Cabanel was born in Montpellier in the Department of Hérault. He painted historical, classical and religious scenes in the academic style, and was also a well known portrait painter. Cabanel is one of the most important representatives of the so-called art pompier. He was also the favorite painter of Emperor Napoleon III.
At the age of seventeen he went to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Cabanel studied with François-Édouard Picot and suggested for the first time at the Paris salon of 1844. In 1845, he won the second prize of Rome, on 22 years of age. Cabanel was elected member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1863, and in the same year was appointed professor at the École des Beaux Arts.
Cabanel won the Grande Médaille d'Honneur on the Salons of 1865, 1867, and 1878.
He had excellent connections with the Paris salon. He was allowed to regularly sit on the jury, and hundreds of his pupils could exhibit at the show. His refusal together withWilliam-Adolphe Bouguereau refused to admit a number of artists, including Edouard Manet, this led to the establishment of the Salon des Refusés.
His painting the birth of Venus from 1863 is one of the most well-known examples of the academic painting. This work arose from a myth with the goddess Venus. the work was purchased by Emperor Napoleon III; a smaller copy of the work, painted in 1875 for an American Banker, is on view in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
His pupils, including:
- Rodolfo Amoedo
- Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant
- Albert Besnard
- Vlaho Bukovac
- Charles Bulteau
- Gaston Bussière
- Louis Capdevielle
- Eugène Carrière
- Fernand Cormon
- Pierre Auguste Cot
- Édouard Debat-Ponsan
- Émile Friant
- François Guiguet
- Jules Bastien Lepage
- François Flameng
- Charles Fouqueray
- Henri Gervex
- Charles Lucien Léandre
- Henri Le Sidaner And Local Pottery
- Aristide Maillol
- Edouard-Antoine Marsal
- João Marques de Oliveira
- Henri Regnault
- Louis Royer
- Jean-Jacques Scherrer
- António da Silva Porto
- Joseph-Noël Sylvestre
- Joesph Solomon Solomon
- Paul T
- François Thévenot
- Étienne Terrus
- Louis Tytgadt
- Adolphe Willette
- Louis XIII et Richelieu (1856), Palais du Luxembourg, Paris.
- Nymphe et Satyre (1860), private collection.
- La Naissance de Vénus (1863), Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
- La Mort de Françoise de Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta (1870), Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
- La Comtesse de Keller (1873), Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
- Phèdre (1880), Musée Fabre, Montpellier.
- Ophélie (1883), private collection.
- Ruth glanant dans les champs de Booz, (1886), Musée Garinet, Châlons-en-Champagne.
- Cleopatra poison from test on prisoners on death row (1887), Royal Museum of fine arts, Antwerp.
- Ève après la chute, private collection.
- Adam et Ève chassés du Paradis, private collection.
- La vie de saint Louis, Pantheon of Paris