now be found at the Museum of the City, New York.
Alexandre Cabanel’s reputation as an outstanding academic painter and portraitist was acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic and his work was in great demand.
Mrs Collis Huntington married Collis Potter Huntington, who was one of the Big Four of western railroading and who built the Central Pacific Railroad, which formed part of the first American transcontinental railroad.
A man of wealth would like to be portrayed by an artist in quite a sombre mood depicting his serious business-like nature whereas they would like their wives and daughters to be portrayed in the finest clothes, with the most expensive of jewellery but the women were not to be portrayed as being frivolous instead they must be seen as intelligent figures who played, like their husbands or fathers, a key role in society.
In a book which was published to coincide with Alexandre Cabanel’s retrospective 2010 exhibition at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Michel Hilaire, the director of the Musée Fabre of Montpellier, where many of Cabanel’s work are housed, wrote of Cabanel’s life:
“…It was the end of a fulfilled life and artistic career characterised by hard work, but also full of success and esteem…”
Alexandre Cabanel died at his Paris home on the rue Alfred de Vigny close to the Parc Monceau Paris on January 23rd 1889, aged 65.
For an excellent article on Alexandre Cabanel and his American portraits you should go and read an excellent article by Leanne Zalewski :