Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux
Biography of Romantic Sculptor Noted for "La Danse", "Ugolino and His Sons".

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Ugolino and His Sons (1857-60)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75)

One of the most innovative of all 19th-century sculptors, the French Romantic artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was a pupil of Francois Rude (1784-1855), and is seen as a precursor to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Medardo Rosso (1858-1928). He produced large scale works of sculpture such as Ugolino and His Sons (1860, Musee d'Orsay, Paris), as well as the more controversial La Danse (1866-9, Musee d'Orsay), and was also known for his small intimate portrait sculptures such as Antoine Watteau (1863, bronze, Musee d'Orsay) and La Negresse (1872, bronze, Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York). Influenced by Italian Renaissance sculpture, Carpeaux was an important figure in 19th century French art, because his expressive romanticism and vigorous approach to modelling marked a definite break from the austere style of Neoclassical sculpture, and paved the way for the naturalism of Rodin.

La Danse (1865-9)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
By Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

SCULPTURE (c.1750-1900)
Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-91)
Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823)
Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
John Flaxman (1755-1826)
Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)
Auguste Preault (1809-79)
Alfred Stevens (1817-75)
George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)

Frederic Leighton (1830-1896)

Auguste Bartholdi 1834-1904
Daniel Chester French (1850-1931)

For a list of the world's top 100
works, by the finest sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a list of the world's most
talented 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

Early Artistic Education

Born in Valenciennes in 1827 to a family of stonemasons, Carpeaux was apprenticed at an early age to a plasterer called Debaisieux. As drawing was a necessary tool of his trade, he was also enrolled in the Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Valenciennes. In 1838 Carpeaux's family relocated to Paris where he was admitted to the Petite Ecole, where he remained until 1843. The school was founded in 1766 for the children of industrial workers, and taught enamelling, masonry, engraving, horology and various types of woodwork. Carpeaux studied by copying the prints of the greatest Renaissance drawings and the works of 18th century sculptors. Around the time of Carpeaux's entry to the school, the new headmaster Hilaire Belloc placed more emphasise on the study of plastic art, which may have promoted Carpeaux's early interest in the medium.

At the age of fifteen, too talented to face life as a tradesman, Carpeaux was accepted into the French Academy of Fine Arts. While studying at the Academy, he also worked in the studio of the sculptor Francois Rude, one of the famous romantic artists of the time. However, he abandoned Rude in 1850 for the studio of Francisque Duret, a teacher at the school under whose guidance Carpeaux created his Achilles Wounded in the Heel (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes), and for which he received his first honourable mention. This was followed by a second place award for his figure Philoctetes on Lemnos. In 1854 Carpeaux won the Grand Prix de Rome for a group study of Hector and His Son Astyanax (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes).

For different types of 3-D
carving, see:
Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone
and other rock-types.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.
Wood Carving
Chip carving, relief carving of
softwoods and hardwoods.



In 1854 Carpeaux moved to Rome to continue his studies, his primary interest lay with Michelangelo (1475-1564), Donatello (1386-1466) and Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88). In 1856 he started a five year course at the Villa Medici, studying increasingly complex sculptures and bas-reliefs. Away from the distractions of modern commercial art, he was able to study and refine his skills. As part of his first year course, he was required to produce a marble statue. Carpeaux created his first masterpiece for this assignment, Fisherboy with a Shell (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) which was subsequently exhibited by the French Academy in 1858. He carved a marble version several years later, exhibiting it at the Paris Salon in 1863. Several years later again, he carved Girl with a Shell, a similar study.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist 19th-century sculptors like Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Ugolino and His Sons

Many drawings from Carpeaux's time in Rome survive, and they show that he was constantly sketching his surroundings. He was particularly interested in the works of Michelangelo, whose figurative gestures he often assimilated into his own works. This can best be seen in Carpeaux's multi-figure plaster cast of Ugolino and His Sons, which is based on a scene from Dante's Divine Comedy. Carpeaux captures the moment when Ugolino is tempted to eat his children and grandchildren, who, on the point of dying themselves, beg him to do so. The horror of the moment is captured by the tense poise of Ugolino's body in contrast to the abandonment of the children. The work instantly made Carpeaux famous and was acclaimed for its dramatic boldness which contrasted sharply with the 'official' Neoclassical art style of the French Academy. It immediately established Carpeaux as the natural heir of the Romantic Movement.

Return to France

On Carpeaux's return to France, the French Ministry of Fine Arts ordered that a bronze sculpture should be made out of Ugolino and His Sons, and exhibited at the Salon in 1863. Later it was moved to the Tuilieries gardens, where it was displayed as a pendant to a bronze of Laocoon and His Sons. Other commissions were soon forthcoming, including a portrait of the nine-year old Imperial Prince with his Dog Nero and Pietà (c. 1864, terracotta). With the downfall of the Second Empire, Carpeaux found that many of his patrons were no longer able to support him. He produced fewer monumental sculptures, turning instead to smaller portrait commissions. These included Amélie de Montfort (1868, terracotta, Musee d'Orsay, Paris); The Genius of the Dance (1872, bronze, Musee d'Orsay); and Bacchante with Lowered Eye (1872, terracotta, Metropolitian Museum of Art). With his slave portrait bust of La Negresse (1872), Carpeaux added a Michelangelesque sideward turn, ropes across the chest that seem barely able to contain the young woman's energy, and the inscription on the base: "Pourquoi! Naitre esclave!" (Why born a slave?)

Highly regarded as a portrait artist, Carpeaux secured several imperial commissions, including a posthumous portrait of Napoleon III in 1873. It remained in the private collection of Eugenie until her death in 1920. Other important works include a bust of Alexander Dumas Fils (1873, marble, Comédie-Francaise, Paris); Antoine Watteau (1863, bronze, Musee d'Orsay) and Sketch for the Marshal Moncey Monument (1864, Petit Palais, Paris). Another of his later masterpieces was The Four Quarters of the World, a Parisian fountain featuring a globe which is held by four female figures representing the four continents.


Carpeaux died prematurely of cancer at the age of 48. He received many honours during his lifetime and was held in high esteem by his peers. Two months before his death he was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour. Breaking with past traditions for historical subjects, Carpeaux infused his sculpture with previously unseen freedom, emotion and naturalism. While Carpeaux's work - which can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world - was a reaction to the classical style imposed by the French Academy, it still owed much to the antiquities and Renaissance sculptors of Rome. He was survived by his students including the American sculptor Olin Levi Warner, and French artists Jules Dalou and Jean-Louis Forain. An occasional painter, many of his works can be seen in the museum of his native Valenciennes.

• For more about 19th century sculpture in France, see: Homepage.
• For the evolution and development of the visual arts, see: History of Art.

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