Carpeaux (1827-1875), a Sculptor for the Empire
Carpeaux: carving out an identity
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. The Italian sojourn 1856-1861
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. Ugolino
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.
Decorative sculpture for the Louvre
The Pavillon de Flore was demolished and rebuilt to house the Prince Imperial’s apartments by Hector Lefuel, the architect of the new Louvre for Napoleon III.
In 1864, on the strength of the success of Ugolino, Carpeaux was commissioned to create the decorative sculpture for the top of the south façade overlooking the Seine: a pediment decorated with allegorical figures – Imperial France Bringing Light to the World and Protecting Science and Agriculture, a relief on the attic section entitled Flora,and a frieze featuring children carrying palm leaves.
Science and Agriculture from Michelangelo’s Day and Night sculptures for the tombs of the Medici family in Florence.
Carpeaux fell ever further behind schedule, exasperating Lefuel, who threatened to take the project away from him. Carpeaux was simultaneously hard at work on the Flora relief, shifting from a Renaissance-inspired composition to a smiling Rubenesque figure vibrant with life.
This composition, a manifesto for an eclectic approach which radically changed the face of modern sculpture, broke the centuries old bond based on the subservience of decorative sculpture to architecture. Lefuel, dissatisfied with the way in which the figure protruded in a manner which he deemed detrimental to the aesthetic layout of his project, threatened to level off its head. The sculptor asked the Emperor to adjudicate and emerged victorious.
The decorative ensemble designed by Carpeaux was unveiled in 1866 and set the seal on his reputation. Public monuments
With the exception of Watteau in Valenciennes, which was not completed in his lifetime, and the Fontaine de l'Observatoire in Paris, Carpeaux did not create any public monuments which were not part of an architectural scheme.
A succession of commissions including Temperance for La Trinité church, the decorative sculptures for the Pavillon de Flore, Dance, the Fontaine de l'Observatoire, and the pediment of Valenciennes town hall left him little respite and he was, moreover, extremely active as a portraitist.
Encouraged, however, by his friend the Marquis de Piennes, Carpeaux nevertheless entered several national and international competitions, which sometimes merely served to reinforce his self-doubt. Several incomplete projects survive in the form of drawings and sketches shedding light on a significant aspect of sculptors’ lives in the second half of the 19th century, namely the endless quest to win commissions in order to survive.
Carpeaux examined his contemporaries’ creations, was often ambitious in scope and sometimes designed monuments so impressively epic in their inspiration that they would have stood in stark contrast to the prevailing aesthetic for the genre, had they ever been produced (Moncey). His strength sapped by declining health, Carpeaux was unable to progress beyond the preliminary model stage for two late commissions – Rabelais and St Bernard. Watteau
The project for a monument to the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), a native of Valenciennes, occupied Carpeaux for much of career.
During his sojourn in Rome, the sculptor pondered on how to express his gratitude to the home town which had awarded him a bursary.
In May 1860, he presented his project to the mayor for a fountain dominated by a full-length statue of Watteau.
Carpeaux encouraged Valenciennes to follow the example of Antwerp, which had erected a monument to Rubens twenty years previously, requesting no fee, just reimbursement of his costs, and he wanted to create a marble sculpture.
He made several copies of drawings by Watteau to plan his composition. Like most of the monumental projects on which the sculptor worked, the statue of Watteau experienced its share of ups and downs, including the destruction of a plaster model prompted by a fit of disillusionment.
The town’s slow decision-making process did not dampen Carpeaux’s enthusiasm for tirelessly promoting his project between 1869 and 1874.
The cast bronze was inaugurated in 1879, four years after his death, outside Saint-Géry church and not in Carpeaux’s location of choice on the Place d’Armes.
At the end of his life, Carpeaux wrote: “I love naively, I believe with every ounce of strength in my soul and I adore with reverence everything which rises up towards God”.
In addition to working tirelessly on commissions, Carpeaux continued to model, paint and draw designs inspired by religion.
The duality of Carpeaux’s art, poised between pathos and a heightened vision of life, was expressed in the figure of the Virgin Mary, whom he depicts as protective and maternal, with the barely concealed features of Empress Eugénie (Notre-Dame du Saint-Cordon) or as a Virgin of sorrow and tenebrist pity whose pathos-filled expression was borrowed from one of his sitters who had lost a child (Mater Dolorosa).
Many drawings, paintings and sketches spontaneously conveyed Carpeaux’s deep sense of mysticism, fuelled by his admiration for Italian and Flemish painting ranging from Michelangelo to Rembrandt.
His various depositions, pietas, lamentations of Christ and groups on a modest scale were scenes captured in clay with an evocative power which few sculptors of his century could muster. At the Imperial court
Following an introduction by Princesse Mathilde, a cousin of the Emperor, and protected and encouraged by his faithful friend and Chamberlain to the Empress, the Marquis de Piennes, Carpeaux became a great favourite of the sovereigns.
Empress Eugénie acquired the two marble sculptures of Fisherman with Shell and Young Girl with Shell, Napoleon III defended the Flora relief and overruled the opinion of the architect of the Pavillon de Flore, and the Imperial couple agreed to Carpeaux’s suggestion of a portrait of the Prince Imperial.
Although he was probably their favourite sculptor, he was not actually their official statue sculptor. Carpeaux did not produce any state portraits of the sovereigns during their reign.
Entranced by the glittering receptions to which he was invited at the Tuileries palace and at the “séries de Compiègne” – short, more informal gatherings introduced by the sovereigns and bringing together the social and intellectual elite – Carpeaux produced increasing numbers of studies drawn in situ or from memory.
These highly personal records, sometimes akin to reportage, were often translated into painting, an activity which he simultaneously continued to pursue in a huge variety of styles, without ever exhibiting his paintings publicly. The statue of the Prince Imperial
In 1864, Carpeaux gave drawing and modelling lessons to Prince Louis-Eugène-Napoléon, only son of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, who was born in 1856.
He was invited to Compiègne in the autumn and when he was unsuccessful in persuading the Empress to sit for a bust, he obtained permission to produce a portrait of the heir to the dynasty.
The Empress wanted a bust and the Emperor a full-length statue, so Carpeaux worked steadily on both pieces in the spring of 1865.
The statue represented a departure from the regal depiction of royal children, emphasising the approachability of the young prince, who was depicted as an upper class boy in smart dress accompanied by the Emperor’s dog, Nero. Carpeaux was totally committed to this work, but never lost sight of his ambition: “my statue of the Prince Imperial will be a fine symbol of the modern era for the future; I am putting all my skill and life into it; it will be a step on the ladder to fame”.
The sculptor swiftly produced smaller versions and the rights were bought by the Imperial family in 1869. The figure, which was produced in various materials and sizes, was an extremely successful propaganda item.
Carpeaux produced a silver-plated bronze version in 1868, minus the dog, for the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, which burned down in 1871.
In an era which saw a proliferation of painted and sculpted portraits, Carpeaux revolutionised an unpopular genre, often viewed as subsistence work, in the space of less than ten years.
Inspired by 18th century French sculpture, he explored ceremonial busts and a more intimate style of framing using a strikingly pared down approach. Often produced in a frenzied burst of creativity in which Carpeaux claimed to be working largely by instinct, these warm portraits immediately struck his contemporaries as living reincarnations pulsing with life.
The sculptor’s attention was completely focused on capturing the intensity of a look, the treatment of hair or a smile.
His most accomplished busts were of family members or artist friends.
Although his drawings and paintings were sometimes directly associated with sculpted portraits, they were also stand-alone pieces in their own right in which the painter captured the impression left by a friendly face in a thumbnail sketch.
Si les dessins et les peintures sont parfois en lien direct avec les portraits sculptés, ils se présentent aussi comme des œuvres autonomes, où le peintre retrace sur le vif l'impression laissée par un visage amical.
The vivacity, light-hearted intimacy and aesthetic richness of Carpeaux’s busts made an impact on the whole of the next generation of sculptors in the 1880s. According to Rodin: “Carpeaux produced the finest busts of our era”. Carpeaux self-portraits
Few 19th century sculptors have left behind as many self-portraits as Carpeaux. He regularly painted his own features, often with uncompromising honesty, throughout his life, spanning the period from the highly promising first flush of youth to the despairing introspection of his final years. He did not sculpt himself; his expression in these paintings or drawings was always serious, revealing a complex personality constantly veering between enthusiasm and despondencyt. Family portraits Carpeaux first met Amélie de Montfort, the daughter of the Governor of the Palais du Luxembourg, at a ball at the Tuileries. They became engaged in 1869 and married in the same year at La Madeleine church.
An ardent fiancé, the sculptor modelled a sensitive bust of his future bride and drew her on a number of occasions.
It was a love match, but not a marriage of social equals, and cracks rapidly began to appear. Morbidly jealous, occasionally violent, and encouraged by his parents, whose pernicious influence poisoned his daily life, Carpeaux unjustly accused his wife of being unfaithful.
Amélie Carpeaux’s dowry was swallowed up by expenses relating to Dance and the refurbishment work on the studio in Auteuil. She was nevertheless its custodian and astute trustee after the sculptor died, continuing to produce editions of his works, selling or donating works to French museums, followed in turn by her daughter, Louise Clément-Carpeaux.
The small number of family portraits modelled by Carpeaux, are affectionately intimate, notably the example of the sculptor’s mother-in-law, Vicomtesse de Montfort, which demonstrated psychological insight on a par with French 18th century busts. The dark side
Violence and its depiction can be found throughout Carpeaux’s life and work and this violence was occasionally turned against his own creations, as was the case when he smashed a marble bust of the Marquise de La Valette which the sitter did not like.
After Ugolino, his sculptures no longer explored tragedy, but a naturalistic realm pulsing with life.
However, his studio was full of preliminary drawings or models which were resolutely dark in inspiration. In 1863, he wrote: “we need Depositions from the Cross, Last Judgements, Rafts of the Medusa, Chios Massacres– mankind swept up as if by gusts of wind slamming generations against each other, like wind angrily whipping dust into swirls; I believe despair is the expression of our era”.
Drawings of guillotined heads inspired by Géricault, depictions of contemporary scenes of public violence, chilling scenarios of childbirth and shipwrecks constitute a dark personal museum deeply permeated with Romanticism and occasional flashes of visionary freedom, which the critic Paul Geffroy termed “cataclysmic painting” with reference to Berezowski’s Assassination Attempt.
Carpeaux proved to be an innovator very early in his career by developing the production of editions of his work for sale himself. Although he used independent foundries for the bronzes, he settled in Auteuil in 1868 and set up his own studio.
This was a true family business producing plaster, stamped terracotta or marble replicas which, in many cases, were variants on or “extractions” from the sculptures to which the sculptor owed his fame, such as The Spirit of Dance.
Moreover, Carpeaux produced new, more expensive versions over which he exerted tight artistic control. After his death, his heirs continued to exploit his sculpted works.
In 1861, the young architect Charles Garnier won the competition to design the new Paris Opera. Two years later, he approached Carpeaux, a former fellow student at the Petite École, to produce one of the four groups of three figures required to punctuate the base of the façade.
He rejected the sculptor’s initial proposal and asked him to consider the theme of dance.
Carpeaux submitted a proposal for nine figures whose projecting design did not fit in with the aesthetic layout of the façade. Garnier nevertheless accepted these daring bacchantes dancing around a central spirit.
Carpeaux freely blended ancient sources and contemporary observations, drawing on a wealth of studies. A real team worked for almost a year from 1868 to early 1869, assisted by Carpeaux himself, who wielded the compass and chisel.
The cost was far higher than anticipated and the additional expense was borne initially by the architect and subsequently by Amélie de Montfort. When the façade of the Opera was unveiled in 1869, there was an immediate outcry at its realism and nudity and the critics railed against Carpeaux.
On the night of 26 to 27 August, a bottle of ink was thrown at the group. Given the scale of the protests, the authorities and Garnier himself were forced to withdraw the group, much to the despair of Carpeaux, who refused to produce an alternative. The commission was given to the sculptor Charles Gumery.
The war of 1870, the fall of the Second Empire and Carpeaux’s death in 1875 saved Dance from being removed.
In 1964, a copy was produced by the sculptor Paul Belmondo, and the stone sculpture was moved to the Louvre museum and then transferred to the Musée d’Orsay in 1986. In the studio
It is probably in Carpeaux’s preliminary models that his expressive originality shines through. They offer quite a complete picture of the laborious process leading to the finished piece.
This aspect of his work was already of interest to his contemporaries, contributing to his status as a legend within his own lifetime, as was demonstrated by the sculptor David d’Angers’ comment: “if you cut off Carpeaux’s head, he would still carry on modelling”. Many of these preliminary models closely echo his numerous surviving drawings.
The Fontaine de l’Observatoire
In 1867, Baron Haussmann asked the architect Gabriel Davioud, who was overseeing works in the city of Paris, to design a fountain for the southern end of the Avenue de l’Observatoire. Davioud suggested commissioning a group from Carpeaux and sea horses from Emmanuel Fremiet.
The project went through several phases of development. “Galileo set me on the right path when he said ‘The Earth is spinning!’ and so I depicted the four compass points spinning, following the rotation of the globe”, wrote Carpeaux, just before submitting his final maquette representing the four parts of the world – Africa, America, Asia and Europe –supporting the celestial sphere.
Carpeaux initially studied ethnic types, using real sitters for Africa and Asia, to create busts first of all. Editions which he produced very fast from them quickly became popular. The war of 1870 and the Commune interrupted Carpeaux’s work and he did not deliver the full-scale model until 1872. Critics at the Salon raged against the group: “four undressed, gangling women thrash about in a furious daze under a large globe, which they are not even supporting. This stylistic slovenliness is intolerable in works destined for outdoor display”.
The bronze was cast in 1874, disregarding Carpeaux’s wish to patinate the figures to reflect the skin tones of the allegories.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: A Timeline
11 May: born in Valenciennes, the son of a mason and a lace maker.
The Carpeaux family settles in Paris and Jean-Baptiste is enrolled at the École royale gratuite de dessin (Royal Free School of Art); he takes classes in architecture, geometry, stone cutting, drawing and modelling.
Meets the painter Bruno Chérier, who will remain one of his closest friends.
Spring: studies under Rude.
Autumn: is admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in 24th place out of the 30 applicants selected.
2 December: official proclamation of the Second Empire; Napoleon III becomes Emperor of the French.
After seven abortive attempts, Carpeaux wins the grand prix de Sculpture with Hector Pleading With The Gods For His Son Astyanax.
Arrives at the Académie de France in Rome (Villa Médicis) almost a year late.
December: completes Fisherman With Shell. Plans his final year composition, Ugolino, inspired by Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Inferno.
September: begins work on the Ugolino group.
Spring: obtains an extension to his stay in Rome.
July: Valenciennes town council accepts his proposal for a monument to Watteau.
Ugolino is completed.
Février-mars : February-March: returns to Paris.
The plaster model of Ugolino is exhibited at the École des Beaux-Arts.
July: produces a bust of Princess Mathilde.
April: approached by Hector Lefuel, the architect of the new Louvre, to provide a decorative sculpture for the south façade of the Pavillon de Flore: Imperial France Bringing Light to the World and Protecting Science and Agriculture and The Triumph of Flora.
May: the bronze of Ugolino and a bust of Princess Mathilde are well received by the public at the Salon.
The Empress acquires the marble model of Fisherman with Shell.
Disputes with Lefuel relating to the Pavillon de Flore project.
November: summoned to Compiègne; he is not awarded the commission for a bust of the Empress and suggests producing a portrait of the Prince Imperial.
April: the child begins to sit for a bust and a full-length statue.
August: official commission for one of the four groups of sculptures on the façade of the new Paris Opera.
November: works on his portraits of the Prince Imperial.
August and October: the decorative sculpture for the Pavillon de Flore is unveiled.
April: the Universal Exhibition in Paris; Carpeaux’s marble models of Fisherman With Shell, The Prince Imperial and His Dog Nero and Ugolino are well received.
August: commission for the Fontaine de l’Observatoire in the Luxembourg Gardens.
Commission for the pediment of Valenciennes Town Hall; disputes with the architect.
September: sets up a studio in Auteuil.
January: meets Amélie de Montfort at the Tuileries; they marry in April.
May: exhibits his bust of Garnier at the Salon; completes the plaster model of Watteau.
July: the unveiling of the group Dance causes a scandal.
Night of 26 to 27 August: a bottle of ink is thrown at Dance. The Emperor gives the order for the group to be withdrawn.
A bust of Eugénie Fiocre and Mater Dolorosa are exhibited at the Salon.
4 September: abdication of Napoleon III and the fall of the Second Empire.
February: Carpeaux and his family take refuge in London.
A bust of Gérôme and the plaster model The Four Parts of the World Holding the Celestial Sphere are exhibited at the Salon. The Emperor in exile in Chislehurst begins to sit for his bust.
Carpeaux’s health begins to decline.
9 January: death of Napoleon III; his bust is completed posthumously.
August: the Commission des Beaux-Arts accepts the maquette for the Fontaine de l’Observatoire.
April: diagnosed with a cancerous tumour of the bladder.
Summer: meets Prince Stirbey.
February: Amélie Carpeaux applies for matrimonial division of property citing debts and her husband’s departure from the marital home.
Spring: trip to Nice with Stirbey.
12 October: Carpeaux dies in Courbevoie, aged forty-eight.