Jean-Baptiste Carpeau. Girl with a Shell, 1859

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux brilliant sculptor whose life was ruined by jealousy

Jean-Baptiste Carpeau. Girl with a Shell, 1859
Girl with a Shell, 1859

JeanBaptiste Carpeaux (May 11, 1827 – October 12, 1875) is a famous French artist of the 19th century, an outstanding sculptor of the neo-baroque style. Jean-Baptiste Carpo was also a talented painter, but his paintings are practically unknown to the general public. The best masterpieces of the master’s work today adorn the expositions of French museums, squares and facades of Parisian buildings, and his biography is a clear example of the successful career of a genius artist from a simple working-class family.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeau never held high positions at the Academy of Arts and was not even a full member of it. His works often caused heated debate in society, but the master always remained true to his own style, based on the ideals of freedom and the traditions of realism.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeau. This is Carpo's first major retrospective since 1975.
This is Carpo’s first major retrospective since 1975.

Biography of JeanBaptiste Carpeaux

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was born on May 11, 1827 in the city of Valenciennes in the north of France into the family of a bricklayer. From early childhood, the boy was fond of drawing and, despite his father’s negative attitude to this occupation, at the age of 11 he entered the local art school. His first mentor was René Fache, who taught the young talent the basics of drawing and sculpture.

In 1844, Jean-Baptiste went to Paris, where he was accepted to study at the Higher School of Fine Arts in the workshop of François Rude. But already at the end of the first year, the young man was transferred to the class of another professor – Francisque Duret and conscientiously unlearned from this teacher for the next 9 years.

In September 1854, 27-year-old Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux won the Rome Prize for Sculpture and was awarded a retirement trip to the Italian capital. But suddenly the young artist had several tempting orders and he had to postpone his journey for almost a year and a half.

Arriving in Rome in January 1856, Carpo enthusiastically studied the works of outstanding masters of past eras, and the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Raffaello Santi made the greatest impression on him. Influenced by their work, Jean-Baptiste created his first works, which received wide recognition in France, including Fisherman with a Shell and Ugolino Surrounded by Four Children.

The artist lived in the Eternal City until 1862, and then returned to Paris, where, thanks to the patronage of his friend Eugène d’Halwin de Piennes, he was introduced to Emperor Napoleon III. Having completed several orders for the French monarch, the sculptor earned his favor and even received the honor of becoming the personal teacher of drawing for the heir to the throne, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte.

The glory of the artist

From that moment, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux acquired the fame of a fashionable Parisian artist, it was in the 1860s that his creative career reached its peak. Thanks to the patronage of the emperor, he constantly received generous government orders to decorate the buildings and squares of the French capital. Despite being very busy, the master also found time to paint pictures – portraits, landscapes, works of everyday life and historical genres.

Seasons Turning the Celestial Sphere, 1874
Seasons Turning the Celestial Sphere, 1874

In 1868, Carpo moved to the suburbs of Paris, to a new spacious workshop, where he launched a vigorous commercial activity. By that time, many of his sculptural compositions were in great demand among the public, and the master set up the production of their copyright copies from baked clay, marble and plaster.

In 1869, Jean-Baptiste Carpo married Amelie Clotilde de Montfort, the daughter of an influential official, Governor-General of the Luxembourg Palace. In this marriage, the couple had three children, but the artist’s family life cannot be called happy because of private quarrels due to his unbridled jealousy of his wife. Just 5 years after the wedding, the spouse filed for divorce, took the children and left her husband forever.

last years of life

Bust of the artist at his grave in Valenciennes, late 19th century
Bust of the artist at his grave in Valenciennes, late 19th century

The defeat of France in the Prussian War and the subsequent revolutionary events of the Paris Commune of 1870 had an extremely negative impact on the fate of the master. With a catastrophic drop in demand for art and a lack of orders, Carpo was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had to give the workshop to his brother to manage, and family troubles contributed to the development of serious health problems.

Despite the fact that the political situation in the country soon stabilized, the life of a talented artist was rapidly approaching the end. Doctors diagnosed him with a deadly disease – bladder cancer, which at that time did not respond to treatment.

Why Born a Slave, 1868-1870
Why Born a Slave, 1868-1870

Experiencing severe pain, the brilliant master worked on numerous orders until his last days, but on October 12, 1875, Jean-Baptiste Carpo died at the age of 48. More than 2,000 people came to say goodbye to the artist in Paris for the funeral service, and at the end of November his remains were transported to his native Valenciennes and buried in the Saint-Roche cemetery.

The most famous works of Jean-Baptiste Carpo

The outstanding French sculptor and painter left behind many wonderful masterpieces. And yet, some of the most famous works by Jean-Baptiste Carpeau include:

  1. “Fisherman with a Shell” (1858) is a small sculpture created by the author during his stay in Rome. The image of a little fisherman holding a shell to his ear was so popular with the audience that Karpo subsequently made many copies.
  2. “Ugolino surrounded by four children” (1861) is a work based on the medieval legend of the overthrown tyrant, imprisoned in a tower and starving to death. It is interesting that the leadership of the Paris Academy negatively perceived this work, but the audience really liked it and was also copied many times by the artist.
  3. The Dance (1869) is a stone high relief that adorns the façade of the famous Opéra Garnier in Paris. This sculpture caused fierce debate about morality in society, and one of the spectators even tried to spoil the masterpiece by throwing a bottle of ink at it.
  4. “Why be born a slave?” (1868-1870) – a cycle of 8 busts depicting a young woman trying to free herself from the shackles binding her body. The artist created this work in solidarity with the movement for the complete abolition of slavery around the world.
  5. Jean-Baptiste Carpeau is widely regarded as one of the greatest French sculptors of the 19th century. His work was often criticized, but no one questioned the author’s undeniable talent and unique distinctive style.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeau. Bas-relief of the Triumph of Flora, 1866
Bas-relief of the Triumph of Flora, 1866
The genius of dance, 1871
The genius of dance, 1871