Cabanel was born in Montpellier, Hérault. He painted historical, classical and religious subjects in the academic style. He was also well-known as a portrait painter. According to Diccionario Enciclopedico Salvat, Cabanel is the best representative of the L'art pompier and Napoleon III's preferred painter.
He entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris at the age of seventeen. Cabanel studied with François-Édouard Picot and exhibited at the Paris Salon for the first time in 1844, and won the Prix de Rome scholarship in 1845 at the age of twenty two. Cabanel was elected a member of the Institute in 1863 and appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in the same year.
Cabanel won the Grande Médaille d'Honneur at the Salons of 1865, 1867, and 1878.
He was closely connected to the Paris Salon: "He was elected regularly to the Salon jury and his pupils could be counted by the hundred at the Salons. Through them, Cabanel did more than any other artist of his generation to form the character of belle époque French painting" . His refusal together withWilliam-Adolphe Bouguereau to allow the impressionist painter Édouard Manet and other painters to exhibit their work in the Salon of 1863 led to the establishment of the Salon des Refusés.