All artists who have attended college love to tell horror stories regarding their experiences in art classes. Even those of us for whom the college experience was largely positive have tales to tell. And in art history there are similar nightmare stories connected to art academies, especially during the previous century. In fact the French Academy des Beaux-arts is the favourite whipping boy of all time. Especially during the second half of the nineteenth century art historians have made it out to be something of an ogre to be slain by the likes of Manet, Monet, Courbet, and all the other young Turks of the dawning Impressionist era. And if that ogre had a face, it would be that of Alexandre Cabanel.
Cabanel was born in 1823. By the time he was 22, he was a student at the Academy, near the end of his training, and already a consummate practitioner of all that was good and bad about academic art. First, the good. The academy was a boot camp for artists, as gruelling then as what medical school is today. There were daily drawing drills, long lectures, and tight discipline--regimentation at every turn. And the carrot on the end of the stick? It was the Prix de Rome, which amounted to a year's free study in that hallowed, city-sized academy to end all academies, Rome, Italy, where a student could almost drown in all the academic art accumulated over the centuries. The contest had all the hallmarks of a single-elimination sports tournament. It was open only to unmarried males under the age of 30. Starting with a given theme, students first made studies of every aspect of their proposed work. These were judged and most were eliminated in this round. Then, those lucky enough to have survived, were locked into a deadline. The students slaved away in their studios for days and weeks at a stretch to complete the final painting.
In 1845, the theme was Jesus in the Praetorium (Jesus mocked). Alexandre Cabanel came in second. The winning painting was by Francois Leon Benouville. Who? If Cabanel is little known, the winner is even less so. Likewise his painting is less so as well. Cabanel was robbed. He was to have his day, however. In 1863, the year of the infamous Salon des Refuse', Cabanel, by now an instructor at the Academy, submitted his The Birth of Venus to the annual Salon and won the gold medal. It is a lusciously languid nude reclining in all her titillating (but chaste) splendour tended by winged putti as she lazes upon the ocean waves. It was bought by no less the emperor himself, Napoleon III, who followed up his acquisition by doling out additional commissions to the lucky artist. And the bad? Cabanel was perhaps the most dogged opponent of the upstart, radical, barn-burning, antiestablishment, no-talent group of disruptive rapscallions known collectively by the derogatory term, Impressionists.