Carpeaux was born in Valenciennes of the Nord department of France, in a region that borders Belgium called Hauts- de-France. He was the son and grandson of stone-masons but chose sculpture as his career. He held a liking for alive realism, vibrant and variety which he combined with the principles of Baroque art to produce his unique multi-figured pieces and bas-reliefs that were admired and commissioned by Napolean III and his family.
The man was a a handful from the start and went through teachers like a squirrel through peanuts, moving from Abel de Pujol, independent sculptor Francois Rude and Francisque-Joseph Duret, . He was also caught cheating during local competitions but he went on to win some of them anyway.
In 1854, Carpuex won the Grand Prix de Rome, a scholarship that was awarded by the French government to artists of capability to study art in Rome. Carpeaux secured it with a group study of the Hector and His Son Astyanax.
Once in Rome, in 1856 he studied a five year course at the Villa Medici, studying increasingly complex sculptures and bas-reliefs. Free from the distractions of modern commercial art, he was able to study and refine his skills. But as a bit of a scoundrel and a devil, he would later go against it all.
As a pensionnaire he battled repeatedly with the Villa Medici authorities and flouted Ecole policy.
For an assignment for this course, he submitted a plaster sculpture called the Neapolitan Fisherboy, also know as Fisherboy with Shell, which was his first masterpiece. He carved the marble sculpture years later in 1863, which was bought by the Imperial Court of France for Eugénie, the empress of Napolean III . This piece established his repute as one of an up-and-comer amongst the art community.
Carpeaux spent much of his time in Rome wandering the streets and merely admiring the scenery, architecture and the works of other artists like Donatello, Verrochio and the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. He was known to constantly sketch his surroundings.
“When an artist feels pale and cold, he runs to Michelangelo in order to warm himself, as with the rays of the sun”.
— Jean-Baptise Carpeaux
After the Fisherboy Carpeux did his Ugolino and His Sons which, for its boldness and gestural taboo study,along with the contrast with the conventional Neoclassicism cemented him as the heir to Romantic Movement. Note the anatomical accuracy and realism that could be said to have been the product of his study of Michelangelo.
This piece was about an Italian nobleman, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, accounted in Dante’s Inferno. The story goes that Ugolino and his brood were imprisoned and starved and the children begged him to eat his bodies, so he may live. Which he did.
in 1861 he made a bsut for Princess Mathilde of France. Which helped Carpeaux enter the Imperial court of France as art tutor of the Prince Imperial in 1864 . Upon which he was commissioned to do the portrait bust and full statue of the Prince, while adjacently being recruited to sculpt The Dance by Charles Garnier, the French architect. He also received commission for the architectural decoration of the Pavillon de Flore of the Palais du Louvre. Both were significant artistic works of their period.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeux died at 48 years of age by bladder cancer while being partially blinded by marble dust. Carpeaux was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor about two months before his death in 1875. His work stands as a testament to his reaction to the classicism and/of the French Academy of the time however, was also influenced by the masters of old whom he studied in during his time in Rome and France. His legacy is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Paris Opera, the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.