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Alexandre Cabanel
The Birth of Venus (Naissance de Vénus)
Oil on canvas

130 x 225 cm
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Musée d’Orsay

Excerpt from Musée d’Orsay:

La Naissance de Vénus [The Birth of Venus]

The Birth of Venus was one of the great successes of the 1863 Salon where it was bought by Napoleon III for his private collection. Cabanel, a painter who received numerous awards throughout his career, at that time played an important role in teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and in running the Salon. Typical of his virtuoso technique, this painting is a perfect example of the popular and official artistic taste of the period. In the eclectic spirit of the Second Empire, he combines references to Ingres with an 18th century style of painting.

Cabanel took as his subject a famous episode from classical mythology when Venus is born of sea-foam and carried ashore. This theme, very popular in the 19th century, provided some artists with the opportunity to introduce eroticism without offending public morality, under the pretext of representing a classical subject. For Cabanel, the mythological theme is indeed a pretext for the portrayal of a nude figure, which, though idealised, is nonetheless depicted in a lascivious pose. Emile Zola denounced this ambiguity: "The goddess, drowned in a sea of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan, but not of flesh and blood – that would be indecent – but made of a sort of pink and white marzipan". The writer was thus deploring the use of a pale, smooth and opalescent palette.

That same year, Edouard Manet’s Olympia caused a scandal. The subject of the two paintings is identical: a reclining nude. But the calm assurance with which Manet’s subject stares back at the viewer seems much more provocative than the languid pose of Cabanel’s Venus.



Alexandre Cabanel: The Tradition of Beauty
Alexandre Cabanel, la tradition du beau, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, 07/09/2010-01/01/2011.
Alexandre Cabanel - die Tradition des Schönen, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, 02/14/2011-05/15/2011.

Exhibition publication:

Alexandre Cabanel: The Tradition of Beauty, Blühm, Andreas, edit., University of Chicago Press, 2011, [128 pages, 120 color plates]; s.v. "Alexandre Cabanel, la tradition du beau," Musée Fabre, Montpellier, exh., 07/09/2010-01/01/2011; s.v. "Alexandre Cabanel - die Tradition des Schönen," Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne,  exh., 02/14/2011-05/15/2011.

Andreas Blühm is director of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and Foundation Corboud in Cologne, Germany.


Related Works:

Excerpt from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:

The Birth of Venus, 1875

The first version of Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) created a sensation at the Salon of 1863, which was dubbed the "Salon of the Venuses" owing to the number of alluring nudes on view. Embodying the ideals of academic art, the careful modeling, silky brushwork, and mythological subject of Cabanel’s canvas proved a winning combination: the Salon picture was purchased by no less than Napoleon III for his personal collection. In 1875, John Wolfe commissioned the present, slightly smaller, replica from Cabanel.

Go to >> The Birth of Venus, 1875, Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Additional Information

Alexandre Cabanel: Selected Biographies on Art in Context

Alexandre Cabanel: Related Links on Art in Context


Alexandre Cabanel, French, (1823-1889)
b. September 28, 1823, Montpellier, France
d. 1889

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