Sculptor extraordinaire, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, was born on this day in 1827, in the little French village of Valenciennes, near the Belgian border. His father was a stone mason and the boy inherited his father’s talent for working with stone. Carpeaux is among the greatest sculptors of the Nineteenth Century, much-commissioned for Emperor Napoleon III and his court.
Carpeaux studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and, after winning the Prix de Rome in 1854, he moved to Rome where he could better study the masters: Donatello, Verrocchio, and, of course, Michelangelo. Studying these artists, while living in Rome, Carpeaux developed a taste for the Baroque, but “activated” it with drama, movement, and spontaneity. Furthermore, Carpeaux moved away from the strict classicism revived by his sculptor-heroes. He often sought models on the street, regular, “everyday” folk to pose for his works.
While studying in Rome, Carpeaux sculpted a plaster model for a new piece titled “The Neopolitan Fisherboy.” In time he sculpted it in marble and the finished piece was purchased for Eugènie, Napoleon’s empress. Other versions, in different sizes, were later sculpted in marble including the one now at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.
Another well-known Carpeaux work is “Ugolino and His Sons” based on the horrific tale from Dante’s Inferno. In the story, Ugolino della Gherardesca, a Pisan count, is jailed with his four sons and condemned to death by starvation. The horror on Ugolino’s face—as he contemplates having to eat his children—is captured sensationally in the marble.
Carpeaux died on 12 October 1875 at the young age of 48. He is buried in his birth town of Valenciennes.
An exhibit of Carpeaux’s work is showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through 26 May.