Iconic Sculptures by Carpeaux on Display at the National Gallery


Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Girl with a Shell / Neapolitan Fisherboy with Shell (c. 1863–1867 / c. 1857–1862), white marble on wooden base. Private Collection. Photo © NGC. Painting: Jean‑Léon Gérôme, Camels at the Watering‑place (1857), oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 75 x 120 cm. NGC. Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, Toronto, 1978. Photo © NGC

The National Gallery of Canada has two very special visitors on long-term loan: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s sculptures, Neapolitan Fisherboy with Shell (c. 1857–1862) and Girl with a Shell (c. 1863–1867).

The artist created three versions of this pair of life-sized marble sculptures in his lifetime. One pair resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., while the second is split between museums in Copenhagen and Moscow. The third now lives within the NGC’s European collection in Ottawa. The Washington, D.C. pair was featured in a major Carpeaux retrospective earlier this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and are now on display as part of the same exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  

The works, which bridge the gap between Neoclassicism and modernity by bringing classical ideas to life through a naturalistic sculpting style, began, simply enough, as an academic assignment. Shortly after arriving at the French Academy in Rome for a five-year study program in 1856, the French artist was asked to send an example of his work back to Paris to show his teachers there how well his skills and artistry were progressing. He’d already garnered recognition by winning the Grand Prix of Rome in 1854, so there was little doubt that he was accomplished; his life-sized sculpture of an 11-year-old naked boy holding a shell to his ear while laughing would prove, however, to be an early masterwork.


Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Neapolitan Fisherboy with Shell (c. 1857–1862), white marble on wooden base. Private Collection. Photo © NGC

Before being shipped back to Paris, the plaster version of Neapolitan Fisherboy with Shell was displayed in Rome where it was a smashing success. Writing to his friend, Charles Laurent-Daragon, Carpeaux beamed about winning the support of his colleagues and proclaimed that the work was “the first victory that unveils a brilliant future for me.” Upon its arrival in Paris, the work enjoyed similar success, and was exhibited at both the 1863 Salon and the World’s Fair in 1867. 

The wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie, purchased the first marble edition for her personal collection in 1863. When Carpeaux produced the companion Girl with a Shell a few years later — a successful attempt to extend the success of his Fisherboy — the Empress snapped that up as well.


Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Girl with a Shell (c. 1863–1867), white marble on wooden base. Private Collection. Photo © NGC

The success of the sculpture prompted Carpeaux to market the figure widely in a series of smaller bronze versions, and busts of Neapolitan Fisherboy with Shell were sold in French department stores. The third pair has been dated to 1873, and was made for sale on the art market after the fall of the Second Empire. This is the only pair to be exhibited on the original wooden pedestals.

“These sculptures fit perfectly between Canova’s Dancer, a Neoclassical sculpture, and Rodin’s Age of Bronze, a modern sculpture that looked so human Rodin was accused of taking a mould of a living man to make it,” says Paul Lang, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Canada. “We are lucky to have these works here on long-term loan from a very dear friend of the Gallery.”

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Neapolitan Fisherboy with Shell and Girl with a Shell are currently on view in the National Gallery's European art galleries.

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