SELDOM does the art of a nation suffer such loss within the space of a year as befell France in 1875, when she was deprived of Millet, of Corot, of Barye, and of Carpeaux.
It would be too presumptuous to claim for the last-named artist an equal rank with the painter of the “Sower,” or the “Orpheus,” or the sculptor of the “Lion Walking,” yet Carpeaux, too, was a genius a genius whom poverty and misfortune followed through a life of only forty-seven years to a painful death.
His friend and biographer, Ernest Chesneau, wrote : ” It is said that the poet is born, not made ; so too is the sculptor. Not perhaps the maker of pretty statuettes or portrait-busts of varying value in resemblance, but the monumental statuary like Carpeaux must feel the divine essence coursing like the life-blood through his veins. Think, too, of the physical force required ! So much, at least, was the dowry of Carpeaux at his birth. Almost from his infancy accustomed to familiar contact with the instruments of his father’s labor, he naturally and easily acquired the muscular force, the rude strength, which the execution of monumental statuary demands. To the boy whose hands were covered with callosities formed by swinging the heavy hammer of the mason in the stone-quarry, the mallet of the sculptor seemed light. To the peasant accustomed to a hard life, unrelieved by luxurious hours of repose, or the enjoyment of a home glowing with objects of color and of beauty, the gloomy adjuncts of the sculptor’s studio were not so repellent as they would be to you and me. Outside of the chilling horrors of the interior of a morgue I can fancy no room more cold and vacant than the studio of a statuary, icy cold always, in spite of the stove heated white in all seasons, remote from the centres, vast, bare of all furniture save that which the execution of the work in hand demands, illumined coldly by the freezing northern light which scantily falls on long lines of plaster-casts more or less broken and deformed, and black with the thousand dusts of years, irregularly hung about on the otherwise bare walls. In the centre of the room, amid modelling-stands, scaffoldings, ladders, stools, pails full of water, iron bars intended for supports to the heaviest pieces, mallets, hammers, files, chisels, gouges, iron tools and wooden tools of every shape and size, rises a mass of earth half enveloped in wet cloths, whose dampness must be constantly renewed as it evaporates in rheumatisms, or else a huge piece of stone or cube of marble, now shedding a penetrating powder into the lungs of those about, now scattering in gigantic chips under the terrific blows of the work-men. The whole atmosphere is gray and cold ; there is not one joy for the eyes, not a note of color, not a ray of sun. The sculptor would be only a stone-cutter were not his stone-cutting an art, an art which demands for its pursuit the most irresistible sense of vocation. The hours of pain and anxiety are fairly uncountable. They exist during the execution of the work in every step, beginning with those during which the master models Beauty in the damp clay, that resisting, cold, and unlovely matter. And when the clay is finished and Beauty is just born, the torture increases. The chrysalis must pass through a second obscure and painful stage, must traverse another narrow and gloomy prison, that of the plaster, a heavy, opaque, and compact sheath, which, though white, is entirely lacking in luminosity. Life has to be buried in this shroud. With what anguish must the artist suffer these slow transformations, these imitations which are but the heavy grimace, of his ideal ! His sovereign invention has designed an expression of his thought in the snowy transparency of marble or the brilliancy of bronze ; but previously he must endure the anxious ordeal of the preliminaries, the cataleptic states from which so many gods and demigods have emerged only to be flung back with scorninto the lime-quarries from which they sprang. Viewing all the difficulties which surround it, it is indeed not too much to assert that sculpture is one of the noblest manifestations of human intelligence. That from an inert mass, a brutal thing, a blind, deaf, and dumb material without internal Iife, a Phidias, a Michael Angelo, a Carpeaux a mere man, in fact, should evoke a whole world of sensations and thoughts ; that from a block of stone he should create a type of perfect beauty, is not this a proof of the divinity of our essence ? The victorious element which renders these men masters of the clay in which they work is mind ; the spirit, the vital spark, a force superior to earthliness, sub-lime, divine. Call this power what you will, it matters little. It is the soul, the immortality within us, which dominates the brute resistance of exterior phenomena and over-comes the constant hostility of the materiality which surrounds us, which, with a skill truly godlike, from a shapeless aggregation of molecules that is, from nothingmakes a glorious something, a masterpiece of art, a statue.
“To make statues, that from earliest infancy was Carpeaux’s dream.”
The statues have been made, and Carpeaux dreams for the last time, dying in the great studio now no longer bare, but peopled with the visionary shapes of his masterpieces. In its centre rises the group of the four quarters of the globe from the Luxembourg fountain ; on the left smiles the joyous relief of the “Triumph of Flora,” and on the other side palpitates the famous “Dance.” One of its women detaches herself for an instant from the dancing chain, and stoops to print a kiss on the expiring sculptor’s brow, while blossoms fall around him from the hand of Europe.
Fortune, love, and health have left Carpeaux, but fame and thesethe works so dear to the artist-soul which wrought them are his forever.
Maignan’s poetic conception of Carpeaux is in the Luxembourg gallery, together with his ” Dante Meeting Matilda.” Born in 1844, and taught by Luminais, Maignan won success long since. His “Departure of the Norman Fleet for the Conquest of England” was bought by the nation, and a gold medal was awarded him at the Exposition of 1889. “The Birth of the Pearl,” “Voices of the Tocsin,” “The Sleep of Fra Angelico,” “Frederic Barbarossa at the Feet of the Pope,” ” Louis IX. Consoling a Leper,” and “William the Conqueror” are some of the works which have given to Maignan a deserved reputation.