The Metropolitan Museum is currently displaying some of its treasures in a focused show on French 19th century sculptor, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Much less known today than Auguste Rodin (who was 13 years younger than Carpeaux, but lived well into the 20th century), Carpeaux was the most important sculptor in France in the mid-19th century—at a time and in a country that was then glorifying the new renaissance of sculpture. (“The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux” is on at the Met until May 26.)
Both Rodin and Carpeaux were captivated by Dante. Both of them attempted to give sculptural life to episodes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Everyone knows Rodin’s famous piece, The Thinker, but what most people don’t know is that Rodin designed it to represent Dante in contemplation. Rodin’s The Kiss is said to be drawn from the Paolo and Francesco story in Dante’s Inferno.
But before Rodin tackled Dante, Carpeaux had shown the way. One of his earliest works—and the one that made Carpeaux’s reputation–is Ugolino and his Sons, based on one of Dante’s most terrible scenes in Inferno. In reviewing the exhibition, the New York Times commented that in his youth, Carpeaux “was back and forth between Paris and Rome, soaking in the art of his idol Michelangelo, and tangling with officials about the subject of his first major sculpture.” This first great masterwork was supposed to be a single figure, but Carpeaux insisted on doing a five-figure scene depicting Dante’s Ugolino from the Inferno. This immense marble of Ugolino:
dominates the exhibition’s second gallery, accompanied by drawn and sculpted studies. Acquired by the Met in 1967, Ugolino and His Sons is a study in physical and psychological anguish, from the contorted, finger-gnawing mouth to the painfully clenched toes that owes much to Michelangelo’s monumental Moses and in turn influenced Rodin’s Thinker. It is quite impressive, although Ugolino looks a bit too much like Vincent Price to be completely convincing.
We don’t quite agree with the Vincent Price comparison. The story of Ugolino, as told by Dante, is one of the most frightening and existential commentaries in the Divine Comedy and it is hard to overstate Ugolino’s pain after you have read this passage.