Carpeaux and Carrier-Belleuse Exhibitions

There can be no opportunity like the present for getting to know the sculpture of the French Second Empire. Two of its most significant figures are being fêted within manageable distance of one another. At the Musée d’Orsay, an exhibition of the work of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, which has already enjoyed a run at the Metropolitan Museum, continues, with a modified and improved catalogue in French, up to 28th September. At the Château de Compiègne, fifty minutes by train from the Gare du Nord, Carrier-Belleuse, le maître de Rodin, runs until 27th October. This slight distance is indeed suggestive of their relationship in life, because, having been very close and collaborated in their earliest student days, their paths diverged, and, late in life, Carpeaux implied that he thought Carrier had become a bit of a tradesman. His biographer, Anne Wagner has shown at what psychological cost Carpeaux worked his way through the academic training process at the Ecole des Beaux Arts over a fifteen year period, though his student works, sent from Rome, including the Fisherboy with Shell and the Ugolino and his Sons, are amongst his most distinctive productions, conveying considerable emotional range and even suggesting radical mood-swings in their author. In the group of La Dansewhich he later created for Garnier’s new Paris Opera House, the bi-polarity became reversibility, as though the tragic struggle of Laocoon and his Sons had been turned into dionysiac frenzy at the touch of Terpsichore’s wand, making it seem, in retrospect, a perfect reflection of the mood of Paris in the 1860s. The very rough edges to Carpeaux’s personality did not prevent him from becoming a favourite of the Imperial household, only to find the rug pulled out from under him when the regime collapsed following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

One has only to look at photographic portraits of Carrier-Belleuse to see what a different character we are dealing with. With his large head, stocky short body and flourishing moustache, he might have played a good Sancho Panza to Carpeaux’s Don Quixote. Furthermore, Carpeaux was right. The friend who he had met at the Petite Ecole, took what was in some senses the low road, and got his apprenticeship in the more commercial field of serial and applied sculpture, which, just at this time, was receiving such exposure in the international exhibitions. In Paris, just out of his teens, he was producing models, still in a historicist and romantic vein, for the bronze founder Denière, and then, between 1850 and 1855 he came to live in Stoke-on-Trent, where he supplied brilliant statuettes for production in the new Parian ware. These were mainly designed for Minton, but Carrier also worked for Wedgwood and the Coalbrookdale iron foundry. As June Hargrove writes in the catalogue, this provided him with a firm grounding in industrial processes and workshop practices, and stood him in good stead when, on returning to France, he set up his own fast expanding studio. His preeminence in the ceramic field received its confirmation when in 1876 he was appointed Director of Artistic Works at Sèvres. And yet, from beginnings which were on the whole literally small, Carrier acquired the status of statuaire, creating public sculpture for Romania and South America, as well as for places nearer home in France, and exhibiting mainly sensuous mythological figures at the Paris Salon.

The two exhibitions go out of their way to emphasize the contrasts which exist between the two sculptors. Sadly, as his own existence became ever more fraught, Carpeaux found himself having to compete with Carrier in the commercial stakes, a feature which has been played up in some recent publications on him. But the exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay gives little indication of this. At the Metropolitan Museum the show was entitled The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, suggesting the intensity by which the work was driven, rather than the sculptor’s business savvy which was in fact considerable. It is noteworthy that the much reproduced and still popular Pêcheuse de Vignots, almost certainly conceived as a potboiler, was absent from the exhibition. Conversely, at Compiègne, there is positive revelling in the consumerist allure of Carrier’s product, and his readiness to redeploy his motifs and make them available for interpretation in different materials, showing the extent to which craft skills were still valued in the age of mechanical reproduction. The ambition was to bring to wider markets products which were comparable in complexity and finesse to those handcrafted for the elites of 16th century Italy or 18th century France. The curators have not been embarrassed, nevertheless, to show some outcomes which would have looked at home as prizes on a 1950s hoopla stall.

One is very conscious in these straitened times of the practical and financial limitations within which exhibition organisers have had to operate. Carpeaux’s contribution of well-known landmarks to the Parisian townscape made the inclusion of such very large works as the original group of La Danse from the Opera, and the plaster model for the Fontaine de l’Observatoire an imperative, at least for the Paris show, a convenient imperative as it happens, since these form part of the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, and so the exhibition was literally assembled around them. They did not go to America, where the show’s centrepiece was the Met’s marble version of the Ugolino group. In the Carrier exhibition, the limitations were more in evidence, though intelligently handled. The only large Salon piece was the twisting marble Bacchante making an amorous libation to a Bacchic herm, only somewhat the worse for long exposure in the Tuileries gardens. Otherwise, the more ambitious side of Carrier’s production, including his little-known public statuary was represented by smaller preparatory models, or reduced statuette versions. The catalogue illustrations go some way to rectifying this, but nowhere was there any representation of Carrier’s very creditable essays in equestrian statuary,the O’Higgins in Santiago (Chile), the Guzman Blanco in Caracas, both now gone, the Belgrano in Buenos Aires, and the Michael the Brave in Bucharest. Even the bronze Torchère groups for the Garnier Opéra, whose plaster models at the Musée d’Orsay might, in an ideal world, have graced the staircase leading to the exhibition, were only represented by much enlarged photos. 

Both artists excelled in naturalistic modelling. ‘More living than life itself’ said Alexandre Dumas fils of Carpeaux, and Maxime du Camp extolled Carrier’s inclination to ‘render in all their lovely detail the thousand aspects of the flesh’. In portraiture, both sculptors were clearly inspired by forbears like Lemoyne, Pigalle and Houdon. James Draper, whose main interest has been 18th century sculpture seems to have been drawn into the Carpeaux exhibition project by this parentage. It was one which Baudelaire rather surprisingly remarked upon, and at considerable length, in the case of Carrier, though his appreciation of the ‘energy and wit’ of Carrier’s busts was followed by a knowing proviso about the failure of continuity between ‘the vigorous and patient finish of the faces’, and costumes and accessories which were rather exaggeratedly flouncy. One suspects that he, like June Hargrove, knew what went on behind the scenes, where there were men for punching out lace furbelows and others for running up the nosegays. Carpeaux could vary his portrait mode from ‘grand apparat’ to homely and straight, an impressive example of the latter being his Marguerite Pelouze, whose married name is remarkably close to the French word for a lawn, her bust complacently sporting traces of beard and moustache. It is perhaps indicative of the difference in their perspective on life that Carrier was incapable of doing such things to women. His female portraits are somewhat monotonously elegant, though the singer Hortense Schneider already has the racy look of a music-hall performer. Carrier’s men, on the other hand, are completely free of affectedness, and wonderfully and soberly characterised. It was a pity that such examples as there were of these in the exhibition were displayed against a window, so that the ‘vigorous and patient detail’ remarked on by Baudelaire could not be made out.

The difference between the two men comes out most strongly in their drawing. Whilst Carrier was strongly grounded in anatomy from his student days, and obviously skilled at the speedy notation needed to communicate an idea to an assistant, his drawings, as Hargrove points out, are increasingly exercises in style. This decorative art showed a tendency to feed on itself. Which is not to say that Carpeaux’s drawing is free of influence. It is in fact haunted by reminiscences of the artists he admired – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Gericault – but it was also the example of some of these men that impelled him to seek inspiration for historical, literary or religious subjects on the street, or even, in the case of his Daphnis and Chloë (not included in the exhibition), in a train carriage.

The Carrier-Belleuse exhibition vaunts the sculptor’s claim to be ‘the master of Rodin’, which is somewhat ironic, given that nobody was more responsible than Rodin for destroying Carrier’s reputation. Like a sort of disgruntled sorcerer’s apprentice, he complained that whilst working for him he had been exploited and made to waste effort on things of no interest. His criticism that Carrier was too much a man of his time was however transparently a bid for transcendent status for himself. Rodin continued nonetheless to credit Carrier with having been his master, though Carpeaux could probably in a non-specific sense make equal claim to that title. Carpeaux had been alone in the world of sculpture in keeping alive the intensity of the romantic period through the fête impériale. In the end it was his devotion to Michelangelo and his searching draughtsmanship which shone through as Rodin’s guiding light, but a mere glance at some of Rodin’s earlier work shows the degree to which he had participated in Carrier’s project to free sculpture from solemnity. The Rodin coda at Compiègne is a historical reminder perhaps as relevant to one exhibition as to the other.

Main image: Installation view, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), a Sculptor for the Empire, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (photo: © Sophie Boegly )

Carpeaux (1827-1875): Un sculpteur pour l’Empire, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 24th June – 28th September 2014

Carrier-Belleuse le Maître de Rodin, Palais de Compiègne, Compiègne 22nd May – 27th October 2014

Aurora Corio