Donated by Alexandre Cabanel to the museum of his birthplace, this painting is an exemplary work by the artist and strongly representative of his achievements and success during the period.
The classical figure of Phaedra’s languid body stretches across the canvas. Nearly as white as the sheet draped over her, her body dramatically contrasts against the vivid colours of the setting. The details of the architectural features, furs, fabrics and the servant’s costumes are all rendered sumptuously and create an atmosphere of exotic luxury.
Cabanel used the wife of a prominent banker as his model. That he could represent the significant classical figure of Phaedra in this way – both frail and banal – was heavily criticised at the Salon of 1880, where the painting’s confusion of insignificant details was also taken to task. Nonetheless, it was precisely the painting’s confusion of banality and excess that made it a fitting, nostalgic allegory to Second Empire society.