CABANEL, Alexandre
(b. 1823, Montpellier, d. 1889, Paris)

The Birth of Venus

Oil on canvas, 130 x 225 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The Birth of Venus was exhibited at the Salon of 1863. It is one of the best-known examples of 19th-century academic painting. The picture was bought by the emperor Napoleon III; there is also a smaller replica (painted in 1875 for a banker, John Wolf) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Edward Manet painted his Olympia in 1863 but had apparently not dared submit it in 1864. When exhibited at the 1865 Salon, it was vociferously decried. Its subject is identical to Cabanel's painting: 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. The Birth of Venus illustrates the kind of technique that was popular at the time: polished, smooth, and meticulous - quite unlike the vigorous work of Manet. It was Cabanel who reaped every honour, including election to the Institut de France and appointment to a professorship at the École des Beaux-Arts.