In their diary entry for March 16, 1865, the French art collectors Edmond and Jules de Goncourt noted the uncouth manners of three sculptors whom they had met for the first time: “Hands in their pockets … they went on standing, like people who didn’t know how to sit down. They had the voices of workers out in the world… Everything about them breathed a lack of education.” The Goncourts then made further distinctions: “one above all had a quarryman’s ugly head, hacked out rough and rude, with a police sergeant’s mustache and protruding eyes.” This one who stood out was Carpeaux, the winner of Grand Prix de Rome of 1854, and the sculptor of the famous Ugolino and His Sons (1858), which had been moved to the Tuileries Garden as a modern counterpart to the Laocoön, the most renowned antique sculpture since the Renaissance. Despite his working-class origins, which offended the Goncourts, Carpeaux was still invited, just one year earlier, to Napoleon III’s château where he was commissioned to make a portrait of the Emperor’s son. At the end of that day’s diary entry, the Goncourts made up for their earlier scathing remarks by acknowledging Carpeaux of 1865 as “an enormous talented sculptor;” but just how this talent would give shape to the soaring career of the uncouth sculptor in the years to come would only make the self-assured bourgeois collectors’ jaws drop. As the sculptor of La Dance (1868) for the newly unveiled Paris Opéra, the artistry and notoriety of which were compared by the contemporary press to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Manet’s Olympia, at the time of his death in 1875, Carpeaux ranked among the most canonical artists of Modern Realism, as the pivotal figure in delivering Sculpture into a modern art, without whom the works by later sculptors like Rodin would be inconceivable. Indeed, Carpeaux’s achievement was such that Edmond de Goncourt in 1887 felt compelled to add a conciliatory note to their diary: “I give our first impression of Carpeaux as I find it in our journal; but I should state that this impression was much modified by the relations we had with him later and that we consider him the greatest French artist of the second half of the nineteenth century.”
But the “working-class” manners the Goncourts observed in Carpeaux stuck with the sculptor not so much as a stigma but as a source of strength and a trademark. Born outside the affluent class, Carpeaux nonetheless was the best product that the bourgeois cultural institutions of 19th century France had ever churned out. In 1840, Carpeaux received his rudimentary training in drawing and sculpting at the École Gratuite de Dessin in Paris, where his taste for sculpture as a fine art was first cultivated; four years later, Carpeaux entered the École des Beaux-Arts, winning school competitions and finally earning the prestigious scholarship to study in Rome. This orthodox academic training not only honed Carpeaux’s skill; more importantly, it familiarized the sculptor with the decadent language of decorum that was at the heart of bourgeois values and which the mature Carpeaux would challenge in its own terms. Being a sculptor in the mid 19th century meant embracing contradictory expectations: sculpture was still regarded as a public art charged with the duty of collective moral instruction in a public square, even as art itself had been defined as fundamentally a private enterprise in the age of high capitalism and bourgeois individuality. Carpeaux’s mixed background hence equipped him well with the subtleties to speak in divergent contexts simultaneously.
For Carpeaux, shifting among and conflating different social contexts also entailed transgression of different artistic media. Though a sculptor by reputation, Carpeaux was also a talented draughtsman and retained a serious interest in painting. During his years in Rome, Carpeaux made an uncommonly large quantity of drawing studies en plein air and befriended painters like Joseph Soumy (winner of the Prix de Rome for engraving in 1854), who instructed him in the practice of painting. Even Victor Schnetz, the Director of the French Academy in Rome, who constantly complained about Carpeaux’s unruly defiance, nonetheless spoke admiringly in his official report of Carpeaux’s diligence in studying the old masters by making marvelous drawings. Carpeaux’s proclaimed hero was Michelangelo, who was also a virtuoso in both painting and sculpture; and Carpeaux’s aspiration is not only manifest in his active reference to Michelangelo’s work but also in his relaying of his forbearer’s concern for the pictorial. Contemporary art critics often found in Carpeaux’s most important works, both the Ugolino and the La Danse, an anti-sculptural pictorialism in operating, which veered away from the gravitationally centered, self-possession of traditional sculpture in favor of a portrait-like confrontation and militant disjunction of rhythm affiliated with contemporary avant-garde paintings. Recently, various scholarly ventures have been made to study Carpeaux’s drawings and paintings. This ongoing re-evaluation of Carpeaux’s role as a painter will shed new light on our understanding of Carpeaux’s major works, as well as the stake of Realism and Modernity in the 19th century.