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Drawing Inspiration- The sculpted forms of Carpeaux and others

Availing ourselves of the beauty in museums- exploring "corporeal topography." Brian Keeler

We have at our beck and call an unbelievably rich collection of masterpieces in our museums and available easily to all of us.  It has been my practice and delight to sketch from museum masterpieces for many years.  The experience is quite rewarding as there are always benefits and revelations from a study done through drawing that would not have occurred otherwise.  It has been my good fortune to have visited many of the world's museums with their amazing collections.  From the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi in Florence, The National Galleries of DC and London,  The Metropolitan Museum in New York and many more. I have been blessed by the experience and opportunity.

Above- Keeler sketching at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris from a Carpeaux statue of 1868 titled, "La Danse."

For this essay, I am focusing on the sculptural work of the 19th century French Artist, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1827-1875.  His 48 years cover a period in European history that is full of change, challenge and inspiration.  As important parts of his career were happening in an around the American Civil War, I kept making comparisons to his life in France and Rome to events unfolding in America.  The contrast between these aesthetic pursuits of Carpeaux and fraught divisions of war-time and antebellum America seemed quite stark.

Carpeaux is not exactly a household name and most people that I mention his name to are not familiar with him or his work.  Yet he is one of the masters of the Western tradition of academic art and prevalent in major museums.  His famous, and controversial figurative ensemble, La Danse,  is prominently positioned atop the Paris Opera and another version is in the Louvre and still another in the Musee d'Orsay.  Just last year, one of his busts, a bronze along with the terracotta study, were featured in a special show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This portrait depicted a black woman with arms bound behind and titled, "Why Born Enslaved."  The exhibit and catalog explored the relations of art and oppressed peoples and included other sculptors' work of similar themes.

Above a 26"x 30" oil on panel, "Seaside Allegory" by the author based on the two Carpeaux marbles in the NGA in DC and the central figure by a Paul Manship bronze in the NGA.

Above- Two sketches made from Carpeaux marbles at the NGA in DC.

The attraction to Carpeaux's work is easy to understand for an artist working with the figure.  His works show the rigor of his training that was prevalent in the 19th century in France.  I first  sketched from a Carpeaux while visiting the Louvre in 1997.  I chose his relief ensemble titled, "Le Triomphe d'Firore"  - "The Triumph of Flora."  It is a delightful grouping with a crouching nude woman, her arms outstretched, surrounded by putti. This is part of his ouvre that I enjoy the most, the light and breezy Bacchanals - related to the work of other artists like his fellow Frenchman, Bougereau or even Giorgione and Botticelli.  They represent arcadian and pastoral revelries and celebrations that are full of charm.  They could also be said to ennoble and uplift us as they represent a celebration of being human, albeit in idealized settings.

Most recently,  I made a trip to the National Gallery in Washington, DC to sketch from a pair of marbles that are in the gallery corridor next to the central rotunda.  They represent two adolescent youths, a boy and a girl with sea shells.    These marble figures are both portrayed  kneeling and we could imagine them on the beautiful sun-drenched beach of Naples or Amalfi.  One, is in fact titled, "Neapolitan Fisherboy."  He has an unusual hat on that Carpeaux later discovered to be part of the apparel of the youth there when he visited Naples after he had done the sculpted work.   I had done a painting using these two figures years ago that also included a standing female nude based on another work in the NGA by Paul Manship.


So like Carpeaux, I returned to the subject after the work was done to revisit and study first-hand these two marble figures. I was not disappointed.  The white of the marble brings out all the nuance and articulation that Carpeaux observed and expressed.  The soft and understated modeling of the boy's ribs was especially admired.  The rhythm and patterns of the overall anatomy were also appreciated. The wonderful expressions of joy and delight are easy to find inspiring.  Incidentally, the expressions were criticized during the 19th century as being too close to a grimace.  I beg to differ.  They seem quite natural and unforced. I loved the internal rhythms of the arms in both, which included the angles, the twists of forms and the interlocking play of torso, head, muscles and appendages.

But as a source for study, we can appreciate the curators and staff at museums for how the works are displayed.  This is one major difference between making a study or a copy from an old master's painting as opposed to sketching from a sculpture.   The sculptor has no control over how his work is displayed and therefore on how we perceive it.  A painting is done and not open to other views- the lighting on it of course may vary- but the way  we are able to move around a marble figure is much more open to ours and a museum's preferences. We may approach from the back or to the side and in many different lightings as well. I like this, as it presents endless opportunities.  It offers much more freedom of interpretation.  We can select and choose, much like we can with a real model as opposed to working from a photo.

Here is a quote from Charles Baudelaire, a 19th century French poet, which underscores the above idea.

"Its materiality meant that sculpture was the first of arts, the one closest to nature- a primitive art, incapable of controlling the viewer's sensations as could the illusionism of painting"

Above- an oil on canvas by the author- titled "Sylvan Graces." It was inspired by bronze statue by Carpeaux in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. The setting used here is inspired by a small creek in Bradford County, PA - called the Crane Swamp Creek, near Sugar Run, PA.

The lighting at the NGA in DC over the Carpeaux works was well-conceived.  There were several spotlights high on the ceiling that created a symphony of light and shade patterns, as if the light were cascading down from above.  I found these intriguing to draw. The light flow shows us the form. And if I were to coin a phrase, the play of light shows us the "corporeal topography." This idea of regarding the human form as topography suggests the inter-relation between landscape and figurative art that has long intrigued me. Carpeaux could have been pleased with how his works were staged at the NGA but he could not have envisioned the context and setting.  A  gallery is a place to muse and be inspired and drawing from masterpieces is a good way to actualize the great works of the ages.

I recently purchased a monograph on the work of Carpeaux at a used bookstore, The Blue Whale, in Charlottesville, VA on the same trip as the visit to the NGA. It seemed serendipitous in fact. The book by Anne Middleton Wagner is extremely thorough and extensively researched.  Reading about Carpeaux's time at the Medici Villa in Rome with other aspiring French artists was fascinating. With french painter Ingres as the monitor of the facility it added another level of fascination.  The tutelage of Carpeaux at the Medici Villa underscored the importance of study in Italy and in particular, the reverence for the antique and Renaissance accomplishments.  For example, the obvious adulation of Michelangelo's work is taken up by Carpeaux and duly noted in the book.   And one of Carpeaux's most famous ensembles, The Ugolino marble, now in the Metropolitan Museum was directly inspired by the similar angst expressed in some of the renaissance master's work.    The Ugolino is the antipode of the mood of the two nymphs or of La Danse.  It is a ghastly episode from Dante's Inferno that was based on a real occurrence in Pisa in the Middle Ages.   A father and his sons are locked in a tower and starved to death.  Still, Carpeaux's work of this theme is a masterpiece.  The interweaving of figures is truly remarkable.  The articulation of anatomy is virtuosic too.  Ugolino is portrayed just as Dante described him, gnawing his figures in agony. We think of pathos and drama of other famous statues, say, Donatello's wood version of Mary Magdalene in the Museo del Duomo in Florence or Rodin's Balzac.

Above- A 36" x 40" Oil by the author based on two different statues by Carpeaux. The background nude is inspired by relief sculpture in the Louvre titled. "The Triumph of Flora." The group in the front is taken from the Carpeaux group titled, "La Danse."

Middleton goes into this work in depth and describes the stress that Carpeaux went through, worrying if it would be a monstrosity or a masterpiece.  It was a huge investment of time and money.    The work was pilloried and lampooned by critics and cartoonists in Paris at the time of its showing.  Oddly enough, La Danse was equally controversial when it was revealed. It is hard for us to fathom,  much like our nonplussed reaction to the scandal of Madam X's painting by John Singer Sargeant at about the same time. 

Taking a sculptural group of Carpeaux's that is in the Clark Institute is Williamston, MA was the source of one my homages.  I used this bronze of the Three Graces as the inspiration for a painting.  I took the figures and put them into a sylvan setting.  I created the light and atmosphere to set the context.  In other words the bronze was a reference but the options for how the final work played out were up to me.  This makes for what I mentioned earlier about how sculpture offers a more open-ended model.   We are more or less obligated to convey an old master painting as it is rather than interpret it.  We can think of Rubens copying Da Vinci's work as an exception to this however.  Rubens took great license and freedom in his interpretation of the Renaissance artist's work. 

Finally- through museum study and the scholarship of Wagner's book, we can extend our appreciation.  The rigor of study in the French art academies of the 1800's is appreciated along with the demands of competing for honors.   One thing in regards to the training of the era is the importance of drawing.  It was regarded as essential for everyone.  Here is a quote mentioned in Wagner's book to underscore the necessity of drawing. It comes from an 1834 observation by the Comte de Rambuteau.


"The art of drawing becomes each day a more important branch of popular instruction.   Soon it will be, like reading,  writing, and arithmetic, an indispensable necessity for the worker who wishes to abandon the nagging routine of ignorance."

Above- Keeler sketching from the Carpeaux marble statue. " Neapolitan ."

To view a video of the sketches made from the two Carpeaux marbles at the NGA in DC-

Above- a large charcoal drawing of the Three Graces, from a marble in the Louvre by a near-contemporary of Carpeaux, James Pradier.

To view a video tutorial on drawing from a marble sculpture-


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