en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste_CarpeauxJean-Baptiste Carpeaux (11 May 1827 – 12 October 1875) was a French sculptor and painter during the Second Empire under Napoleon III.
Carpeaux, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino, passions.
Tortured Soul, Golden Touch
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, a French Artist of Multiple Passions
Note the savvy come-hither title of “The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest, unusually swashbuckling foray into 19th-century French art. What better way to attract attention to a sculptor prominent in his own time but not widely known in ours than to promise not just one but multiple passions? And what better way to make this artist memorable than to deliver on almost every front?
“The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux” is an exciting full-service exhibition, all the more so because Carpeaux was to some degree a virtuoso in every material or medium he touched: a sharply observant draftsman who was also adept with oil on canvas, and whose paintings are among the show’s surprises. Adding to his luster, he was one of the last artists of the last royal court of France, the Second Empire of Napoleon III, established by coup in 1851 and abandoned in 1870 amid the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War. In between, the emperor had Baron Haussmann redesign Paris, which generated ample job opportunities for architects and artists alike. Among other things, Carpeaux would create “The Dance,” a large and exuberant sculptural group for the facade of the city’s new opera house, designed by his friend Charles Garnier. At the same time, Carpeaux was also incipiently modern, a crucial influence on Rodin and his generation of French sculptors.
“Carpeaux” is the first retrospective devoted to the artist in nearly 40 years. It has been organized by James David Draper, curator of the Met’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, and Edouard Papet, chief curator of sculpture, at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, where it will be seen this summer.
Over the course of nine galleries and 150 works, their effort weaves together art, biography and history into a rich, illuminating narrative. It spans art as tradition and innovation, as private sketch and public monument, revealing a versatile sensibility fueled by alternating currents of Romanticism and Realism, not to mention a passion for Michelangelo. It manifests history as politics, court life, defeat and exile, as might be expected from the work of a Second Empire art star whose most popular sculpture was an enchanting full-length portrait of the heir to the throne, portrayed, perhaps for the first time in French sculpture, in everyday dress. And biographically, it encompasses a volatile mix of raw talent and rawer ambition, incessant work, grasping parents, a tormented marriage, economic struggle, debilitating illness and some Othello-like paranoia.
This show makes the realities of being an artist unusually tangible. Its range of materials and scales clarifies the stages of sculptural production from deftly improvised terra-cotta or plaster studies to full-size models, to bronze or marble versions. The small bravura studies are among the most engaging (and modern) works in the show. They include sketches for mythological and religious pieces, notably a gripping little Entombment of Christ and others based on contemporary life. Don’t miss the terra-cotta sketch of the young woman looking over her shoulder to glimpse the back of her first long gown.
The catalog can teach you much about the economic ups and downs of a sculptor who lived exclusively from commissions and the sale of replicas of his best-known works, like the portrait of Napoleon III’s heir, the Prince Imperial. Its lengthy chronology is a litany of advances, payments and loans of sums small and large; of projects that barely broke even and desperate auctions of work; of commissions won, postponed and canceled or finally completed.
Perhaps most startling of all, is that Carpeaux’s prolific output was cut short by the age of 48, when, partly blinded by marble dust, he died of bladder cancer.
The son of a mason and a lace maker, Carpeaux came from nowhere, but his gifts emerged early. His father managed to enroll him at the age of 10 in the famous Petite École of Paris, where he learned the rudiments of drawing, architecture and stonecutting. In 1844, he won entry to the École des Beaux-Arts and spent most of the next decade repeatedly attempting to win the Prix de Rome in sculpture.
He finally won in 1854 with the assured if rather routinely neo-Classical sculpture of Hector holding his infant son that greets you in the first gallery of the exhibition. (Carpeaux was also capable of cloying neo-Classicism as exemplified by his 1861-62 marble “Boy With a Seashell,” nearby.)
Over the next eight or so years, Carpeaux was back and forth between Paris and Rome, soaking in the art of his idol Michelangelo, and tangling with officials about the subject of his first major sculpture. It was supposed to be a single figure, but Carpeaux insisted on doing a five-figure scene depicting Dante’s Ugolino from the “Inferno,” a tyrant whose eternal punishment was to be imprisoned with his four sons and face the agony of either starvation or cannibalism.
This immense marble dominates the exhibition’s second gallery, accompanied by drawn and sculpted studies. Acquired by the Met in 1967, “Ugolino and His Sons” is a study in physical and psychological anguish, from the contorted, finger-gnawing mouth to the painfully clenched toes that owes much to Michelangelo’s monumental “Moses” and in turn influenced Rodin’s “Thinker.” It is quite impressive, although Ugolino looks a bit too much like Vincent Price to be completely convincing.
Fortunately, real people outnumber mythic characters. The next gallery includes a portrait of Napoleon III finished days after he died in exile in England, and two of Princess Mathilde, a cousin of the emperor known for her literary salon. One is formal, in marble with a wonderfully detailed gown, fur wrap, jewelry and snood, the other is intimate and more modest in bronze-tinted plaster. Both convey a sense of realism at once exacting and sympathetic.
In contrast, several Carpeaux paintings of court balls attest to both his infatuation with royal pomp and an extremely loose style. It might be called his own private Impressionism, but also foretells the rather slippery brushwork of society portraitists like Giovanni Boldini, and 20th-century magazine illustration.
The next gallery is devoted to public commissions, including a wonderful plaster study of “The Dance.” It is followed by a specially meaty display of portrait busts, including such creative types as Garnier, the artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, the writer Alexandre Dumas fils and the composer Charles Gounod, seen in a bust whose full beard, expression and tilt of head presage the imperious stance of Rodin’s “Balzac” in the Museum of Modern Art.
There are equally penetrating portraits of what Mr. Papet calls “the enlightened bourgeoisie,” like the philanthropist Pierre-Alfred Chardon-Lagache and Madame Pelouze, a political mover and shaker unafraid to have her facial hair portrayed. In these instances, Carpeaux records faces and implies personalities that are interesting in and of themselves.
Remaining highlights include Carpeaux’s study for the head of Watteau (reimagined as a handsome, carefree youth with a mane of long hair), a sampling of his religious works and a group of small self-portrait paintings and drawings that convey both his vanity and his suffering. A nearly illegible sweep of grisaille full of Henry Fuseli-like foreboding recounts the birth of Carpeaux’s first child, and four treatments of shipwrecks seem apt, given the rockiness of his health, finances and marriage during his final years.
Most tumultuous of all is a large roiling painting depicting an assassination attempt on Czar Alexander II among the crowds on the Bois de Boulogne during a visit to Paris. Mr. Draper of the Met suggests that Carpeaux could have been a history painter on the order of Gericault or Delacroix. I don’t concur, but it is a preternaturally strange picture, and it clarifies a thought that nags throughout this remarkable show, which is that Carpeaux had more genius than taste.