1827 – 1875
The son and grandson of stonemasons, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was born in 1827 in Valenciennes and moved to Paris at the age of eleven. Beginning in the early 1840s he studied at the Petite Ecole, the state school for training in the applied arts, formally called the Ecole Gratuite de Dessin, before entering the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1844, where he changed masters repeatedly, oscillating between typical student ambition (optimal credentials for the Prix de Rome) and his interest in more liberal approaches. Carpeaux moved from Ecole painter Abel de Pujol (1785-1861), to the independent sculptor Franois Rude, and finally to the prestigious Ecole sculptor Francisque-Joseph Duret (1804-1865). After winning lesser competitions–despite being caught cheating–Carpeaux was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1854, but outstanding imperial commissions and illness delayed his departure until 1856.
Once in Rome Carpeaux intensified his reputation as institutional bad boy, canny professional maneuverer, and provocative artist. As a pensionnaire he battled repeatedly with the Villa Medici authorities and flouted Ecole policy. Yet his major envois–the Neapolitan Fisherboy and multi-figural Ugolino (both begun 1857)–introduced his name in Paris and provided the artistic and commercial germs for his entire life. His pre-eminence, as the star among emerging sculptors, was established at the Salon of 1863, where he exhibited finished versions of those two works as well as his new state portrait bust of the emperor’s powerful cousin, Princess Mathilde, which earned him a first-class medal.
He entered the imperial circle in 1864 as artistic tutor to the Prince Imperial, and executed the boy’s bust and full-scale portrait statue for the prince’s parents (both mid-1860s, marble; Muse d’Orsay, Paris). He also received some of the most significant monumental commissions of the period: the architectural decoration of the Pavillon de Flore of the Palais du Louvre (1863-1866, Imperial France Enlightening the World and the Triumph of Flora); and The Dance (1865-1869) for the facade of the Paris Opra. His native Valenciennes commissioned several public projects between 1860 and 1884, including a monument to another of its native artists, Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).
This extraordinary activity was interrupted by the upheavals after the fall of the Second Empire and by Carpeaux’s increasing frailty with cancer. He executed some smaller figures and portraits upon commission and completed his monumental projects in Paris (1868-1874, Observatory Fountain, Jardin du Luxembourg). He mainly focused on amassing income through commercial edition, hoping to recoup his devastating financial losses from those projects and from the war. Estranged from his family, Carpeaux spent the last two years of his life traveling, in the care of patrons, and in clinics. He died in 1875.
An ambitious entrepreneur even as an Ecole student–a flagrant violation of the academic policy forbidding commerce–Carpeaux produced serial works throughout his career. Most were reductions or spinoffs of his Salon figures, public monuments, or celebrated portraits. They emerged in a variety of materials, dimensions, and mounts, executed by numerous sources: celebrated bronze founders, the state Manufacture de Svres, and his own vast studio in Auteuil. He made use of exhibition outlets throughout Europe–notably the coveted (and juried) industrial sections of international exhibitions–as well as provincial exhibitions throughout France, and sold his work at auction in Paris, London, and continental Europe every year beginning in 1870. He learned the risks and rewards of retaining reproduction rights over his models early in his career. As a student, his refusal to sell works to the government so that he could control the rights to it smacked of dangerous pride, a strategy that ultimately paid handsomely in commercial terms.
Carpeaux provided a highly visible, radical alternative to prevailing norms for sculptors of his own generation as well as the following one. Considered a telling barometer of his age, he and his work aroused bitter public debate. Critics accused him of shameless ambition for seeking constant public exposure. His work was considered just as aggressive. Advocates and opponents alike agreed that his architectural decorations overwhelmed their architectural frameworks. His sumptuous use of baroque and rococo idioms was either excoriated for plagiarism or hailed as embodying the special grandeur of modern times. With its intense expressive energy and naturalism on the one hand, and richly articulated surfaces and decorative quality on the other, Carpeaux’s work challenged assumptions about the very nature of high sculpture. His emphatically physical nudes, male or female, riveted and discomfited his generation, triggering heated arguments about their implications for contemporary morality–especially since they sold well and were repeatedly pirated. Yet his last works and theories about art, largely overlooked until recently, reveal a subdued classicizing approach that parallels that of his master Rude’s later works. Carpeaux’s influence can be seen in the work of the later luminaries–Aim-Jules Dalou, for instance–but it especially permeates the theories and art of Auguste Rodin, his student at the Petite Ecole and an admirer throughout his long and eminent career.