Cabanel's portraits

Cabanel’s portraits have not been included in studies of American portraiture and their neglect has prevented a full understanding of the development of this genre during the early Gilded Age and its locations as of today are unknown. The ones at museums can be claimed to be worthless compared to those that are in parts unknown and in the possession of who knows.

The paintings Birth of Venus by Botticelli, and Spring, which is its direct continuation, was launched as an idea by Lorenzo the Magnificent himself, set to verse by his favorite humanist, Ange Poliziano, interpreted by the tiny genius, Pico della Mirandola, approved by the patriarch, Marsilio Ficino, and the notebook was wrapped up for delivery to Botticelli. It went from Lorenzo the Magnificent to all of Florence’s humanism of this second half of the 15th century to finally be given to Botticelli, who thus scrupulously followed a text: the profane Birth of Venus and the coronation of the sacred Venus. (Dyke)

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It was written by Ange Poliziano, based on an ode by Hesiod, and the work was, in fact, paid for by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. We shall now see the two paintings, but one can only hope that, one day, they will be arranged side by side so that they can be shown on a single slide.

We see the story’s birth with the winds, Zephyr and Aura, who, on the first day of Creation, elevated this shell bearing Venus’ triumphant nudity from the unknown depths of the sea. And, approaching the earth on which she will assume her true role, her true power, she is suddenly modest, and we should note the stance, which Botticelli borrowed directly from the beautiful examples of the antique Venus Pudicae that were being discovered at that time. He really painted her like a Venus Pudica. For this modesty to take on its sacred nature, one of the Graces, in the name of all three, is there to cover her with her cape. (Dyke)

The Graces have the privilege of covering Venus’ nudity and transforming her into the mother and patron saint of all the forces of creation. Venus is in the process of landing. It should be pointed out that the shore she is landing on is very rugged and already has tall trees, both laurel and myrtle, and that the trees are crowded together, their foliage obscuring one another. (Barolsky)

Here are several details to make us aware of Venus’ triumphant splendor. We know that until recently, this Birth of Venus had been lavishly covered with varnish, which means that the successive coats of varnish had finally completely opacified. The two paintings were superbly cleaned, and we have now discovered a new Botticelli: pearly flesh, nearly translucent, skin so fine that we have the impression that we can almost see the sea through it. All of the marvelous qualities of Botticelli’s painting only appeared after it had been cleaned.

This is the heroic group of winds. In fact, in their disorder, they represent the original chaos, as Venus was born from this chaos which thus pushed her to take over the world. An admirable Grace with the cape with which she has prepared to cover Venus with the flowers and fruits of the earth, as she shall become Venus Flora and Pomona. She will be all that and, as the sacred Venus, she will be the mistress of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. This Grace has a superb face, which Ingres had always maintained was the most beautiful face ever painted.

The apparent movement in the light of the white dress covered with cornflowers does not come from its folds, but rather from the play of the cornflowers’ blues, the sunlit parts, the shaded parts, the parts in the foreground, the parts in the background all sculpted by the cornflowers covering these fields which cause the beauty of this Grace’s body to dominate the painting, who is one of the most beautiful parts of the Birth of Venus. (Corsini)

The Life of Moses, also by Botticelli, is an opposite of the “Temptation of the Christ” that he himself painted on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. The two pictures mentioned are relatively related in the way that they both portray temptation. Botticelli incorporated seven occurrences from the life of the young Moses into the landscape with significant skill, by breaching up the surface of the picture with four diagonal rows of figures.

As the Moses cycle starts on the wall behind the altar, the scenes should, unlike the pictures of the temptations of Christ, be read from right to left. The first is of Moses in a shining yellow garment, angrily striking an Egyptian administrator, the second one is when he flees to the Midianites, the third is when he disperses a group of shepherds who were thwarting the daughters of Jethro from, being the fourth scene, drawing water at the well. Afterwards, being the 6th and 7th scene, are the divine revelation in the burning bush at the top left, where Moses obeys God’s commandments and the final scene is where he  leads the people of Israel in a triumphant procession from slavery into Egypt.

The Death of Moses by Cabanel was completed in 1951. Cabanel’s subject was of Moses dying before God and his angels while seeing from afar the Promised Land that he would never enter. It was a rather intimidating one for the young artist, as he recounted in a letter to his brother: “I have imposed upon myself a large, very difficult, formidable task, since I seek to represent the image of the Eternal Master of the sky and the earth—to represent God—and next to Him, one of His most sublime creatures, deified in some way by His contact.” Political events and implications were portrayed in the painting, as long as one is aware of what was happening at the time for them. Conflicts regarding political events that one would see himself losing hope.

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