The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, a major retrospective that explores the life and work of the exceptionally gifted, deeply tormented sculptor who defined the heady atmosphere of the Second Empire in France (1852–1871), is on view at the Metropolitan Museum through May 26. The first full-scale exhibition in 39 years devoted to Carpeaux (1827–1875), it features about 150 works including sculptures, paintings, and drawings, which are organized around the major projects that the artist undertook during his brief and stormy career. Major international loans that have never before traveled to the United States, or have not been here for decades, come from the Musée d’Orsay; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes (Carpeaux’s birthplace); the Louvre, Petit Palais, and other French institutions; and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Important loans also come from the Getty in Los Angeles and from private collections.
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
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.
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