Interpreting Carpeaux at the Met Museum
The exhibition Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast at the MET is based around Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s sculpture Why Born Enslaved!, modeled in 1868 and carved in marble five years later. The bust depicts an African woman bound by a rope, her bare breasts spilling over draping fabric, looking defiantly up over her shoulder. Although the sculpture was widely cast during and after the artist’s lifetime in various sizes and materials, this is one of only two known examples in marble. The first was exhibited at the 1869 Paris Salon with the title Négresse and purchased by Emperor Napoleon III for his wife. At the time, it was understood as a statement celebrating the abolition of slavery, coming quickly on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. Smaller scale editions were quickly a commercial success.
Max Hollein, the MET’s Director, opens his catalog foreword describing Carpeaux as “widely recognized as one of the great French sculptors of the nineteenth century,” yet, while he was celebrated during his time, he had largely fallen out of favor and renown by mid-20th century. That he is again prominent, and perhaps now primarily known for this sculpture, reflects both changing artistic as well as social understandings. The exhibition repositions Why Born Enslaved! by looking at Carpeaux’s work through a contemporary lens, at the ethnographic, colonial, commercial, and humanitarian implications of the sculpture.
Including additional examples of Carpeaux’s work, as well as those by contemporaneous artists from the MET’s permanent collection who addressed similar themes, the curators make the argument that these works did not tackle social injustice but reenforced racist stereotypes and interpretations. For example, in his catalog essay, James Smalls addresses “Ethnographic Sculpture as Colonizing Act.” Here, the artwork is important not because of its virtuosity, but because it manifests our long and complicated history of race.
The sculpture’s successful commercial reception was bolstered by its stance on social injustice, as there was wide trans-Atlantic support for the abolition of slavery, but Carpeaux was also considered an excellent artist. This opinion waned over time, as evidenced by Sidney Zimmerman’s dismissive 1966 review in Arts Magazine of a presentation at Wildenstein & Co:
Shades of our sacred past. There was a time when Carpeaux’s name would have undoubtedly elicited the wildest effusions of sentimental rot comparable only to the quality of his own sculptures. Today he is treated gingerly, with tentative attempts to place him among the romantics and Impressionists. Carpeaux’s former reputation now rests heavily on his La Danse for L’Opéra in Paris. A number of works derived from this chef-d’oeuvre are exhibited here in all their grisly banality.
A terra-cotta version of Why Born Enslaved! was included in the Wildenstein show and purchased by Joseph H. Hirshhorn, although the specific work does not seem to have elicited much commentary at the time. Carpeaux was reconsidered in a different manner in the MET’s 2014 retrospective on him, where there was little political discourse, and more was made of his unheralded artistic accomplishments. This exhibition included the original marble version of Why Born Enslaved!, although under the title Woman of African Descent, but Roberta Smith’s glowing New York Times review doesn’t even mention the work.
In their introduction to Fictions of Emancipation’s catalog, Wendy S. Walters and Elyse Nelson note: “Why Born Enslaved! is at once an invitation to sympathy, a reminder of colonial conquest, and an object of exquisite beauty that equates Blackness with exoticism, novelty, and desire.” While all of these things could be true, it’s too easy to subject Carpeaux and other 19th century artists to presentist evaluations. Hopefully, in spite of this, we can continue to appreciate the artistic skill of this artist in a work that continues to impress 150 years after its completion.
Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue) through March 5, 2023.