Carpeaux is best known today for a single masterpiece, Ugolino and His Sons (an important work in the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection), yet he was a multifaceted and prolific artist. A sculptor of emotion, both grand and intimate, he was drawn to extremes from Michelangelo to Watteau while retaining respectful admiration for his peers in French sculpture. A precursor to Rodin and a host of other early modern sculptors, he imbued his work with strong movement and visceral drive. He strove for anatomical realism in all media, but especially in his marble sculptures and busts, which seem to capture flesh and blood in stone.
The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux evokes the ambitious public monuments he created through groupings of drawings and vibrant preliminary clay models and traces the evolution of such masterpieces in marble as Ugolino and his Sons and the Musée d’Orsay’s Prince Impérial with his Dog Nero. Carpeaux sketched his surroundings constantly and had a genius for portraiture. Ravishing portraits of celebrities and friends, and wrenching ones of himself and his wife Amélie, are on view along with poignant drawings of an astonishing variety of subjects and techniques. His dramatic, highly independent paintings, barely known during his lifetime, are also be on display.
The exhibition probes overlooked works to reveal not only the darkness and despair of his troubled existence, but also his cruelty towards his wife. Carpeaux, who was plagued by serious physical maladies and violent mood swings throughout his life, was only 48 when he died. Despite this, he was extraordinarily productive, accomplishing a vast body of work sustained at the highest level of quality.
Carpeaux was born 1827 in Valenciennes (also the birthplace of Jean-Antoine Watteau), the son of a mason and a lacemaker. He was accepted into the renowned École des Beaux-Arts in 1844 where he worked fervently to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. Carpeaux finally won the prize for sculpture in 1854, then moved in 1856 to Rome, where he found inspiration in classical antiquities and the Italian masters, especially the works of Michelangelo. Ugolino and His Sons, rendering a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, was completed in plaster in 1861, the last year of his residence at the French
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, Valenciennes 1827–1875 Courbevoie)
Self-portrait or Engagement Portrait
1869, Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 ¾ in. (40.5 x 32.5 cm), Musée des Beaux Arts, Valenciennes
Academy in Rome. It created a sensation and brought Carpeaux many commissions. Upon his return to France, Ugolino was cast in bronze at the order of the French Ministry of Fine Arts and exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1863. The Metropolitan’s marble version was completed in time for the Universal Exposition at Paris in 1867. Various preparatory sketches of Ugolinoin different media are on display in the exhibition along with the monumental marble.
Upon his return to Paris, Carpeaux established himself in artistic and society circles and was appointed the art tutor of the only child of Emperor Napolean III and his wife Eugénie, Louis-Eugène-Napoléon-Jean-Joseph Bonaparte, the Prince Impérial. Carpeaux proposed to the Emperor and his wife a portrait of the young Prince Impérial and created a standing portrait in marble that shows the boy, about eight years old, with the Emperor’s dog Nero, a gift from the Russian ambassador. The portrait of the crown prince was rapturously received and reproduced in different sizes and media such as bronze, plaster, terracotta, and biscuit. Even after the fall of the Empire and the early tragic death of the crown prince—who was killed by the Zulus in South Africa in 1879—the Sèvres porcelain factory continued to sell his portrait under the title Boy with a Dog. The Musée d’Orsay’s marble and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’s silvered bronze of The Impérial Prince and His Dog Nero are on view side by side with other versions of the work.
In 1863, Charles Garnier, the architect of the new Paris Opéra, commissioned four sculpted groups by four artists to decorate the façade of the building. Carpeaux’s group celebrates the theme of dance. Over a three-year period, he produced hundreds of sketches and models before deciding upon a composition of naked women encircling the spirit of dance. When The Dance was unveiled, it caused a scandal. The public was so shocked by the realism of The Dance that it was proclaimed pornographic. A bottle of ink was thrown against the sculpture and its removal from the Paris Opéra was demanded. However, the war of 1870 and the fall of the Second Republic, followed by the death of Carpeaux in 1875, eventually put an end to the controversy. Today The Dance is considered one of the 19th century’s epic works.
Carpeaux still retains a strong hold over the imagination, particularly in his native country, where he has held pride of place in the museum of his birthplace in Valenciennes and in the galleries of the Musée d’Orsay ever since it opened in 1986.
The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is organized by James David Draper, Henry R. Kravis Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum, and Edouard Papet, chief curator of sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay. The exhibition is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund and the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund. The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay. Following its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum, The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux will be on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris from June 23 until September 30, 2014.
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue written and edited by James David Draper and Edouard Papet with contributions from Elena Carrara, Nadège Horner, Laure de Margerie, Jean-Claude Poinsignon, and Philip Ward-Jackson. It is published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, and is available in the Museum’s book shops (hardcover, $65). The catalogue is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.
An audio tour, part of the Museum’s Audio Guide program, is available for rental ($7, $6 for Members, $5 for children under 12).
The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.
Met Museum Presents
will hold two events in conjunction with the exhibition—Sculpting Sound: The Music of Carpeaux’s Circle
with Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano, on April 26; and Friends and Demons: The Life and Work of Carpeaux
, a presentation by curator James David Draper, on May 14. For more information about Met Museum Presents
please visit: http://www.metmuseum.org/tickets
Additional information about the exhibition and its accompanying programs are available on the Museum’s website at www.metmuseum.org