Critics of mid-nineteenth-century sculpture in France called attention to its often slavish mimicry of ancient works and to the pomposity of public monuments. Charles Baudelaire attacked on a more fundamental level in his 1846 essay, “Why Sculpture Is Boring,” which decried the limitations of three-dimensional sculptural representation in comparison to painting, arguably a more versatile and evocative medium. A later shift in taste toward a freer and more naturalistic style is exemplified by the work of Second Empire sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Breaking with traditional approaches to historical subjects and portraiture, Carpeaux infused his sculpture with a previously unseen freedom and immediacy.
Like many nineteenth-century French sculptors, Carpeaux was from the working class. Son and grandson of stonemasons in Valenciennes, he was apprenticed as a boy to Debaisieux, a plasterer. Since drawing was a necessary tool of his trade, Carpeaux was enrolled in the Académie de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture in Valenciennes, and, after his family’s relocation to Paris in 1838, at the École Gratuite de Dessin (or Petite École) until 1843. That these two schools were open to instruct youths like Carpeaux in drawing was part of a government policy to encourage the application of the fine arts to industry.
The École Gratuite de Dessin was founded in 1766 as a school for industrial workers and emphasized the economic utility of drawing for practitioners of many skilled métiers, including engraving, enameling, horology, masonry, and various sorts of woodwork. There Carpeaux was trained both by the controversial modèle estampe method of copying prints after master drawings and by copying eighteenth-century sculpture. A shift in the school’s curriculum under the leadership of Jean Hilaire Belloc in 1831 brought fresh sculpture courses, which perhaps influenced Carpeaux’s interest in the profession. The Petit École took pride in its students and their achievements, especially those like Carpeaux, who was accepted for study at the renowned École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in 1844. Too talented to remain a tradesman or practitioner (an assistant who carved the marble according to the sculptor’s original concept), Carpeaux’s destiny was to become an artist.
During training at the École des Beaux-Arts, Carpeaux additionally studied with Romantic sculptor François Rude. In 1850, he abandoned Rude’s studio for that of Francisque Duret, a teacher at the school under whose tutelage Carpeaux achieved an honorable mention for his Achilles Wounded in the Heel (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) in the Prix de Rome competition the same year. This was followed by a second place for his figure Philoctetes on Lemnos. In 1854, he won the Grand Prix de Rome for his group Hector and His Son Astyanax (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes).
A resolve to complete and receive payment for his bas-relief The Emperor Napoleon III Receiving Abd el-Kader at the Palace of Saint Cloud (as well as an eye injury and illness) delayed Carpeaux’s arrival at the French Academy in Rome by one year. At the Villa Medici in January 1856, he began a five-year curriculum in which the completion of various assignments of increasingly complex sculptures and bas-reliefs was required. Sequestered away from the distractions of the commercial art world, the pensioners at the Villa Medici were able to refine their skills and their taste for ancient and modern art. In the first year, each sculpture student produced a marble copy of an ancient statue with the help of a practitioner. Carpeaux created his first masterpiece, Fisherboy with a Shell (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes), which he subsequently exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1858.
Many drawings from his study in Rome show that Carpeaux sketched his surroundings constantly (2000.105). He was especially receptive to the works of Michelangelo, whose gestural poses he observed carefully and incorporated into his own design for a fifth-year assignment (2001.199; 1975.98.1). The resulting multifigural plaster group, Ugolino and His Sons, renders a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Canto 33) in which the Pisan Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his sons are punished by starvation. This work caused a sensation in Rome, and the boldness and vigor of Carpeaux’s dramatic rendition contrasted sharply with the prevailing Neoclassical formulae of the French Academy. It immediately established Carpeaux as the heir of the Romantic sculptors of the 1830s. After lengthy delays and struggles with officialdom, the French Ministry of Fine Arts commissioned a bronze cast by Victor Thiébaut and placed it in the Tuileries Gardens as a pendant to a bronze copy of the Laocoön. Carpeaux also executed the work in marble and displayed it at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris, where it won first prize for sculpture (67.250).
The success of Ugolino and His Sons immediately brought Carpeaux important commissions, including a portrait of the nine-year-old Prince Impérial, son of Napoleon III, the relief decoration for the Pavilion of Flora at the Tuilieries (1864), the sculptural group The Dance for the facade of Charles Garnier’s newly completed Opéra (1865), The Four Parts of the World Sustaining the Globe for the Fountain of the Observatory in the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace (1867), and a monument to the painter Antoine Watteau. In April 1869, he married Amélie de Montfort, the twenty-two-year-old daughter of the vicomte de Montfort, a retired general (1989.289.2). With her he had two sons.
With the downfall of the Second Empire and the political and economic disasters of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), Carpeaux found himself with an expensive establishment to support. Monumental sculpture requires enormous quantities of material and labor as well as ample workspace. In addition, he had fewer patrons. Carpeaux turned to making editions (small figures inspired by his monumental groups) for collectors in order to pay his bills. These included the terracotta bust Bacchante with Lowered Eyes, a variant of a figure from The Dance, and La Négresse, another bust following a figure from The Four Parts of the World (11.10; 1997.491). Other works, such as the bronze statuette The Genius of the Dance, the central figure from The Dance, were literal extractions from the monumental groups (1970.171). Highly regarded as a portraitist, Carpeaux had secured imperial commissions, the results of which he also marketed. The Sèvres porcelain Prince Impérial with His Dog Néro (1972.79) is a miniature version of Carpeaux’s marble group originally completed in 1865. Carpeaux executed a posthumous portrait of Napoleon III in 1873 during the emperor’s lying-in-state, though it was not reproduced for popular sale and remained in the private collection of Eugénie until her death in 1920 (1974.297).
Two months before his death in 1875, Carpeaux was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor. His oeuvre is generally seen as a reaction to the conventional classical style imposed by the French Academy, yet undoubtedly his works owe much to its doctrines and the ancient and modern masters to whom he was exposed during the hard-won apprenticeship in Rome.