Born in Paris on 4 July 1848, Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse grew up watching his father, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, earn his living as a practicing artist. The elder Carrier-Belleuse entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1840 under the auspices of sculptor David d’Angers, but he elected to study decorative arts at the Petite Ecole shortly thereafter, perhaps because he felt that it would offer a better livelihood for his growing family. When Louis-Robert was only two years old, his father accepted a job in England where he designed ceramics and metalwork models for the Wedgwood factory, among others. This interlude lasted five years, until 1855 when the family returned to France where Albert-Ernest found work in Napoleon III’s massive urban renewal projects for Paris. Throughout these years, the young Louis-Robert studied with his father, absorbing his basic art education through direct observation, on-the-job training, and paternal instruction.
Eventually, Louis-Robert entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he focused his studies on painting. Under the direction of Alexandre Cabanel and Gustave Boulanger, two of the most successful painters of the era, Carrier-Belleuse mastered the academic techniques of drawing from plaster casts of famous sculptures, and in due course, the live model. In 1870, just as the Second Empire was coming to its disastrous conclusion, Carrier-Belleuse made his debut at the annual Salon. The eruption of the Franco-Prussian War disrupted life significantly; although it is unknown whether or not the 22-year-old Carrier-Belleuse served in the French Army, most young men performed their military duty at this age.
As a result of the war—and the internecine bloodshed of the Commune—life in Paris was fundamentally changed. The city had been beaten and battered, and the political divisions among the citizenry were both painful and raw. The arts community was no exception. Traditionalists who supported the academic canon were impatient with the increasing number of artists who advocated for a fresh approach to painting as well as new venues in which to exhibit their work. Carrier-Belleuse, while not as radical as the Impressionists, nevertheless found his voice as a “painter of modern life” to cite Charles Baudelaire’s famous phrase. Like Constantin Guys, the painter that Baudelaire held up as his example, Carrier-Belleuse captured the daily life of Parisian streets. His images included people from all walks of life, whether it illustrated workingmen delivering sacks of flour in Porteurs de farine of 1885, or casual strollers on the grand boulevards as in The Bookseller of 1881. In both of these images, the painter’s academic education is obvious in the clear delineation of the human body, but his choice of urban subject matter suggests the influence of Degas or Steinlen, especially in the seemingly random combinations of anonymous figures going about their daily routine.
Carrier-Belleuse also occasionally painted amusing genre scenes such as The Animal Sculptor. This undated work depicts the sculptor (perhaps Carrier-Belleuse himself) in his studio trying to grab a bite of lunch while the plaster swan on his worktable appears to be interrupting him. Nearby, two live swans observe this action, presumably a bit miffed that they are not being fed as well. The joke is purely visual, and it remains comical today precisely because it does not depend on any external narrative. What is even more intriguing is the compositional structure that Carrier-Belleuse created; the standard two-point perspective grid is offset by a technique that Degas often used of undermining the spatial organization by drawing parallel lines that will not meet at the hypothetical horizon.
In 1889, Carrier-Belleuse accepted an appointment as artistic director of the Hippolyte Boulenger & Cie faience manufactory at Clichy-le-Roi where he designed new forms for the earthenware sculpture and pottery. That same year, Hippolyte Boulenger opened a retail store at 18 rue Paradis in Paris to showcase the new designs being produced. In fact, the building itself functioned as a ‘catalogue’ of the ceramic tiles from Choisy-le-Roi. [i]
The year 1889 was momentous. Not only did Carrier-Belleuse begin his tenure at Clichy-le-Roi, but he also received a Silver Medal at the Exposition Universelle. In addition, his contributions to France’s art and culture were recognized with the Legion of Honor medal. At this time, he also began to focus increasingly on sculpture, particularly portrait busts.
One of the more curious developments of Carrier-Belleuse’s career was the establishment of his reputation as a sculptor in Central American nations. This appears to have begun with a commission for the tomb of the liberal reformer and modernizer of Guatemala, President Justo Rufino Barrios, who died in April 1885. This in turn led to a large sculptural group designed as a National Monument for Costa Rica in 1890. Located in San José’s Parque Nacional near the Congress Building, the bronze monument commemorates the heroes of Costa Rican freedom. When it was unveiled during Independence Day celebrations on September 15, 1895, the Costa Rican people saw seven figures, five of them women. These allegorical figures represented the nations of Central America—Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—each carrying some type of weapon to defend her sovereignty against foreign invaders. The sixth figure is the American military expansionist, William Walker, who attempted to annex Central America to the United States in 1855-57. Carrier-Belleuse depicted him hiding his face from the female defenders of freedom. The seventh figure, a fallen soldier, serves as a universal reminder of the human cost of warfare.
The last decade of Carrier-Belleuse’s career was devoted primarily to sculpture and large-scale faience projects. When he died on 15 June 1913, his passing was noted not only in France, but also in the newspapers in London and New York.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Dahesh Museum, New York
Musee d'Art et d'Archeologie, Moulins, France
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Musée du Petit Palais, Paris
Musée de Rochefort, Rochefort, France
[i] Philippe Meunier and Jean Alonso Defrocourt, “Evolution of Choisy-le-Roi Manufactory with Hippolyte Boulenger”, Majolica Matters, March 2006, 7-9.