Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: Neapolitan Fisherboy and Girl with a Shell

Though it appears to go hand in hand with the original, Girl with a Shell was actually only carved several years later, and at that was merely a study piece.  Amazing, isn’t it?  What one artist considers a study, the rest of us consider a priceless masterpiece.  Despite the statue’s humble origin, it soon joined its older brother after also being acquired by the Empress, and the two would never part ways again as they made their journey, their synergistic nature apparent to all who laid eyes upon them.  She now stands with her sibling in the National Gallery of Art, quietly flanking one of the entrances into the central dome.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux – Jeune Fille à la Coquille (Girl with a Shell) (1863-1867)

The statues are near life size and positively radiate with joy.  The children’s exuberant expressions combined with their playful poses make it no wonder why these two pieces  gained such popularity despite their modest size and subject matter.  The best ideas are often not the most grandiose but rather the most well executed, and here lies no better example.  From the fine ridges of the conch shells, to the subtle details of the muscles and bones, to the delicate motion of the children’s fingers, the two statues are almost magnetic in nature, and it was difficult to walk away once they had captured my attention.  The more one stares at them, the more details one notices.  Interestingly, we can see Carpeaux’s artistic improvements in the girl’s statue when compared to her older brother.  The shell which the girl holds is noticeably more detailed, her features are softer and more humanlike when compared to the boy’s smoother, slightly plastic appearance, and the choice to have the her sit on a woven basket overflowing with sardines is a significantly greater challenge than the simple sandy beach on which the boy kneels.

Despite today’s appreciation, Carpeaux’s artwork was surprisingly controversial for its time.  The Baroque movement took hold in the 17th century in Rome and was actually spurred on by the Catholic church as a more vibrant counter to the comparatively dull and rigid Protestant art.  Only around a century prior had Martin Luther nailed his pesky letter to the church door, so Catholicism was doing all it could to sway Christians back to their side.  To this end, the Baroque style employs exaggerated emotions and movements, and features heavy use of ornamentation in an attempt to bring viewers to their knees, figuratively and literally.  However, certain detractors found this tidal wave of detail and romanticism to be too garish and aggressive.  Carpeaux’s architectural decorations were sometimes even criticized for outshining the buildings which they adorned, which is arguably the most flattering critique one could receive.  Despite its objections, the Baroque movement would continue to become a staple of Catholic and even Protestant art, and would eventually evolve into the more lighthearted Rococo style.

Throughout his artistic career, Carpeaux always carried an entrepreneurial focus, and he would constantly do all he could to promote and sell his work.  This carried on even during his earliest studies at the Ecole, a practice which was strictly forbidden by the academy yet for some reason (or perhaps for obvious reasons) was never challenged.  He was noted for refusing to give up reproduction rights to his works, a risky move which eventually paid off as his popularity exploded and he established his own studio.  In fact, his constant exhibition and self marketing was actually seen as brash and aggressive among critics of his time, and this shameless promotion combined with his grip on the control of his work cemented his reputation as, as the NGA puts it, an “institutional bad boy”.  Despite this, Napoleon III himself would continue to be a recurring patron, and Carpeaux would eventually be given the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit, in 1866.

Unfortunately, Carpeaux’s time as an artist was cut tragically short.  As mentioned earlier, he struggled with illness even prior to leaving for Rome.  Neapolitan Fisherboy debuted at the Salon in 1863, but by the fall of the Second Empire in 1870 he was struggling with cancer and had already begun to wind his career down, focusing primarily on finishing existing commissions and only taking on smaller projects.  The last two years of his life were spent traveling before finally passing in 1875 at the age of 48.  To this day, Neapolitan Fisherboy remains one of his most popular works, but it is only with the company of his younger sister that the two pieces shine brighter than either one of them could do alone.