Its pristine finish, sharp lines and sober palette place Alexandre Cabanel’s Albaydé at the heart of academic excellence. Indeed, the Montpellier-born Cabanel – a Prix de Rome winner in 1845 – was one of the last ardent academicians, determined to maintain the Académie’s strictures and hierarchies in the face of the radical challenges to it posed by, among others, Gustave Courbet.
The subject is drawn from Victor Hugo’s Orientalist poem ‘Fragments of a Serpent’, where the poet lusts for ‘the lovely doe-like eyes of Albaydé’. In a manner that owes much to Ingres’s languid nudes, Cabanel has depicted the lethargic figure of Albaydé as an object of visual pleasure, and also as an allegory. Albaydé was prepared as part of a triptych, the theme of which was the precariousness of the passage from youth to adulthood. Albaydé represented youthful innocence gone askew. It is compelling that she is depicted as a seductive, if dishevelled Oriental courtesan, in a space suggestive of the Islamic lounge, a harem and an opium den.