An ethnological Carpeaux
Taken from its celebrated group in the Luxembourg Gardens fountain featuring the four corners of the world, this Chinaman demonstrates the talent of an outstanding 19th-century sculptor.
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), The Chinaman, terracotta sculpture from a large scale edition, Carpeaux's ownership stamp and "atelier & dépôt Auteuil Paris 71 rue Boileau" stamp, numbered 1765, h. 34 cm.
With his piercing gaze and long plait following the movement of his head, this magnificently realistic young man clearly displays his ethnic origins. In 1867, Baron Haussmann, the then Prefect of Paris, commissioned a fountain for the Observatory gardens from the architect Gabriel Davioud, director of the City's works. Davioud suggested offering the project to Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. The sculptor decided to feature four allegorical figures representing various parts of the world – Europe, America, Africa and Asia– turning around the celestial sphere: "Galileo showed me the way by saying 'The Earth turns,' so that's why I represented the four cardinal points turning with the rotation of the globe." All Carpeaux's genius lay in this ability to choose major themes, which also made for highly original compositions captured in stone or bronze. A Romantic painter who studied with François Rude and Francisque Duret, he revolutionized the art of his time with spectacular works like the terrifying, realistic Ugolino gnawing his own hands, or the famous Dance he produced for the Paris Opera: a work of extraordinary dynamic energy. His group for the Observatory is equally striking for the intense realism of the four ethnic types. Exoticism was then in vogue, and artists were looking at foreign countries and their inhabitants with a fresh eye, particularly after the abolition of slavery, ratified in France in 1848. Some artists were genuinely interested in these men and women from other parts of the globe, and sought to move away from stereotypes. Carpeaux, for example, used living models for the African and Asian figures. While he was working on this monumental group, he made two independent works: rapidly produced and highly successful busts, where Asia is represented by this Chinaman – he used a female model for the final version of the fountain – and Africa by a bust entitled Why Be Born a Slave?. The fountain itself was only cast in 1874, a year before Carpeaux's death, with a single patina – going against the artist's wish to differentiate the colors of the skin.