The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux

by Meredith Bergmann

This is the apt title of a book by James David Draper and Edouard Papet, inspired by and documenting the 2014 retrospective exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay.

We have drained and secularized the word “passion.” The classical Latin word meant “suffering” and in Medieval Latin came to refer to the specific suffering and death of Jesus. “Passion” has now become a term of intense enthusiasm, sometimes for a mere hobby. We rush to apply it to the lives of the accomplished and single-minded as well as the doomed. A quick search of the Internet yields The Passions of… Michelangelo, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, John Stuart Mill, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Vaughan Williams, Sigmund Freud, John Quincy Adams, Achilles and Aeneas and Emma Goldman.

Ugolino and His Sons, 1865–67, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, according to his webpage on the Musée d’Orsay’s site, was “one of the most perfect embodiments of the Romantic idea of the artist cursed by the brevity and brilliance of his career, concentrated into around fifteen years, and by the violence and the passion of an unrelenting struggle with subjects chosen or commissioned.” The story of J.B. Carpeaux’s short life (1827–75) seems overripe for a Hollywood movie. Critic Roberta Smith summed up Carpeaux’s life as if in an elevator pitch:

…it encompasses a volatile mix of raw talent and rawer ambition, incessant work, grasping parents, a tormented marriage, economic struggle, debilitating illness and some Othello-like paranoia.1

There were always constraints of subject matter in Carpeaux’s commissioned sculptures, but not in his sketchy, vividly evocative paintings. There we may see his private responses to historic scenes and events. The themes that most moved Carpeaux were passionate ones, whether they were light or dark: explorations of suffering, violence or bestiality or, on the contrary, of ecstasy or even of the fairytale beauty of the imperial court. Among his horrific images are war, shipwreck, cannibalism, severed heads and bitten fingers, orphans and wounded children, dead bodies and the damned. Among his many empathic and sensitive sculpted portraits of women is one whose beauty, once famed, is not dated: the 1869 plaster bust of the delicately sexy dancer, adventuress and eventual marquise, Eugénie Fiocre, which moved a contemporary critic to report that it made his “spine tingle.”2

Amélie de Montfort in Wedding Attire, 1869, Musée d’Orsay, Paris Born to a poor stonemason’s family in Valenciennes, in the north of France, Carpeaux moved to Paris with his family and by age fifteen was studying sculpture and winning prizes. By age seventeen he was admitted to the École des Beaux Arts, and in 1854, at age twenty-seven, won the Prix de Rome. He had to delay his departure from Paris so that he could have one of his eyes, by some accounts nearly blinded, treated for damage from marble dust, but once settled in Rome he lived and maintained his studio there for the next eight years. There, his primary sculptural work was on the design, modeling, presentation, bronze casting and eventual marble carving of Ugolino and His Sons (1865–67), his masterpiece (literally the work that proved his mastery). Much of the rest of his time, when he wasn’t actually ill, he spent trying to raise money.

Ugolino and His Sons was originally intended to fulfill, as well as to defy, the requirements of the assignment given in the fourth year of academic study: specifically, a freestanding figure designed to be carved in marble, on a theme drawn from the classics or the Bible. Carpeaux, thinking outside the box and designing for a much bigger block, chose to portray five male figures intertwined: three generations from the grim story of Ugolino in Dante’s Inferno. Count Ugolino, ruler and then traitor of Pisa, was imprisoned in a tower with his sons and grandsons and left there to starve. Dante implies that Ugolino survived his sons long enough to eat their bodies before he, too, starved to death. The pose is derived from Canto 33 of The Inferno:

I saw, reflected in four faces, my own gaze, and out of my grief, I bit at both my hands; and they, who thought I’d done that out of hunger, immediately rose and told me: ‘Father, it would be far less painful for us if you ate of us; for you clothed us in this sad flesh—it is for you to strip it off.’3

The sculptor Carpeaux built up the sad flesh to the point of the greatest muscular expressiveness, so that in places the figures resemble ecorchés, the flayed anatomical figures that students in academies continue to study today. Carpeaux drew his heavily muscled Ugolino from many sources: the Belvedere Torso and works by Michelangelo, but especially from one ancient work that for Michelangelo was profoundly inspirational, the Hellenistic Laocoön.4 This famous marble group shows the Trojan priest Laocoön, who had angered the gods by trying to warn the Trojans not to accept the gift horse, being punished along with his innocent sons, writhing in mortal agony in the coils of a sea serpent. The eighteenth-century art historian Johann Winckelmann had praised its effectiveness: “The pain discovers itself in every muscle and sinew of his body, and the beholder, while looking at the agonized contraction of the abdomen, without viewing the face and the other parts, believes that he almost feels the pain himself.”5 Carpeaux, eager to create a pendant, answer and challenge to the Laocoön, grouped his figures into a pyramid of tensed limbs. Three of the four sons’ faces are hidden or expressionless, and the beholder is confronted with the horrific face of Ugolino at the pyramid’s apex.

Ugolino’s shade tells Dante to imagine his horror at knowing his sons must die, and asks:

…if thou for this weep not

at what then art thou wont to weep?6

Carpeaux’s exaggeration of physical anguish to convey spiritual anguish does not succeed in evoking pathos in every viewer. A nineteenth-century critic wrote: “The poet’s words are only addressed to the imagination, and the instantaneous gesture of the maddened parent, who lifts his hands to his mouth as if to bite them, is really tragic in its wild impotence. But in the statuist’s version the same movement, fixed for eternity in marble, becomes something like a grimace: it lacks grandeur, and is at best melodramatic, not tragic.”7 In our own time, Roberta Smith responded: “It is quite impressive, although Ugolino looks a bit too much like Vincent Price to be completely convincing.”8 In fact, Carpeaux copied a Michelangelo drawing of the Head of a Faun and used his copy, dated 1856–60, as a model for the profile of Ugolino.

There is no way to know what these starved siblings and a devouring father might have meant to Carpeaux in terms of psychology. Carpeaux did give us, however, wonderful insights into his artistic bloodlines. In 1863, thinking of the passions of Rubens, Delacroix and Géricault, Carpeaux wrote, “Emotion est voulue. We can no longer make statues without a motive, merely for the sake of their beauty and for the luxury which they minister to our senses…. We want works like the Descent from the Cross, the Massacre of Scio, the Wreck of the Medusa…. humanity swept away in a blind whirl, generation trampling upon generation, as the dust flies before the storm…. I believe despair is the expression of our era.”9 

Carpeaux, age forty, met twenty-year-old Amélie de Montfort, who was far above his social station, at a ball. He married her two years later, in 1869. That year he sculpted a beautiful bust of his aristocratic wife in wedding attire, decked with traditional orange blossoms. He also documented his growing cruelty to his new wife in his own sketchbooks, as in one sketch from 1870: Carpeaux Striking Amélie Carpeaux. Egged on by his parents, who believed that some of his children had been fathered by others, he repeatedly brought charges of adultery against Amélie and hired spies to follow her. In other sketches he depicted himself “bullying and berating her”: “In another drawing, she holds back one of their offspring while he crashes through a doorway.”10 Carpeaux’s daughter described her father sculpting an “amusing maquette” of her brother, a toddler, bawling away in protest at being made to model over many “stormy sessions.”11

When his son, aged three or four, dislocated his arm in a train door, Carpeaux insisted the child pose repeatedly, against his will and in spite of his tears, for a Wounded Cupid. Carpeaux’s daughter remembered that, “The tender father—which he was in his spare time—gave way totally to the artist.”12 Encountering one of his models on the street in Paris who was mourning the death of her young son, he got her into a carriage, brought her back to his studio, and in two hours finished a bust of the Mater Dolorosa based on his sobbing model.

As Carpeaux’s life progressed, motifs that had leant themselves to life-affirming celebrations became Passions. The beautiful pose of a kneeling, turning figure whose arms twist upward and to the side—which he adapted from the ancient Greek Kneeling Aphrodite for his charming 1858 Fisherboy with Shell and again for the 1868 Triumph of Flora—is transformed, in a sketch in terracotta he worked from 1869 to 1874, into a twisted woman called Despair.

Despairing, indeed, is the face Carpeaux depicted in three painted self-portraits that are among his final works. Two are gaunt and weary but somehow radiant, as though the intensely religious artist were seeing himself as the suffering Christ. One, by contrast, Carpeaux Crying Out in Pain, is actively defiant. Its fierce expression with contorted forehead and open mouth, lips drawn back from the teeth, appears to be inspired by Michelangelo’s drawing of a Damned Soul, which along with Michelangelo’s Faun, may also have inspired the face of Ugolino. Carpeaux’s facial expression as well as his blotchy, cadaverous skin and sunken black eyes recall a drawing he’d made ten years earlier, a gruesome variant on Géricault’s painting Head of a Guillotined Man. Carpeaux, as he himself said, was deeply influenced by Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. But the synthesis of these two inspirations results in a Carpeaux that looks like Ugolino might have looked after he pulled his fingers out of his mouth: dying, but voracious. “I’m no longer anything more than an animal,” Carpeaux wrote to one of his pupils.13

Carpeaux was voracious for work. On his deathbed he wished he could model. Years earlier, the great French sculptor David D’Angers, seeing the young Carpeaux practicing modeling clay while blindfolded, had observed, “If you cut off Carpeaux’s head, his fingers would go right on modeling the clay.”14 The cut-off head and the guillotine, evoking the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution, resonate throughout the French national psyche. As a man who had devoured his family life, Carpeaux identified strongly with the criminal and the damned.

But Carpeaux could also model out of gratitude, with renewed faith in himself. By contrast with the huge despairing huddle of Ugolino and His Sons, in the small terracotta sketch Le Trait d’Union (The Hyphen), a clinging, erotic embrace between Amélie and Carpeaux presided over by their young son, he gives us a family group in which disaster was averted. Their son, who in 1872 at the height of his parents’ discord had experienced severe convulsions but miraculously recovered, climbs up to clasp his parents’ heads together in a kiss. Although the reconciliation was temporary, Carpeaux created what the Metropolitan Museum’s great curator James Draper aptly described as a “small, swift monument” to a life-affirming, life-engendering passion.

By the end of 1863, despite another of many bouts of ill health, Carpeaux was working hard on delightful commissions for the façade of the Opéra and the Louvre, both of which feature startlingly realistic young women who are radiant, even delirious, with joie de vivre. The stories of these commissions, for The Dance (1865–69) and the Triumph of Flora (c. 1863), are crammed with incident and tribulation, and yet the results are triumphant: sculpturally innovative (completely upstaging more conservative sculptures on the same buildings) and enduringly joyful.

Carpeaux seems to have found considerable spiritual relief in “capturing” the expressions of real, living people, outgrowing the heated rhetoric of his Ugolino. H.W. Janson wrote that the figures in The Dance, “… slightly embarrass us, as if 'real people' were acting out a Rococo scene. A single leg, detached from this group, might well be mistaken for a cast from nature.”15 But Carpeaux derived his giddy ladies from the timeless motif of the Three Graces, and their dancing legs bring mythology to life and life to mythology.

By 1864 Carpeaux had finally managed to land a coveted imperial commission to sculpt a full-length portrait. This statue, however, would not be a portrait of the emperor or empress, but of their eight-year-old son. The Prince Imperial and his full-grown dog, sculpted in marble with real tenderness, not sentimentality, were a great success. The little prince’s pose, dignified, alert and grave, may owe something to Donatello’s St. John the Baptist as a Child and perhaps even more to his St. George, both also in white marble, which Carpeaux may have studied in Florence.

The Dance, 1865–69, Musée d’Orsay, ParisAccording to Edouard Papet, chief curator of sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay, “It had been Carpeaux’s good fortune to make a name for himself in the midst of the great construction projects of an empire that placed sculpture at the heart of public and private space: monuments and residential buildings were laden with sculpted decoration; a statuomania took over squares and avenues of urban centers then in the throes of town planning and bent on modernization.”16 The poet Apollinaire wrote nearly forty years after Carpeaux’s death: “Someday we will understand that the Second Empire was an age of style. And the purest expression of this artistic style is to be found in the works of the sculptor Carpeaux, who—more completely than any other—was a man of his time.”17

The Second Empire, ruled from 1851–1910 by Napoleon III, was characterized not only by the “fête imperial,” with which Carpeaux’s work is most famously associated, but also by the emperor’s social reforms. Napoleon III encouraged the building of schools (including those for girls) and libraries, agricultural education, increased industry and trade, labor reforms and the redesign of Paris. He also decreed the exhibition of the first Salon des Refusés in 1863, introducing Parisians to shockingly nonacademic paintings such as Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl.

After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, Carpeaux, like many other artists dependent on commissions, followed the emperor and his family into exile in London. Carpeaux had hoped to receive a commission to portray Napoleon III while he was Emperor. Instead he was commissioned by the Prince Imperial to sculpt a portrait of the ailing, exiled emperor in 1872. Carpeaux was then seriously ill himself. He rushed to complete the work, and made drawings of the emperor in his coffin. In the finished marble, Napoleon III’s bust is trimmed to a herm shape, with no trappings of state or fashion, and even the emperor’s proudly waxed moustache, rumpled goatee and carefully observed hair cannot distract from the expression of his eyes: alert but exhausted, and terribly sad. It is a beautiful sculpture and a brilliant, elegiac and intensely moving portrait.

By 1873 Carpeaux and his wife (then separated) and their children were all back in Paris. Carpeaux was diagnosed with bladder cancer and in 1875, after several years of failed surgeries and increasing agonies, he died at age forty-eight. According to Edouard Papet, after his death Carpeaux’s works quickly became “relegated to the limbo of the history of taste.”18 In their combination of immersion in and mastery of art, with a passionate participation in life, we may rediscover their relevance.



1. Roberta Smith, “Tortured Soul, Golden Touch: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, a French Artist of Multiple Passions,” The New York Times, March 27, 2014, n. pag. http://www.

2. James D. Draper and Edouard Papet, with Elena Carrara, Nadége Horner, Laure de Margerie, Jean-Claude Poinsignon, Philip Ward-Jackson, The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014), 224.

3. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alghieri: Inferno (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1980), Canto 33.

4. For a moving evocation of Michelangelo’s presence at and reaction to the discovery and excavation of the Laocoön, see Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (New York: Pantheon Books,


5. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, as quoted in The Nude, 231.

6. Dorothy Sayers, The Divine Comedy 1: Hell (London: Penguin Classics, 1964), Canto 33.

7. Olive Logan, “Carpeaux,” Lipincott’s Monthly Magazine 25 (June 1880), 670.

8. Smith, “Tortured Soul,” n, pag.

9. S. Udny, “A Modern Sculptor” in The Portfolio: An Artistic Periodical (London: Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, 1887) Vol. 18, 203.

10. Passions, 257.

11. Louise Clément-Carpeaux, La Vérité sur l’ouevre et la vie de J.-B. Carpeaux (Paris: Dousset and Bigerelle, 1934-35), Vol. 1, 381, as cited in Passions, 259.

12. Ibid.

13. Passions, 273.

14. Attributed to David d’Angers in Histoire générale de l’art français de la révolution a nos jours, Vol. 2, L’Architecture; La Sculpture, by Georges Gromort, André Fontainas and Louis Vauxcelles (Paris: Librairie de France, 1925), as cited in Passions, 264.

15. H.W. Janson, A History of Art (New York: Abrams, 1971), 488.

16. Passions, 108.

17. Guillaume Apollinaire, Chroniques d’art, 1902–18, ed. LeRoy C. Breunig (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 320, as cited in Passions, 108.

18. Passions, 108.



 American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2016, Volume 33, Number 3