We are grateful to Jean Nougaret for confirming the authenticity of this work and for providing additional cataloguing information.
Sale: Vente Atelier Alexandre Cabanel, Paris, 1889, no. 4
Acquired by the present owners circa 1950
According to Jean Nougaret, the present work is almost certainly the picture with the same dimensions listed as no. 4 in the catalogue of Cabanel's estate sale: one of five recorded répliques en réduction (reduced versions) by Cabanel of his Salon painting of 1857.
The beautiful Aglaé and her servant Boniface are depicted languishing in their shared decadence shortly before they renounce their self-indulgent lifestyle to seek divine forgiveness. Their aimless glances convey the meaninglessness of their unfulfilled existence. Aglaé, the mysterious and tragic heroine, embodies Cabanel's preference for elegiac types presented with the elegant finish of the Florentine Mannerists.
Cabanel was seen as Ingres’ successor in the classical academic tradition and became one of the most successful artists and atelier masters in France during the second half of the 19th Century. Zola's label for Cabanel, the 'genius of the classical', could have justly been applied with the present work in mind for it combines all the prerequisites: a subject from classical antiquity; highly finished technique; and a well-proportioned and balanced composition.
Aglaé was a socially ambitious and lascivious Roman noblewoman known for her public shows and parties. She had an intimate relationship with her male servant, Boniface, who was himself addicted to debauchery and an alcoholic. After some years, they began to struggle with their conscience and wished to cleanse themselves of their vice. On learning that a person who keeps and venerates the relics of holy martyrs in their home will be given salvation, Aglaé instructed Boniface to go to the East where Christians were facing fierce persecution and bring back the remains of one of the martyrs.
As he travelled Boniface was overcome with repentence for his past sins and by the time he reached Christians facing torture in Tarsus, Cilicia, he embraced them. After refusing to worship idols he was stripped and persecuted by the Governor before being beheaded. When his remains were brought back to Rome, Aglaé built a chapel on his tomb, distributed her wealth among the poor and spent her last fifteen years in secluded repentence. Her relics were buried beside the Martyr Boniface.
The Roman subject and moralistic overtones of Aglaé et Boniface characterised another major painting of the period by Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence (fig. 1). Although it was painted in 1847, Romans was exhibited again at the 1855 World Fair in Paris and attracted a great deal of attention particularly among the younger generation of painters and may well have inspired the present work. Although the overt political criticisms that pervaded Couture's work do not seem to be mirrored in Cabanel's painting, classical subjects were commonly used as veiled references to contemporary decadence.
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