Michelangelo in the Age of Carpeaux

Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 16 March to 1st July 2012.

As if a reminder were needed, the importance of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s graphic work, long overshadowed by his sculpture, is once again center stage at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes, the artist’s hometown. After "Daumier-Carpeaux : dessiner sur le vif" presented in 2008, the current "Michel-Ange au siècle de Carpeaux" can be seen as a complement to the first since, as pointed out by Mehdi Korchane, the exhibition curator alongside Emmanuelle Delapierre, director of the museum, "totally opposite expressions appear side by side in Carpeaux’s graphic work : drawings from life and copies of the old masters[...]" [1]. This time the exhibition concerns the second category, drawings after models, less extensive than the first but still far from negligeable. For this "academic" aspect, Valenciennes holds many large sheets of studies, preparatory sketches and small sketchbooks imitating or inspiring themselves in the old masters and, more precisely, Michelangelo. A selection of these, along with some sculptures and loans from public [2] and private collections make up a thematic visit divided into six sections containing just over 150 works, with Carpeaux of course but also some of his predecessors, contemporaries and followers, all heirs of Michelangelo, who worked directly or indirectly in "the century of Carpeaux".

A Carpeaux century which reveals the curators’ original concept, an ideal, with none of the restrictions of current artistic events, a portrait of 19th century French "Michelangelism". However, the simultaneous exhibitions of Romantic art in Clermont Ferrand [3] and Madrid [4] complicated matters by making it difficult to obtain certain loans, so that Valenciennes preferred to highlight more specifically the influence of Michelangelo on Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, rather than the more general theme of Michelangelo and 19th century French artists, though still including the context of "michelangelism". This is a particularly pertinent choice given the fact that Carpeaux was a salient figure of this "current".

1. Michelangelo (1475-1564)
Head of a Faun, c. 1520-1525
Pen and Brown Ink - 28 x 21 cm
Paris, musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN (Musée du Louvre)

2. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Head of a Faun, after Michelangelo, c. 1856-1860
Pencil, Red Chalk, Pen and Brown Ink - 35.9 x 29.4 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMN (Musée du Louvre)/Jean-Gilles Berizzi

3. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Self-portrait, known as Carpeaux Screaming in Pain, 1874
Oil on Canvas - 40.5 x 32.5 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

We know that Michelangelo was the absolute master for this Valenciennes artist, the one who "crushes everything, [who] is terrible in aspect, terrifying in character and incomparable in his science" [5]. From his early years of training until his death, he continuously drew from the repertory of forms belonging to the Florentine master, multiplying the copies, references and interpretations. Among them, Mehdi Korchane distinguishes two large categories in which Carpeaux integrated Michelangelo’s lessons : the "’imitation’ copies" and the "’evocation’ copies" [6]. The first, rather rare, are totally mimetic and an exact imitation of the subject and the graphic style. The Standing Slave with Crossed Legs and the Head of a Faun (ill. 1 and 2), two copies of drawings by Michelangelo (or attributed to him for many years) held at the Louvre and no doubt produced during breaks in Carpeaux’s Roman stay [7] are perfect examples of this. The second type of copies, many still held today, contain allusions to the model but are not faithful and servile imitations, expressing rather the artist’s personality,showing once again his creative abilities. These "copies" as illustrated by the very black Self-portrait, known as Carpeaux Screaming in Pain (ill. 3) after Michelangelo’s Damned Soul, bear the master’s imprint but do not allude to him directly and might have been executed from memory not necessarily while looking at the original. This criterion is in fact hard to determine since Carpeaux’s interest in Michelangelo is not really documented before his Roman stay at the Académie de France between 1856 and 1859 [8].

4. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Chest Study after Anatomical Model by Michelangelo
Black Pencil - 14.2 x 9.4 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

5. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Neapolitan Fisherman, 1857-1858
Plaster Proof after a cast by Charles Laurent,
after the first model - 91 x 39.5 x 50 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

We can assume [9], from the copies produced by the young Carpeaux of the Michelangelo drawings residing at the Louvre, his precocious interest for the Florentine master and a direct knowledge of his work. However there is no proof of a museum visit nor of any familiarity with the theoretical writings of his contemporaries on Michelangelo [10]. Something which is however documented, outlined in the first two sections of the exhibition, "The faces of the genius" and "The anatomic sensitivity", is that Carpeaux identified himself with the Romantic avant-garde which manifested a veritable cult to the Florentine master. Considered an overly virtuoso and eccentric genius long brushed aside by the Academy, he returned as a model for these young artists who admired his energy, imagination, passion, terribilità. Fascinated by his work as much as by his character, they multiplied his representations. Using the bust of Michelangelo produced by his student Daniele da Volterra, they all, from Guillaume Boichot, Jean-Baptiste Clésinger to Auguste Rodin and his Man with a Broken Nose, took on the challenge of portraying the master. In the same way, they all referred to his anatomical studies and brought back the fashion of dissecting, a practice favored by the Renaissance genius and determining for his work. Thus, the supposed Anatomical Model by Michelangelo populated the canvases of Eugène Delacroix, Théodore Chassériau, Gustave Moreau and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. This last artist executed "imitation copies" of course (ill. 4) but also a famous "evocation copy" with his Neapolitan Fisherman (ill. 5), a peaceful interpretation of the very tortured Michelangelo model.

6. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Studies after The Last Judgement, circa 1864-1865
Black Pencil - 28.2 x 35.5 cm
Paris, musée du Petit Palais
Photo : Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet

7. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Study of Charon
Black Chalk and White Chalk Heightening - 21.4 x 13.1 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMN/Thierry Ollivier

Then, starting in 1856 Carpeaux’s deference for Michelangelo took on even broader overtones. The sculptor, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1854, left for Italy two years later and stated : "There is indeed a vibrant sympathy in my imagination for this great man and all of my works are imprinted with this man’s gigantic stamp." [11]. As illustrated in the third section "At the Sistine school", Carpeaux was deeply impressed by the frescoes painted on the vaulted ceiling and on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Under the guidance of Joseph Soumy (1831-1868), Prix de Rome in engraving, then of the painter Alphonse Roussel (1829-1868), both Michelangelo scholars, Carpeaux turned the chapel into his school, rather than the Villa Medicis. Instead of the scenes from Genesis, at the center of the ceiling, he preferred the monumental Patriarchs in the corners and even more, The Last Judgement (ill. 6). He took the first as the basis for his canon, the ignudo, the exaggerated and contorted musculature of the bodies while the latter became his inexhaustible repertory of forms, "a bible whose chapters he never tired of repeating from memory throughout his entire life" [12]. There are countless copies and the thematic hang presented in the exhibition, following the vertical direction of the fresco, is especially pertinent. In fact, although there are clearly three types of drawings, group studies on brown paper, studies of isolated figures in pen, the greatest number, and the studies of isolated figures in black pencil, they all overlap in time. The attention to the muscles and movement, the attraction for the figures of the devil, Charon (ill. 7) and Minos in particular, reveal the two major principles which Carpeaux learned : action and the fantastic dimension.

8. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Ugolino and his Children. Master model of Carpeaux’ studio
for the bronze edition groupe

Bronze - 50 x 38 x 23 cm
Private Collection
Photo : D. R.

9. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Ugolino and his Children in an Underground, circa 1856-1857
Black Chalk with White Heightenings - 18.6 x 30.8 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN (Musée d’Orsay)

10. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Study for Ugolino and his Children, 1857 [?]
Pen and Chinese Ink - 28.6 x 28 cm
Dijon, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Photo François Jay

11. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Ugolino Climbing over his Children,
also know as Group of Castaways, 1869 [?]
Oil on Canvas - 31.1 x 40 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

12. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
Ugolino Interrups his Meal, circa 1875-1880
Pencil, Brown Ink, Pen
and Brown Wash - 19 x 7.1 cm
Paris, musée Rodin
Photo : Musée Rodin

Before long, the lessons acquired from the master took shape in a personal work by Carpeaux, his mandatory painting for the last year spent at the Académie in Rome, Ugolino and his Children (ill. 8). Drawn from an episode in Dante’s Inferno [13] and the centerpiece of the fourth section "Ugolino : Carpeaux’s Inferno", this work reformulated as of 1857 the principles he had assimilated. We see the posture of the prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine, the elbow of his left arm leaning on his knee and the hand folded over his mouth, but also and above all, the composition of The Despairing Man Pulled towards Hell by the Vices from The Last Judgement. Ugolino’s sons, like the vices surrounding the Despairing Man, gather around their father and cling to his legs. This section first retraces the initial stages of the work, leading Carpeaux from his original idea of a bas-relief, a composition inside a lunette (ill. 9) no doubt inspired by Ugolino Climbing over his Children by John Flaxman, with a pyramid-shaped group in free-standing form to the "extremely elaborate Florentine allusion" [14] (ill. 10). It then looks at the echoes of Dante’s work in Carpeaux’s later production and notably his Group of Castaways (ill. 11) which refers back as much to Ugolino as to Géricault’s Radeau de la Méduse. Finally, there is a presentation of Ugolino’s legacy in one of Carpeaux’s greatest admirers, Auguste Rodin, who drew the different acts from this Dante episode around 1875-1880 (ill. 12).

13. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Study for Ugolino, circa 1860
Pen and Brown Ink - 27.7 x 19 cm
Paris, Collection of Louis-Antoine Part
Photo : D. R.

14. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Mr. Beauvois Smoking a Pipe
Red Chalk, Pen, Brown and Blue Ink - 22.2 x 17.9 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

15. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875)
Study for Imperial France Taking the Light in the World
and Protecting Science and Agriculture,
, c. 1863-1864
Black Pencil - 18.3 x 13.3 cm
Valenciennes, musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes

Although the Sistine frescoes were Carpeaux’s first revelation of Michelangelo, the student soon discovered the master’s immense talent as a sculptor, entitled "The genius of the sculptor" in the fifth section. While still in Paris before his departure for Italy, Carpeaux did not seem particularly moved by the Slaves for Pope Jules II held at the Louvre since the Revolution nor by the many casts of famous Michelangelo sculptures residing at the museum of copies in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His arrival in Rome did not really change his views, as there are few of the Florentine master’s statues there. He would have to wait until 1858 and his discovery of the Medici Chapel in Florence before Michelangelo the painter stopped monopolizing his entire attention. The tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo di Medici executed between 1526-1533 in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo, became the equals of The Last Judgement, a source of inspiration which would never leave him. More of an evocation than an imitation, Lorenzo, a meditative figure bending in on itself, helped to define the posture of Ugolino (ill. 13), a more active Giuliano became Mr. Beauvois Smoking a Pipe (ill. 14) whereas the overall scheme for the tombs provided the composition for the first architectural commission which Carpeaux received in 1863. His ornamental front for the southern façade of the Pavillon de Flore at the Louvre, Imperial France Protecting Science and Agriculture replicates the triangular disposition in a somewhat stretched out manner (ill. 15).

The small section which closes the exhibition, "Mimesis", a summing up of the themes, assembles drawings from Carpeaux’s entire career, "imitation" and "evocation" copies. It underscores the continuity of Michelangelo’s influence on Carpeaux, a leitmotif threading through his artistic career, but also his personal life. Carpeaux identified himself entirely with Buonarroti, wavering between admiration and obsession. He lived in the rue Michel-Ange in Auteuil, a Parisian neighborhood, transformed his wife Amélie de Montfort into his Princess Colonna and until the day he died, though gravely ill, was still haunted by Michelangelo, echoing the master in his last Self-Portrait, known as Carpeaux Screaming in Pain (ill. 3), a reflection of the former’s Damned Soul.

Extending this very clear exhibition, with an understated setting and a catalogue which is perfectly put together, visitors can go on to discover the special-study exhibition "Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux et l’antique", until 18 June. It is also devoted to his drawings after models, but this time Greek and Roman ones, not Renaissance, and corresponds to a museum policy which, twice a year, presents a new hang for Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux drawings residing in its very rich graphic collection by this artist. The museum has a heavy schedule ahead since it holds about 5,000 drawings, 200 sculptures and 50 paintings. Indeed, along with the Musée d’Orsay and the Petit Palais, it represents one of the three leading Carpeaux collections.

Curators : Mehdi Korchane and Emmanuelle Delapierre

Under the guidance of Mehdi Korchane, Michel-Ange au siècle de Carpeaux, Silvana Editoriale, 2012, 215 p., 32€. ISBN : 9782912241214.

Visitor information : Musée des Beaux-Arts, Boulevard Watteau, 59300 Valenciennes. Tel : +33 (0)3 27 22 57 20. Open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm and Thursday until 8 pm. Admission : 5€ (reduced : 2.5€).

Version française

Julie Demarle, mercredi 23 mai 2012


[1] p. 170.

[2] Loans come mainly from the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, l’Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the Musée Rodin.

[3] Géricault, Etudes inédites sur Le Radeau de la Méduse at the Musée d’art Roger-Quilliot from 2 June to 3 September 2012.

[4] An important retrospective on Delacroix at the Caixaforum in Madrid from 9 October 2011 to 15 January 2012 then in Barcelona from 14 February to 20 Mai 2012.

[5] Louise Clément-Carpeaux, La Vérité sur l’oeuvre et la vie de J.-B. Carpeaux, Paris, 1934-35.

[6] pp. 170-173.

[7] From September 1856 to February 1857 then from January to July 1860.

[8] Although Carpeaux won the Prix de Rome in sculpture in 1854, he left for Rome only in January 1856, after executing the bas-relief The Submission at Abd-El-Kader, commissioned by the Emperor.

[9] See the second essay in the catalogue Michel-Ange, Carpeaux : histoire d’un culte personnel, pp. 39-49.

[10] The Dialogues by the Portuguese Francisco de Hollanda, a collection of thoughts by Michelangelo some of which Théodore de Pavie published in L’Artiste of 21 January 1855 as well as the Michelangelo biography published by Charles Clément in 1859 in La Revue des Deux Mondes

[11] P. 40 in Lettre de Carpeaux à ses parents, 7 juillet 1857, quoted by Fromentin, p. 44.

[12] P. 93.

[13] Canto XXXIII.

[14] Ernest Chesneau, Le Statuaire J.-B. Carpeaux : sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, A. Quantin, 1880.

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