Carpeaux settled in Paris with his family in 1838 and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1844, receiving a living allowance between 1845 and 1854 from the town of Valenciennes. He signed up to study under François Rude, a major name in Romanticism, who sculpted the Marseillaise frieze on the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile but was personna non grata at the school.
From the very outset, the young Carpeaux set his sights on the annual competition for the Prix de Rome, a major stepping stone towards a career in Paris. Winners would spend four years at the Académie de France in Rome, the Villa Médicis, completing their training by familiarising themselves with masterpieces of classical antiquity and Italian art and sending works back to Paris on a regular basis. He was not remotely inspired by subjects drawn from classical mythology and history or Scripture and after several abortive attempts he decided to transfer from Rude’s classes to those of Francisque Duret, a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who promised him success within two years.
Carpeaux won the sculpture prize in September 1854 with Hector Pleading With The Gods For His Son Astyanax.
Carpeaux arrived in Rome in 1856, almost two years behind schedule, thus placing his relationship with the Director of the Villa Médicis, the painter Victor Schnetz, on an awkward footing from the very outset. Carpeaux, who was no respecter of rules and prone to occasional quarrelsome behaviour, struggled to fit into a mould which did not suit him at all, but nevertheless forged deep friendships with some of his fellow students at the Académie de France in Rome, including the sculptor Alexandre Falguière. Together, they tirelessly explored the city and its surroundings.
Rome proved to be a revelation for Carpeaux on a number of levels, principally in the shape of Michelangelo, to whom he instantly became utterly devoted, a dedication which never wavered throughout his entire career. The life of the Italian people inspired a number of candid studies and represented another attractive feature of his protracted stay in Italy. The heady joy of these years spent in Italy also included a relationship with a young peasant girl from the Sabine hills, Barbarella Pasquarelli, known as “La Palombella”. Carpeaux’s second year submission, Fisherman with Shell, was an obvious tribute to the Neapolitan Fisherman presented by Rude in 1831. Carpeaux’s figure drew its inspiration from the picturesque aspects of Italy which captivated many French artists at that time, and raised the young sculptor’s public profile in Rome and Paris.
Sculptors residing at the Villa Médicis had to model a preliminary version of their final submission in their fourth year and translate it into marble a year later. Carpeaux designed a group drawn from Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Inferno: Ugolino della Gherardesca, a 13th century Pisan tyrant, condemned by his rival Archbishop Ruggiero Ubaldini to be immured alive with his sons and grandsons in a tower, who ate his offspring then died of starvation. In his group, Carpeaux blended the awesome intensity or terribilità of Dante’s narrative with inspiration drawn from Michelangelo, while also citing the influence of the famous classical figure of Laocoon.
Ugolino experienced a difficult gestation period between 1858 and 1861. Designed initially as a bas-relief, it became a group consisting of three and then five figures, contrary to the rules of the Académie. Although the Director, Victor Schnetz, was aware of the merits of the preliminary version, he initially voiced strong opposition to it, eliciting stubborn resistance then despair on the part of Carpeaux, who was forced to give up modelling it in December 1858. In the spring of 1859, he persuaded Schnetz to let him finish the sculpture.
As his official stay was drawing to a close, Carpeaux travelled to Paris in 1860 and requested a two-year extension. Back in Rome, he worked feverishly on his group, which was much admired by visitors. However, reactions to the plaster version in Paris in 1862 did not live up to his expectations. Outraged by the Académie’s remarks, which were published in the press, and offended by a State commission for a marble for an inadequate fee, Carpeaux engaged in tough negotiations and a bronze version was cast and installed in the Tuileries Gardens in 1863.