The Course of Empire

John Haber
in New York City

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Clodion, and Jean-Antoine Houdon

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux wanted ever so much to side with the winners, and he seemed marked for success. It took the French sculptor almost to his death, in 1875 at only forty-eight, to grasp how much they had let him down. A century earlier, two other winners of the Prix de Rome in sculpture, Clodion and Jean-Antoine Houdon, would have been happy to keep their passions in check.

Siding with the winners

From politics to art, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux played strictly by the rules. Born in the same town as Jean Antoine Watteau, the artist of a more glowing empire, he entered the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts at seventeen and won Prix de Rome in 1854. He mingled with aristocracy, and his statue of the emperor's son found its way into bronze, silvered bronze, Sèvre porcelain, and of course marble—all from the very best hands, with his hardly having to lift a finger. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux's Ugolino and His Sons (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1861–1867)The architect of the new Paris Opéra commissioned reliefs for its façade, and his statues and fountain became part of the new public face of Paris under Baron Haussmann, along with its grand boulevards and department stores. His portrait busts included Jean-Léon Gérôme, painting's ultimate academician, and Alexandre Dumas fils served as godfather for his son. When he portrayed the French troops Defending the Homeland, he meant it from his heart.

He also meant it as a cataclysm, in the clumsy, dark brushwork so typical of his occasional paintings, for Prussia had invaded, the empire had collapsed, and Louis Napoleon was about to become history. Carpeaux followed the emperor to refuge in England to complete busts of him and his wife. Back in France, the sculptor still faced illness, mood swings, a stubbornly bad marriage, and his limits as an artist. As curators, James David Draper of the Met and Edouard Papet of the Musée d'Orsay, speak of "his genius for depicting flesh and blood in stone." If only it were not flaccid flesh and overheated blood. His retrospective gives more insight than they might wish into the rules that Impressionism was soon to cast aside—and their cost to his art.

It is a huge retrospective for a largely forgotten artist, with close to two rooms of portrait busts alone, like a dull cocktail party with far too many priggish guests. He does allow a marquise her wrinkles, much to her displeasure, and the Prince Imperial his bow tie half askew. If it were not endearing enough, the boy also stands with his dog, Nero. More often, though, Carpeaux sacrifices specificity to sentiment. His reliefs for the Opéra, The Dance, run more to nymphs and smirking cupids than to dancers. In his model for a pavilion devoted to agriculture, to connect the Tuileries with the Louvre, a bull lies tamely with a god like just another household pet.

One can see how a formula emerged for Carpeaux from the confluence of his moodiness and the rules. Both drew him to the influences of Giambologna in the sixteenth century, Michelangelo, Michelangelo drawings, and Théodore Géricault. The first taught him skill, but also the exaggerated twists and turns of Mannerism, while the others challenged him to unite Classicism and Romanticism. Already a sketch after Michelangelo's tomb for the Medici Chapel sets aside both the monumentality and the introspection to sink the heads of Dawn and Dusk in shadow. Another sketch shows perhaps his only scene from daily life, the dignified head of a matron, but even there the subject entails a message. And competition for the Rome Prize came with constraints of its own, only starting with an assigned subject matter.

After two failed tries, he learned to unite placidity and volume—with the result that Hector, the doomed Trojan hero pleading to the gods for the fate of his son, could be a male Madonna with child. Philoctetes, the archer whose festering wound so repelled the Greeks that they sent him into exile, could be scratching an itch. Of course, the prize also carried the artist to Italy, like so much of Romanticism in Rome, but a long way from the city's crisp sunlight and architecture for the young Camille Corot. There he undertakes Ugolino and His Sons, his "single masterpiece" (to trust the museum) that, yes, just happens to belong to the Met. He saw the chance to bring together his love of Michelangelo and Dante, with a scene from hell, its plaster model completed in 1861 and the Met's marble in 1867. Just as the young prince gets to name his dog after the cruelest of emperors, Carpeaux brings sympathy to a tyrant and cannibal.

Carpeaux converts the High Renaissance pyramid to a spreading hemisphere, with a suffering hero towering above. Hands pleading from below become sculptural support, while upturned feet from behind complete the volume. Heads thrown back or to the side stretch the Renaissance quarter turn, or contrapposto, to the point of madness. Much the same composition governs agonized scenes from the Gospels later, but nothing has quite the obviousness and agony of Ugolino. Not just his teeth but even his toes are clenched. You will leave impressed, along with a better understanding of the excesses that haunt sculpture as late as Auguste Rodin, but do not be surprised if your teeth are clenched, too.

Love for sale

Love for sale. If your first thought is online dating or a song by Cole Porter, you will understand two sculptures by Claude Michel, better known as Clodion. If your first thought is appalling and illicit sex traffic, you may not like that love here is decidedly underage and in a cage, but take heart. The artist was merely copying a relief from Pompeii, the ancient city and the site of excavations only two years before he undertook the first version, in terra cotta in 1765, when he was under thirty and still in the market for love. Besides, Neoclassicism tempers its playfulness, as always, with a moral. Both buyers and sellers are young women, the Cupid pouting in captivity is male, and two other babes roam free, because no one can keep them in their place—but all is forgiven, for the women's future depends on properly managing the sale.

Not that the Enlightenment trusted to the triumph of reason, whatever you may have heard. Voltaire had made that clear in Candide less than ten years before. Unreason was bound to take its course, and Clodion lived through the Reign of Terror and another age of empire and war. For him, unreason will always have its place, preferably in marble. For his last work on view at the Frick Collection, from 1799, he depicts Zephyrus, the god of the wind, and Flora, of vegetation, but caps their energetic spiral with a wreath. Like David d'Angers in the next century, he stands on the edge of Romanticism, but passions must still emerge from the whole.

Clodion shares the show with a slightly younger and even more stately contemporary, Jean-Antoine Houdon—with just half a dozen works each, half of them in terra cotta and half in marble, roughly half of them loans, and all fairly early work. (If you have never so much as noticed the Frick's portico, it runs along the Fifth Avenue lawn to the north, past Salisbury Cathedral by an artist soon after, John Constable.) When Clodion depicts caryatids, they emerge from a tight cluster with a shared head scarf, and when he unleashes gods and satyrs on bucolic vases, like Pierre Gouthière in gilding shortly before him, they take their ease. And sure enough, when Houdon lends a vestal the active stance of a hero, he keeps it beneath a cloak. He brings the same respect for strong feelings and for keeping them in check to portrait busts. A countess poses as a Bacchante, with leaves in her hair and a quarter turn toward madness, but with intelligence in her eyes and a tight reserve in her lips.

The Frick has always invested in sculpture. Not many willingly turn away from the paintings, but each room has its tabletop bronzes and marble—in the Boucher room, for characters right out of the painting on the wall. Many of the same artists (or their followers) have been in recent loans from the Hill collection, from Andrea Riccio and Giambologna in the late Renaissance to d'Angers and Joseph Chinard in the early nineteenth century. If the label "decorative arts" runs counter to the recovery of craft and design these days, and if it signals a fall-off from the early Renaissance, when Lorenzo Ghiberti or Donatello pointed the way to painting, it corresponds to real changes over the years in both function and style. Riccio's figures double as a candlestick holder, while Triton blowing his trumpet for Giambologna could pass for a snake eater.

The nineteenth century tempered and also humanized the decorative excess, but the process began with the Enlightenment. Clodion and Houdon also take a hesitant step toward naturalism. The first's Cupids have feathers after nature, while the second goes so far as a dead thrush hanging from a nail. It sounds preposterous to try to outdo trompe l'oeil in sculpture, where three dimensions are hardly an illusion. Still, the wings, the pointed beak, and the nail are duly threatening, and Houdon is working against the strictures of marble and in white. Besides, soon enough art for a growing middle class along with the aristocracy had its own serious excesses—as with Carpeaux.

Most often, female portraiture serves as the expression of a human ideal, if also a refined one, most strikingly in the 1770s. A young woman plays the role of the innocent in Paris. A marquise takes in everything, while everything but her eyes are buttoned up. A tad more shockingly, the wife of a German banker lets her loose dress fall half off her shoulder, but not at the cost of her intellect. One cannot always keep passion in a cage, and the new aristocracy of finance demanded a buyer's market for love. Still, it was not yet ready to roam free.

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Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 26, 2014, Clodion and Jean-Antoine Houdon at the The Frick Collection through April 5, 2015.


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