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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Boot Camp for Artists

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.  For instance, during my undergrad years, I once signed up for a figure drawing class.  Unfortunately, I chose to do so during the winter quarter.  The classroom was so cold, the model was seldom nude.  Several months later, when I took figure painting, I made sure it was during the summer quarter (I attended year around).

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts today
 There are similar (only much worse) nightmare stories connected to the European art academies of the nineteenth century.  Topping the list, the French Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris is the favorite whipping boy of all time.  Especially during the second half of the nineteenth century, writers have made it out to be something of a pedagogic ogre to be slain by the likes of Manet, Monet, Courbet, and all the other young turks of the 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 grueling then as what medical school is today.  There were daily drills, tight discipline, regimentation at every turn.  And the carrot on the end of the stick?  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.  Those lucky enough to have survived, were locked into a deadline seemingly designed to do little more than age them prematurely.  The "lucky" students slaved away in their studios for days and weeks at a stretch to complete their final painting.
Alexander Cabanel, 1852

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 today, the winner is even more so.  Likewise his painting is little known as well.  Cabanel was robbed.  He was to have his day, however.  In 1863, the year of the infamous Salon des Refuse', Cabanel's The Birth of Venus won the Academy's gold medal.  It is a lusciously languid nude, reclining in all her titillating (but chaste) splendor, tended by winged puti as she lazes on the waves.  It was bought by no less than the emperor himself, Napoleon III, who followed up his acquisition by doling out additional commissions to the winning artist.  And the bad?  Cabanel was one of the sternest, most steadfast opponents of the upstart, radical, barn-burning, antiestablishment, no-talent group of disruptive rapscallions known collectively by the derogatory term, Impressionists.

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