What makes an artist influential? Most would say it the art he or she creates, because most likely that artwork was created in some sort of special way. And although that is true, I would argue that that is only part of the story. Let me show you what I mean.
It is the mid 1800’s in Paris, the capital of the art world. At this time the most highly regarded art style is French Academic painting. One of the leaders of the French Academic School is Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). His career lasted over forty years. He won awards for his work. He was one of Napoleon III’s favorite painters.
And now, the Milwaukee Art Museum owns two of Cabanel’s earliest paintings: Saint Monica in a Landscape and Saint Augustine in His Study. This gorgeous pair of paintings depicts two saints who are extremely important to the Catholic Church. They were commissioned by the important botanist Auguste Monsaval de Saint Hilaire (French, 1779–1853), who gave them to the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste in Sennely, where they hung until the late nineteenth century.
The artist Cabanel likely chose to show these two saints in response to a painting which received great acclaim that same year: Saints Augustine and Monica by Ary Scheffer (Dutch, active in France, 1795–1858). (Here you can see a version he made of the same painting in 1854 that is in the National Gallery, London.) Scheffer shows the saints—who were also mother and son—in a deeply sentimental pose and separated from their typical attributes. This became one of his most popular paintings.
In direct contrast to Scheffer, Cabanel uses separate canvases for each saint, includes appropriate attributes, and makes clear the roles of each within Christianity. Saint Monica is the personification of Christian charity, shown with a young urchin to emphasize her role as ideal Christian mother. Her large, soulful eyes suggest her caring nature. She is shown in an outdoor setting with dark clouds moving across the evening sky, possibly hinting at the difficult times she endured in her life. She suffered through the erratic behavior of her son’s early years as well her husband’s adulterous behavior, before being martyred.
Meanwhile, Saint Augustine is depicted as a bishop in his study. An educated and intelligent man, he holds a pen in one hand, lifted to his heart, and a letter in his other hand. His crosier (a hook staff carried by bishops) leans against his chair. His role as an important foundational church author is shown in his stern demeanor. The skull and hour glass that sit on the shelf behind him subtly reference human vanity, reminding the viewer that Augustine’s path to faith was difficult; however, his devotion to his faith is stronger as a result.
Both Monica and Augustine look intently out of the canvas, urging us to engage with them. This direct interaction with the viewer is typical of Cabanel’s work—and very different from Scheffer’s painting.
Cabanel painted Saint Monica in a Landscape and Saint Augustine in His Study when he was 22, showing that even as a youth he was a master artist. But as I hinted to at the beginning of this post, Cabanel’s artwork is not the only remarkable part of his story!
To understand Cabanel’s role in the history of art, we must remember that, in the mid-nineteenth century, the most important step in any aspiring French artist’s career was getting a painting admitted to Paris’s annual Salon. The Salon gave artists the opportunity to show their work to a large audience of potential patrons as well as critics; having a good response of one’s work at the Salon could could make or break an artist’s career.
All artists could submit paintings. It was, however, the Salon Jury that decided whether or not a work was accepted for display. And Alexandre Cabanel sat on this Jury. With his pivotal role, he had the power to refuse artist’s entries to the Salon’s gallery. In fact, Cabanel’s rejection of works by artists like Edouard Manet (French, 1832–1882), Paul Cezanne (French, 1939–1906), and Camille Pissarro (French, 1831–1903) is what sparked the creation of the famous 1863 Salon des Refusés (Salon of Rejects). This hugely popular exhibition was a vital turning point in the development of modern art movements such as Impressionism, for it undermined the official Salon’s importance. One of the paintings included in this show was Manet’s shocking Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass)—which showed a female nude lounging out-of-doors with two dressed men—and created such uproar that it is still discussed in art history classes today.
So, although those serious saints by Cabanel in the European Galleries represent the early career of an important Academic artist, they also give insight into the artistic revolutions to come!
–Allison Barr, Curatorial Intern