The Cabal bequest

Roger Cabal was passionate about icons. In an era of great indifference towards this art form, he was able to amass an exceptional collection. Although some works are currently at the Louvre, most of his collection was bequeathed to the Petit Palais, giving this museum the richest French public collection in this field.

Born in 1929 in Bouzaréah, in the suburbs of Algiers, Roger Cabal was the son of farmers from Oran. Having graduated in law in Algiers, he came to Paris to complete his studies in political science, then embarked on a career in industrial law. In 1969, he became delegate general of the French electrical appliances industry group, then its president in 1984. In 1987, he was appointed committee chairman of the French Employers Federation, with responsibility for consumer legal affairs.

En Toi se réjouitMusic and painting were of great importance in his private life. In particular, he developed a real passion for Orthodox art, and began to put together a collection of icons in the 1960s. His library, also bequeathed to the Petit Palais, reflects the in-depth research he carried out to further his knowledge and inform his choices. He was equally interested in Russia and Greece, the Balkans, Crete, and Mount Athos. He regularly corresponded with specialists in the era, such as Professor Manolis Chatzidakis.

It is possible that his wider taste for modern art, something he shared with his friend Vladimir de Laek, was his gateway towards an understanding of iconic art at a time, during the 20th century, when the West produced very little in this field. We know how the visual revolutions of the 20th century helped, in certain circles, to bring a fresh perspective on this art, far removed from any realist preoccupations, freed from geometric perspective and dominated by solid colours. The interest of Kandinsky and Malevich, as well as Matisse, in icons, is well known.

With limited financial resources, but benefiting from the relatively low prices at the time, Roger Cabal amassed over the years a diverse collection of post-Byzantine icons, based equally on the Creto-Venetian, Greek and Balkan schools, as well as various Russian movements. Personal archives, given to the Petit Palais by his sister in 2018, show that he mainly bought icons on the French market, and from Paris in particular.

Expressed in writing in 1997, his plan to donate his collection to the Petit Palais was interrupted by his death in the same year. His wish was recognised as a verbal bequest, and in June 1998 the City of Paris arranged the admission into the Petit Palais’s collections of seventy three icons accompanied by five embroidered fabrics, objects of piety, and the above-mentioned library. The City had in the meantime bought from his heirs three Creto-Venetian icons, The Nativity, Pietà and Christ of Pity, under conditions set by Roger Cabal. The museum has since acquired a set of drawings serving as models or templates for icon painters. All this was added to a series of Byzantine objects already conserved at the Petit Palais, bequeathed by the Dutuit brothers in the early 20th century, among which must be mentioned the Ivory book cover plaque: the Virgin and Child enthroned from the 10th century.

The end of 2017 was marked by the inauguration of a new room devoted to Eastern Christian art, bringing together for the first time under one roof the remarkable collection of icons assembled by Roger Cabal and the Byzantine artworks received thanks to the Dutuit bequest.

R. Z.