An Awesome Entirety : Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

His parents were horrible people. He was sickly all his life, dying eventually of an excruciating bladder cancer at only 48. His emotional life was often ungovernable. His at first rapturous marriage to a beautiful young aristocrat far above his station was plagued by suspicion, jealousy and outright brutality. And he was frequently defrauded by his most prominent patrons.

Otherwise, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was the most prominent sculptor of Napoleon III’s Second Empire France, the successor of Antoine Houdon and precursor of Auguste Rodin, an artist so prodigiously gifted that visitors to the splendid current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux,” will be hard pressed to choose for favorites among his larger, Romantic-realist works, his dramatic portrait busts or his tributes to his family and the beloved French painter Antoine Watteau. There are also revealing religious pieces (he was a life-long Roman Catholic) and remarkable, thoroughly modern drawings and rapidly wrought clay sketches. (After closing at the Met on May 26, the exhibition will be on view at the Musée d’Orsay from June 23 until September 30.)

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Carpeaux was born in 1827 in Valenciennes in the north of France, the fourth of eight children of a mason and a lacemaker. In 1838 he was enrolled in the “Petite Ecole” in Paris to learn elementary architecture, geometry, stonecutting and drawing. In 1844 he won a competition to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After finally winning the Prix de Rome in sculpture in 1854 with an eclectic but vigorous statue of “Hector Imploring the Gods in Favor of his Son Astyanax”—the first piece to greet you in the Met’s exhibition—he arrived (tardily) in Rome in 1856 and plunged into the study of classical and Renaissance art. Michelangelo became his idol, but he also excelled at sketching genre scenes of the city. In Trastevere he met a beautiful young woman known as Le Palombella, who modeled for him but died soon after the birth of their son Giulio (or Jules, as Carpeaux’s parents had called him).

Residents at the French Academy were expected to present a single-figure sculpture in their fourth year, but Carpeaux stubbornly began work on a multi-figure interpretation of a scene from Dante’s “Inferno” that described the torment of Ugolino della Gherardesca, the tyrant of Pisa, who was imprisoned in 1288 and left to starve to death with his two sons and two grandsons, torn between hunger and cannibalism. Working with the Laocoön in mind, Carpeaux first considered a relief, but then turned by 1859 to a five-figure piece and decided on his definitive composition in 1860.

A towering, intertwined embroilment of the agonized Ugolino gnawing on his fingers and the four young men desperately clutching him (one boy has already died), the sculpture is Michelangelo in terribilità mode. It became a sensation as increasing numbers of Romans and visitors to the city came to see it develop toward its plaster stage. (As was customary in large ateliers of the time, the later stone carving was actually done by a practitioner assistant, Victor Bernard.) Today the bronze caste of 1862 is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, while the Met boasts the marble version of 1865-67.

Turning from terror to tenderness, the exhibition moves from the Ugolino gallery to one concerned with the Royal Family. At its center is an exquisite life-size portrait of the Prince Imperial (1865), the only child of Napoleon III and Empress Eugènie. The boy is eight years old and wears civilian clothes, including baggy knee pants and a loosely knotted tie. His father’s favorite dog, Nero, is seated behind him but pushes his dutiful head toward the boy’s, between his embracing left arm and his waist. The boy’s clothing and tousled hair are rendered with incomparable fluidity, but it is his wistful eyes and slight smile that most enchant. No wonder it was multiply reproduced, in different sizes and material.

The other standout piece in the same gallery is a plaster bust of “The Marquise de la Vallette” (1861). Carpeaux’s first society portrait, it poignantly represents a dignified older woman all too aware of how time has ravaged her former beauty. An arriviste of the first order, Carpeaux had by this time become a favorite of the Imperial Couple, but he did not produce a bust of the Emperor—it is superb—until just after the old man’s death in exile in England. His success with the empress, who had repeatedly rejected his importunate requests for a sitting but finally acquiesced, had come earlier. It resulted in a ravishing bust with an expression not unlike that of her son as portrayed by Carpeaux. (The original plaster, c. 1866, is in the National Gallery in Dublin.) Dazzled by court life, the artist also tossed off sketch after colorful sketch, some done as paintings, of grand occasions at the Château de Compiègne or the Palais des Tuileries. Their bold brush strokes and brilliant color dazzle viewers today in turn.

The exhibition evokes Carpeaux’s large public commissions with individual marble or bronze figures as well as plaster or terracotta models and reliefs. For the Pavillion de Flore in 1863 he was charged with a large, high-relief decoration that included a saucy image of the goddess Flora surrounded by impossibly chubby infants. When his voluptuous “Dance” was unveiled on the façade of Charles Garnier’s Opéra in 1869, it caused such an uproar that plans were at first made to replace it. (The Met owns a fine bronze of the central figure, a Raphael-influenced “Genius of the Dance.”) Small terracotta pieces recall the “Fountain of the Observatory” in the Luxembourg Gardens (1868-72), and his plans for a monument to his fellow townsman Watteau show a longstanding, deep sympathy. The exhibition includes a large photograph of the final work in Valenciennes, which was not cast in bronze until 1879, four years after the sculptor’s death. On view also is a fine, patinated plaster “Head of Watteau,” with searching eyes and the kind of full wig the painter was known to fancy.

Carpeaux’s portrait busts of his contemporaries burst with vitality, suggesting, as Edmond de Goncourt later put it, “the whole life of the flesh.” A beautiful young dancer (Eugénie Fiocre) is ready for stage and society alike. Charles Garnier, often thought strange and even scruffy, is allowed a creative elegance. The painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (in both marble and bronze) knows that his current fame will one day be re-affirmed. The casual bust of Alexandre Dumas fils (now in the Comédie Française) is as dramatic as anything he wrote. His imposing wife Nadine, though clearly aging, is full of assured intelligence. Charles Gounoud and his bustling beard are as grand as any of his operas. And the bust of Carpeaux’s life-long friend Bruno Chérier embodies thoughtful friendship itself.

But the sculptor cared also for ordinary folk if they were amiable, carving Pierre-Alfred Chadon-Lagache and his wife Marie-Pauline, for example, with endearing gentleness. For the “Fountain of the Observatory” he had done head studies of a Chinese man and an African woman that were at once ethnographic and personal. And when it came to his alluring young wife, Amélie, she seems to have been carved yesterday. As she modestly turns her heart-shaped face to the right, she typifies the artist’s remarkable gift for work that is at once spatially secure yet charged with movement. (Her plain old mother, whom Carpeaux clearly loved, is beautiful in her own way.) The exhibition in no way scants the dark side of Carpeux’s work, however, and the gallery devoted to his family includes a chilling “Scene of Childbirth” (c. 1870) in oil grisaille on canvas. (“That’s how it is,” a mother of three told me as we visited the show.)

Deftly combining completed work and preparatory stages, the organizers of the exhibition, James David Draper at the Met and Edouard Papet at the Musée d’Orsay, have succeeded in revealing “the awesome entirety that is Carpeaux,” as they put it in their scholarly and lavishly illustrated catalogue. That fullness also includes examples of his religious work—intense, searching and lifelong. “We cannot do figures for their great beauty alone, richly adorned to please the eye,” he once wrote; “rather we need to do Descents from the Cross and Last Judgments.” His high relief terracotta “Descent from the Cross” (1864-69) powerfully responds to that injunction. As does, on a smaller scale, the “Mater Dolorosa” in marble (1870) from the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute. They prepare you for the four unforgettable self-portraits, worthy of any great painter, that are shown on the last wall of the show. These range from the dashing young artist with a full mane of hair and extravagant moustache coming into his own (c. 1859) through two more introspective studies to his harrowing “Last Self-Portrait” (1874)—and bespeak awesome depths indeed.

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