Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (French, 1824-1887) was perhaps the most admired and influential sculptor of the nineteenth century. His monumental, multi-figural sculptures and portrait busts of the world’s great men and women won major awards and today can be found in major collections including the Metropolitan Museum, Musée d’Orsay, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. This reputation made Carrier-Belleuse a powerful draw for other artists, including Auguste Rodin, who served as Carriere-Belluese’s assistant from 1864 to 1870.
We recently acquired two life-time castings (i.e. works sculpted by and cast under the direct supervision of the artist) by Carrier-Belleuse. They depict the great Renaissance masters Raphael and Michelangelo. That Carrier-Belluese would pay homage to these artist, at the height of his own career, reveals a great deal about how the sculptor, and French artists in general, saw their role in the history of art.
In the mid-nineteenth century, France was the undisputed center of the art world. Each year, millions attended the annual Paris Salon, where hundreds of paintings and sculptures were on display. Of the thousands of artists who submitted works to the competition, less than 10 percent were accepted; and, even fewer were given awards. Award-winning works often resulted in fame and commissions — public and private — for successful artists.
Beginning in 1855, Carrier-Belleuse became a regular award-winner at the contest. By 1860, he was the pre-eminent portrait sculptor of French and European society. His success and virtuosity was lampooned in 1863 by the painter-satirist Honoré Daumier with a cartoon showing the sculptor working on two portrait busts at the same time, effortlessly making the separate likeness without looking at either of them. (See above.)
Carrier-Belleuse and the French academy where he trained and taught, considered themselves the inheritors of Renaissance tradition. The most copied artist of the nineteenth century was Raphael da Sanzio (1483-1520), whose beautifully structured paintings drew the attention of cardinals and Popes in his lifetime; and, for centuries afterwards, offered artists a format composing large-scale works. Carrier-Belleuse shows Raphael holding a drafting pencil and a placard.
The statue of Michelangelo (1475-1564) is a especially telling. Near the beginning of his career, it indicates Carrier-Belleuse’s ambitions to achieve works comparable to the great master.. Michelangelo is holding a figure of “Day,” part of a large monument made for Lorenzo de Medici, and considered by many to be the Renaissance master’s greatest work.
According to some estimates, less than one percent of all sculptures in the nineteenth-century were ever realized in bronze or marble. Having a pair of works by Carrier-Belleuse, which represent not only his own great achievements as one of the great artists of the century, but which also pay homage to another generation, makes these two sculptures a rare combination.