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As signaled by its title, visitors to the exhibition The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux learned that the artist (1827–1875) had many: an obsession for art at a young age; an enthusiasm for portraiture; a desire for major government-sponsored commissions; and fervor for work. His was also a life full of passions unrealized, as he died from pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-eight. Yet Carpeaux’s impact on nineteenth-century sculpture was significant. His works fill museums and streets in Paris and in his birthplace of Valenciennes, and he influenced a younger generation of sculptors, including Jules Dalou and Auguste Rodin.
The exhibition was co-curated by James David Draper, Henry R. Kravis Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Edouard Papet, Chief Curator of Sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay. Carpeaux was overdue for a retrospective in the United States, particularly at the Metropolitan, where Ugolino and His Sons (1865–67) has been on view since 1967. Visitors to the Metropolitan are also familiar with Napoleon III, Emperor of the French (1873), acquired in 1974 and included in both venues. Carpeaux’s major plasters such as Imperial France (1865), bronzes such as Ugolino and His Sons (1862), and the original limestone version of The Dance (1869) are part of the Orsay’s permanent collection, and this exhibition enhanced an understanding of their development.
The first galleries at the Metropolitan and the Orsay focused on Carpeaux’s early training and his years as a Prix de Rome recipient. His winning submission, Hector Imploring the Gods in Favor of His Son Astyanax (1854), demonstrated Carpeaux’s talent for depicting a wide range of emotional conditions. Already at the age of twenty-seven, Carpeaux had mastered anatomy, as well as artistic arrangement. Hector’s strong hand, placed softly into Astyanax’s small, fleshy torso, is done with a dexterity later repeated in Ugolino. Once Carpeaux arrived in Rome, more than a year late for his Prix, he made the obligatory sketches after Michelangelo and conventional studies after the ancients. Less predictable was a patinated plaster, La Palombella (1856–61), which highlighted Carpeaux’s skill in merging classical features with a modern subject. La Palombella, a posthumous portrait of Carpeaux’s lover in Rome, Barbara Pasquarelli, is exquisite in its simplicity and unpretentiousness. In Paris, another work featuring Pasquarelli, entitled Summer (1864–70), offered a gracious personification of the season. Clearly one of Carpeaux’s great passions was Pasquarelli, his very own “La Fornarina.”
Worthy of note at the Metropolitan was a pairing of the marbles Fisherboy with a Seashell (1861–62) and Girl with a Seashell (1867), the former clearly based on Young Neapolitan Fisherboy Playing with a Turtle (1833) by Carpeaux’s first teacher, François Rude. As for the latter, the wall label in New York stated that “the girl’s pose, raising a shell to her ear to listen to its echo, is based on Michelangelesque models.” While the influence was correctly placed, the discussion of what the girl is doing was not: the child has the shell nowhere near her ear, and clearly holds it high above her head, like a fancy hat or crown; this remains true in the sketch for the sculpture. She is obviously poor, but she aspires to a fancier life and is playing “dress-up.” This element of Carpeaux’s emotion-filled style, where one finds true expression mixed with an underlying subtext (of poverty, or sadness), gives both the Girl with a Seashell and La Palombella their strengths. In Paris, the Girl with a Seashell was paired, with better results, with Spring or Crouching Flora (1873), a figure who, incidentally, arranges her hair with flowers.
The second section at both venues was devoted to Carpeaux’s masterwork depicting Ugolino della Gherardesca, the tyrant of Pisa, from Dante’s Inferno. The terra cottas displayed here showed Carpeaux’s fingerprints, tool marks, and a mix of small balls and long strips of clay that provided energy to these works; the pulled strips become a stretch of muscle, or a ball of clay becomes the blob of flesh that is actually a famished, fainted child. Ugolino was removed from its usual perch in the European Sculpture Court and relocated to a room with a low ceiling, on a base that situated the work closer to the viewer. Dramatically lit, the Saint-Béat marble has a particular grain that sparkles under certain lighting conditions. One could also better see the work’s unfinished state, particularly in Ugolino’s hair. In Paris, Ugolino was presented in a plaster version (1858–61) and the Orsay’s own bronze version, cast by Victor Thiébaut in 1862.
At New York, the third room featured Carpeaux’s early portraits. While the gallery contained a variety of Carpeaux’s early works, such as a silvered bronze medallion of François-Louis Carpezat (1855), and one of the Metropolitan’s new acquisitions, a bronze medallion, à la David d’Angers, of Armande Defly (1863), the main subject was his numerous portraits of the Prince Imperial, Louis-Eugène-Napoleon-Jean-Joseph Bonaparte. Visitors were presented with multiple versions of The Prince Imperial with the Dog Nero, including one cast by Achille Collas (after 1865), coated in a splendid burnt-sienna patina, and another by Thiébaut, in an opulent silvered bronze version (1873). The Metropolitan’s marble bust of the boy’s father, Napoleon III (1873), was shown at both venues. Carpeaux imbues him with the trauma of his last days, fleshed out by deeply drilled pupils, a weathered brow, and puffy eyes. With weariness, the last Emperor of France looks off into a distance that, for him, would never come into focus.
Carpeaux’s architectural sculptures for the Pavillon de Flore and the Opera Garnier were the focus of the fourth gallery at the Metropolitan. Many technical terms were introduced here, such as “master model,” “joins,” “marble practitioner,” and “after cast,” but a full discussion of them was lacking. While both museums should be commended for their precision in noting known praticiens and founders, some of this information may have mystified visitors less knowledgeable about sculpture practices and procedures. In New York, one could overhear visitors wondering what a plaster cast was, and why the small bronze Genius of the Dance (ca. 1872) had visible screws in it. Some of the caricatures from popular journals, lampooning the ink-splattered sculpture, could have been shown here to explain the public outrage to a work that today seems tame. The Orsay presented the original limestone version of the sculpture in all of its pitted, weathered glory, alongside its pristine plaster models.
A gallery of later portraits showed members of Parisian high society. Highlights included portraits of Charles Garnier (1869); Alexandre Dumas fils and his wife (1873–74), thoughtfully brought together even though today they exist in separate collections; and a gem, Madame Pelouze (1872–73), shown in both venues, despite the catalogue stating it was shown in Paris only. A wonderful portrait in deep brown terra cotta, Madame Pelouze is a superb example of Carpeaux’s ability to bestow beauty, charm, and grace upon women of a certain age; Pelouze sports two soft tufts of chin hair that do not, somehow, give her a masculine appearance. It was her photographic portrait, where she is shown clean shaven, which was presented only in Paris. Also in Paris one found a wonderful pairing of two portraits, the young and vivacious Eugénie Fiocre (1869) with the significantly older La Marquise de la Valette (1861), who was unhappy with the marble, or with the realization that her beauty had faded. Carpeaux quickly took a hammer to it (1869; Paris venue), knocking off her nose and her head, and creating, by chance, something that looks very much like an ancient Roman ruin.
The Metropolitan combined Carpeaux’s public commissions and religious works into their sixth gallery; in Paris these two themes were presented separately. The artist’s most important public monument commission was to Antoine Watteau, also a native of Valenciennes; although he worked on it for fifteen years, it was only completed after his death. His monuments to François Rabelais and Saint Bernard were never realized. The religious works were impressive: one stood in front of Pietà (1864) amazed at the simple, pressed balls of clay, still “fresh” with his fingerprints, which become a mass of palpable suffering.
Images of Carpeaux’s family included busts of his wife, Amélie de Montfort (1869), and his mother-in-law, Vicomtesse de Monfort (ca. 1870), which were nicely paired. Carpeaux’s painting based on the birth of his first son, Charles, was a revelation (Scene of Childbirth, ca. 1870); it is a harrowing, tenebristic work suffused with powerful, energetic lines and quick strokes. Later Carpeaux took advantage of Charles hurting his arm in a train car door to produce his Wounded Cupid (1874), for which the injured child modeled. One wonders if Carpeaux had masochistic tendencies: after seeing his model Jacinta mourning the death of her son in public, Carpeaux asked her to keep recounting his death as he brought her back to his studio and used her weeping, shaking form to complete Mater Dolorosa (1870). However insensitive his actions seem, Carpeaux clearly used these passion-filled events to capture, from life, deep physical and emotional sufferings that are difficult to fake.
Visitors to retrospectives should always ask why anyone should care about the artist under exploration. Draper and Papet address Carpeaux’s significance in the introductory essay of their catalogue. In the exhibitions, however, this issue of “why Carpeaux” was a bit hazy, particularly in New York. In Paris, Carpeaux’s importance was made more clear, especially in that city, still filled with his public works including his decorations for the facade of the Louvre; The Dance (1866–69), replaced by a copy on the facade of the Opera in 1964 sculpted by Paul Belmondo; and The Fountain of the Observatory (1868–72), located at the Avenue de l’Observatoire, at the south entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg. The large varnished plaster model for the fountain, entitled Four Parts of the World Supporting the Heavenly Sphere (1872), along with maquettes for the sculpture, closed out the presentation in Paris, fittingly, as the bronze fountain was installed just fourteen months before his death. In New York the final gallery consisted of painted and drawn self-portraits that progressively showed his physical decline. Many of these same self-portraits were included in Paris, but they were not used as the show’s dénouement. The conclusion in New York left the viewer with a sense that Carpeaux’s passions had been for naught. It may have been useful to include works by the younger generation of sculptors working in the newly formed Third Republic, if only to assert that he was influential, and, more importantly, to show that he was the bridge between the earlier style of Romanticism and the more modern tendencies in sculpture that followed.
Overall, however, one came away from both exhibitions with a true appreciation of Carpeaux’s brilliance, for which the curators should be commended. The artist’s genius was apparent in his ability to capture the vigor of life in sinuous terra-cotta sketches and spirited drawings that were later refined into velvety marbles and flawless bronzes of the highest order. Even his paintings, previously less considered, henceforth will be taken into account in any future study of the artist’s work. These exhibitions showed that the passions of Carpeaux were many, and his passion to capture life, so fleeting especially when at its most vibrant, was paramount.
Caterina Y. Pierre
Professor, Department of Art, City University of New York, Kingsborough Community College