Alexandre Cabanel Birth of Venus
Immediately bought by Napoleon the Third following it's exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1863, Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus is a icon of the old order of French Academic painting that by the time of it's arrival was being frequently challenged by the new ideas coming out of the Realist and nascent Impressionist movements. At the time of painting Cabanel was one of the best known artists of his type in France, popular all across the world for his remarkable ability to render portraits in an austere, classical, yet idiosyncratically modern style. Having first arrived on the scene in 1843 Cabanel revived and renovated the Academic style of painting wherein the female body was the object of contemplation and upon which was projected the ideals and morals of the age. In a subtle departure from his usual methods, Birth of Venus depicts a woman lying upon the sea itself, surrounded by the foaming torrents of the waves. Above her five angels linger, looking and admiring, as they appear curious and tease the reclining classical figure.
When first shown Cabanel's canvas was praised by public and critics alike, and even before the artist's death was considered a masterpiece and representative of the official taste of the Second Empire. Painted the same year, perhaps as a counterpoint, the artist Édouard Manet's Olympia supplies an opposite approach to the art of painting under Napoleon the Third's Second Empire. Engrained in the popular mindset was an adherence to the themes of mythology which is used in Birth of Venus to conjure erotic themes that were only acceptable to the establishment if clothed in classicalism. Unlike Manet's work, Cabanel's venus conforms to the contours of beauty of the time: round, white and flexible. Cast as the goddess of love who was born from the foam of the sea, Cabanel shows us the Reclining Venus, slightly tickling the sensibilities of his audience by painting the goddess as an overtly sexualized figure, languorously stretching her body.
Like his fellow Academic stars Bouguereau and Gérôme, Cabanel's masterful enunciation of the tastes of his times reveals an age of opposites, wherein the magnetic forces of classicalism fought with the new ideas emerging from the distinctly modern condition of living emerging in Paris in the late-nineteenth century. Although adored upon first exhibition, Cabanel's canvas is a divisive work of beauty and Academism.
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