Musée dOrsay

Ugolin by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux

Ugolin by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux
Ugolin by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux


Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: born in Valenciennes (Nord) on May 11, 1827, died October 11, 1875 in Courbevoie (Hauts de Seine). Nineteenth century. French.

World-renowned for his sculptures of allegorical subjects, groups, figures, busts, portraits and bas-reliefs, he was also a painter, engraver and draftsman.

Coming from a modest family of workers in Valenciennes, he first knows the misery, due to the financial woes of his father; Despite the paternal opposition, he wanted to study sculpture and was received in October 1844 at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. In 1854, he won the prestigious Grand Prix of Rome and moved to the Villa Medicis where he studied the great masters Raphael and Michelangelo. Pupil of François Rude, he travels to Italy where he draws his taste for the movement and the grace, so characteristic of his work whose first representative subjects then appear: the “Petit Boudeur”, the “Palombella” and the “Neapolitan fisherman with “Shell”, his first big success.

Returned to Paris in 1862, he was introduced to the court of Napoleon III which he obtained protection and several official orders. His masterpiece “Ugolin” gets the first medal at the Salon of 1863 and devotes the talent of Carpeaux. In 1866, he worked for the pediment of the Flore pavilion at the Tuileries, then completed the group of “La Danse”, the famous right-wing group of the facade of the Opera that his friend Garnier built in Paris. These works give substance to controversy: the “Flore” of the pediment of the Louvre is considered too sensual, and the group of “The Dance” is condemned for its freedom, its realism, its modernity which according to some, harmed the public morality. For revenge, a bottle of ink was thrown one night on the group and left a spot long indelible.

Carpeaux enjoyed the support and benevolence of the imperial family, which also favored his marriage in 1869 with the lady of his heart, Amelie de Montfort, daughter of the governor of the Palais du Luxembourg and a regular at the court.

After the war of 1870 and the fall of Napoleon III, Carpeaux stayed in England and, back in Paris, exhibited the plaster model of the Fountain of the Observatory, “The four parts of the world”, his last work that will finally inaugurated in 1874. Sick, Carpeaux died on October 12, 1875 in Courbevoie.

Far from the dominant academicism, the work of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is the expression of movement, life, vigor and grace, and makes him one of the outstanding personalities in the artistic domain of that time. Some of his works, “Ugolin” in particular, announce the feverish and powerful passion of Rodin, who was his pupil.

Carpeaux was also a great painter, whose works are marked by spontaneity and speed of drawing. A beautiful and rare exhibition, “Carpeaux peintre”, was dedicated to him in Valenciennes, then in Paris and Amsterdam in 2000.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, very attached to his native city, Valenciennes, bequeathed part of his works to the Museum of Fine Arts in his city.


Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was at the same time the portraitist of Napoleon III and an artist who refused the rules of the academy. A passionate forerunner of modern sculpture that tracked life and movement. A lacemaker’s son who attended the greats of his time. The Musée d’Orsay devotes a welcome retrospective to its flashy and tormented career (until September 28th).



The Musée d’Orsay offers an overview of Carpeaux’s works in all stages of their genesis: preparatory drawings, small figures modeled in earth or plaster, particularly lively and virtuoso, plaster originals, marbles. As well as paintings, because if the artist did not usually show them, he was also a painter.

He wants to get the Academy Award, which allows artists to go to Rome. It took seven years to achieve his goal and finally he received in 1854 the grand prize of sculpture which opens the doors of the Villa Medici for four years. To begin, Carpeaux arrives in Rome with months of delay. During his stay, he discovers Michelangelo, one of his great models. Inspired by the Italian people, he makes himself known with his little “fisherman with the shell” with a smile so striking.


Ugolin by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux


Ugolin is a work of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (May 11, 1827 Valenciennes – October 12, 1875 Courbevoie). There are several versions of this group in different materials. This bronze, preserved in the Musée d’Orsay, was melted in 1862. It is 194 cm high and 148 cm wide. The Metropolitan Museum of New York keeps a marble of identical size. While the small Palace and the museum of Valenciennes have in their collections plasters.


The sculpture is inspired by the song 33 of Hell, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is the passage or the Florentine poet accompanied by Virgil meets Ugolin della Gherardesca, who had betrayed the party of the Ghibellines (favorable to the Emperor to join that of the Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) and then instituted a tyranny in his city. Archbishop Ubaldini had him locked up in a dungeon with his sons and grandsons to die of hunger, and before succumbing, Ugolin ate his descendants.

The father is figured sitting in the center of the composition, his children at his feet. The pain and anguish can be read in his attitude: he eats his fingers, his face is tense, his feet curled up. The four boys are in agony, in positions certainly contorsionnées but so expressive. Each represents a step towards death

The composition of the very compact work adds to the impression of fear of terracing.

In the representation of the bodies, the spectator can see that Carpeaux was inspired by antique sculptures like the Laocoon or Michelangelo’s masterpieces like the Slaves kept in the Louvre Museum.

The first development of this group was conducted in Italy where Carpeaux was a student after winning the Prix de Rome, this is his last work as a student at the French School of Rome. But the theme had to include one or two figures and the subject taken from ancient history or the Bible. The work was therefore refused and a battle ensued between the administration of the school and the artist. Ugolin was finished once Carpeaux ended his stay at the Academy thanks to the support of patrons.

The work of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is unclassifiable, all of his work is a bridge between romanticism by the choice of his subjects and naturalism by his realistic treatment.


“Ugolino”, a great work with a difficult genesis

The great work of his Roman stay is “Ugolino”, whose painful genesis sums up the character who never complies with regulations or uses. This is the last shipment he has to complete for his fourth year. First, the theme from Dante’s “Hell” comes from imposed subjects, usually from mythology or holy history. Then, the artist comes into conflict with the Academy because his project has five figures. The norms allow one or two at the most.

Ugolino, walled alive with his sons in a tower will devour his offspring before starving. Carpeaux makes a striking representation of it, biting his fingers, his features full of anguish, his children huddled around him. Delayed, the artist finally gets a deadline to finish his work. Last disavowal, this one does not receive, in Paris, the reception which it discounted.


The sculptor of the imperial family

Shortly after his return, Carpeaux made a bust of Princess Mathilde and began to work for the imperial family. He gives drawing lessons to Prince Louis-Eugene-Napoleon, the only son of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. And when he makes his portrait, he breaks with the official stiffness, delivering a little boy almost normal with his dog. The prince can be seen in small, large, plaster, earth, marble and silver bronze. It is that this portrait, become an object of propaganda, meets a lot of success and it is declined in many forms.

Carpeaux produces many portraits, of officials but also of his friends, of his family, all crying with life and truth. His busts are full of realism whether it is that of the Emperor or that of Mrs. Chardon-Lagache, founder of a retirement home in his neighborhood. For his friend Alexandre Dumas Jr., Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux sculpted “more true than life”.

The sculptor, who has marked his successors, “made the most beautiful busts of our time”, according to Auguste Rodin.

Orders for the Louvre and the Opera that make waves

Parallel to these portraits, Carpeaux receives important public commissions such as that of the decoration of the south facade of the Flore Pavilion of the Louvre, rebuilt by the architect Hector Lefuel. He will decorate her with sensual and smiling faces. Again he stands out and attracts the anger of the architect by accumulating delays and realizing too prominent relief, that Lefuel threatens to level. Exceeding the status of simple architectural decor, his work for the Louvre becomes a work in its own right.

In 1861, Charles Garnier, in charge of the construction of the new Opera, commissioned him a group of three characters inspired by the dance, for the facade of the building. Never doing as expected, he draws a happy round of nine dancers. The project is accepted but when the work is unveiled, it provokes a real scandal because of the nudity of its dancers.

A dazzling career

Carpeaux was of a passionate temperament. For various reasons, he sometimes destroyed his works. Like this bust of the Marquise de la Valette, on which the model had issued criticism, and that the sculptor attacked the mass. The mutilated marble can be seen in the exhibition.

He did not make sculpted self-portraits, but many paintings of himself, without complacency, where he will finally be overwhelmed by pain, haggard eyes, features twisted by anguish. His blistering career lasted only fifteen years when he was blown away by bladder cancer.

His works in public collection:

In the United States

  • New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art  : Napoleon III , 1872-1873, marble.

In France

  • Compiegne, Compiegne Castle  :
    • The Duchess of Mouchy , 1867, plaster;
    • Bust of Napoleon III , 1873, plaster.
  • Dijon, Museum of Fine Arts  :
    • The Genie de la Danse , 1869, bronze;
    • Portrait of old Transtévérine , circa 1856-1862, oil on cardboard.
  • Douai, museum of Chartreuse  : Why to be born slave? , circa 1868.
  • Évreux, museum of Evreux  : Charity , drawing in black ink and pen on paper.
  • Lille, Palace of Fine Arts  : The Prince Imperial and his dog Nero , 1865.
  • Montpellier, Fabre museum  : Amélie de Montfort , 1869, patinated plaster bust.
  • Nice:
    • Museum of Fine Arts: The Triumph of Flora , 1873, plaster.
    • Massena museum: bust of Empress Eugenie .
  • Nemours:
    • castle-museum of Nemours: Bust of the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme , c. 1871 plaster (tinted), 60 x 24 cm, n o   inv. 2016.0.385 14 .
  • Paris:
    • Comédie-Française: Alexandre Dumas Jr. , 1873-1874.
    • Orsay Museum:
      • Ugolino surrounded by his four children, 1860, bronze, 194 × 148 × 119  cm );
      • Bust of Anna Foucart , 1860, bronze;
      • The Marquise de la Valette , 1861, plaster;
      • Princess Mathilde , 1862, marble;
      • The Prince Imperial and his dog Nero or The Child with the Greyhound , 1865, marble;
      • The Four Parts of the World supporting the celestial sphere 1868-1872, plaster, commission of the city of Paris for the garden of the Observatory;
      • Danse, 1865-1869, group in stone, coming from the facade of the Palais Garnier  ;
      • Charles Garnier , 1868-1869, bronze bust;
      • Eugenie Fiocre , 1869, plaster;
      • Jean-Léon Gérôme , 1871, bronze bust;
      • Madame Delthil de Fontreal , 1873, patinated plaster.
      • Fisherman with the shell , 1857-1858, oil on canvas;
      • Costume Ball at the Tuileries Palace (Emperor Napoleon III and Countess of C.), 1867, oil on canvas;
      • The Attack of Berezowski against Tsar Alexander II June 6, 1867 , 1867, oil on canvas;
    • Louvre Palace, facade of the Flore Pavilion: The Triumph of Flora , 1865, stone.
    • Small Palace:
      • Fisherman with shellor Neapolitan fisherman , 1858, plaster 15  ;
      • The Chinese , 1872, patinated plaster (study preparing the female figure of Asia for the fountain of the four parts of the world );
      • Daphnis and Chloé , 1873, patinated plaster;
      • The Three Graces , 1874, terracotta;
      • Sinking in the port of Dieppe , 1873, oil on canvas;
      • Amelie de Montfort , 1869, black chalk on paper;
      • The Children of the Artist, Charles and Louise, asleep , circa 1874, pencil and black chalk on paper.
    • Valenciennes, Museum of Fine Arts  :
      • Le Petit Boudeur , circa 1856, marble;
      • Monument to Antoine Watteau, 1863-1864 16  ;
      • Charles Gounod , 1871, terracotta;
      • Triumph of Flora , 1872, terracotta;
      • Wounded Love , 1873-1874, marble;
      • Bust of Bruno Cherier, 1874, plaster;
      • Saint Bernard , 1874, terracotta;
      • Self-portrait called “Carpeaux crying with pain” , 1874, oil on canvas;
      • Sunset , 1872, oil on canvas;
      • La Relève des morts at Montretoux , 1871, oil on canvas;
      • various drawn figures of the group of La Danse and sketches, preparatory studies on paper.
    • Vesoul, Georges Garret Museum  : Bust of Jean-Leon Gerome , 1872, bronze.


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