The splendid marble sculpture of ‘Ugolino and His Sons’, was created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, a French sculptor and painter, born on 11 May 1827. Created in Paris during the 1860s and known for its expressive details, the sculpture launched Carpeaux's career and led to his commission for the façade of the Palais Garnier opera house, La Danse, which made him famous. Ugolino and His Sons by Carpeaux depicts the story of Ugolino from Dante’s Inferno, in which the13th century count was imprisoned and starving with his sons and grandsons.
Ugolino, an Italian nobleman and also a politician, was charged of treason and was imprisoned along with his four children, in a tower in 1288. They were sentenced to death by starvation. One night, Ugolino dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves and were hunted and torn to shreds. As he woke up, he found his children crying in hunger. However, as he could do nothing for his children, he desperately started to gnaw at his own hands in agony, while his children beg their father to eat them and relieve them from their sufferings. Gradually, Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days.
In the sculpture Ugolino and His Sons, all the figures are depicted in nude and it depicts the moment that Ugolino was considering cannibalism. Though he is starving to death, Ugolino is sculpted as a muscular man, looking desperately at the distance and is biting his fingers and pulls his lip down with them. He is bending forward and holding his head in the palm of his hand. His posture ignores the four children that cling to his body, as if he was not at all aware of their presence.
The oldest boy has his fingers into the flesh of Ugolino’s leg, the second oldest son on the right is also holding his father with both hands.
The third son on the left sits on top of his oldest brother and has his left arm on his father’s leg, seems to have already lost most of his remaining energy. The youngest, curled at his feet with a peaceful expression, appears to be already dead.
This splendid sculpture epitomizes the Romantic preoccupation with extreme physical and emotional states. It caused a public sensation and immediately established Carpeaux as the heir of the French Romantic sculptors of the 1830s. The work reflects the artist's passionate reverence for Michelangelo, specifically for the ‘Last Judgment’ in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, Rome.
The sculpture was cast in bronze in 1863 and displayed in the Allée centrale de sculptures (central sculpture hall) on the ground floor of the Musee d’Orsay. A marble version was completed in Paris under Carpeaux's supervision for the 1867 International Exposition and was later housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.