A sensitive groundbreaker

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Some artists, through no real fault of their own, become known to posterity mainly as precursors. This has been, to an unfortunate degree, the fate of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75). His name is mentioned almost always in connection with Rodin, who very briefly attended his class, but then had no further contact with him.

Carpeaux is seen as having a relationship to the work of Rodin rather like the relationship of Epstein's work to Henry Moore's in Britain in the twentieth century: not really a direct influence, but as an earlier artist with a fresh incentive who bore some of the brunt of criticism and outrage levelled at modern sculpture of the day by academic artists.

Carpeaux seems to have had an inborn feel for plaster and clay, for its liberating and expressive movements, and was a modeller rather than a carver of sculpture. His example could only have been an encouragement to Rodin, one of the most natural modelling sculptors ever, who said that when he first saw artists' clay at the age of fourteen, he thought he ''had gone to heaven.'' Carpeaux allowed his delighted feel for clay to be evident not just in studies, but in his completed and large-scale works. William Tucker observes that ''sculptors had for centuries produced small sketch models in clay that are sometimes remarkably free, and. . . Carpeaux had carried over this freedom of surface into larger-scale work, a deliberate challenge to academic conceptions of finish.''

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But to dismiss this conscious and even bold enjoyment of a new freedom as being, in a final analysis, little more than a ''skin'' (which Tucker goes on to say) is to apply to Carpeaux's sculpture the rough justice of hindsight. To see his work as though it somehow lagged behind the extraordinary adventurousness, the fierce passions and romantic expressionism of the later genius, Rodin. With such giant competition Carpeaux inevitably looks a lightweight.

Even Rodin's astounding reputation was subjected to invidious comparison with later sculpture after his death, and his work was largely underrated for the first half, at least, of the twentieth century. Perhaps now it seems easier to view it sympathetically in the context of its own time - and consequently to appreciate how vigorously he broke through the conventional limits and standards of sculpture.

Carpeaux was hardly a revolutionary, but his vitality and sculptural excitement, as well as his independence, did breathe new feeling into forgotten traditions, feelings that sometimes amounted to a vigorous joyfulness, and even an ecstasy. He was also capable of a pathos - as in his group of Ugolino and His Sons - which was integral to the sculpture rather than merely a melodramatic sentimentality of posture.

His portrait busts of the graceful ladies in the entourage of Napoleon III hark back to the eighteenth century, to the world of Watteau and Boucher and the sculpture of Houdon and Lemoyne. But this backward glance is by no means an insipid nostalgia.

Rather less obvious, perhaps, but significant all the same, is the influence of earlier Italian sculpture felt in a work like Baroness Sipiere of 1872. It translates into the secular and fashionable terms of his day something of the sweetness and gentle expression found in the virgins and portrait busts of the Florentine sculptor Antonio Rossellino in the fifteenth century. Carpeaux must have encountered this Renaissance sculptor in the 1850s when, as recipient of the Prix de Rome, he travelled to Italy. The bust of Baroness Sipiere is more than a surface reproduction of the physical beauty and grace of a modish lady of the day: the sculptor has captured something of her inner life, the touch of good humour behind the slight smile, kindness behind the eyes. In form, too, it is a satisfying work, each nuance sensitively graded: a quality found also in Carpeaux's fine charcoal drawings. It would be unjust to say - as Epstein did - that Carpeaux modelled forms that are ''solely realistic and decorative . . . . and uninteresting.''

This sculpture is part of a large collection of works by Carpeaux belonging to a splendid Danish museum, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen. The founder of this museum, Carl Jacobsen, was a notable collector in the period 1870 to 1914. He appreciated both Carpeaux and Rodin and left the Glyptothek the largest collection in his time of French sculpture outside Paris.

To be able to study the work of a single sculptor in reasonable depth, it is certainly an advantage to have a big selection of his works on permanent exhibition. The Copenhagen display of Carpeaux shows him to be one of the most vivid and surprising sculptors of the nineteenth century.

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