Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s nineteenth century marble sculpture of Ugolino and His Sons is an extremely powerful work on display at the Metropolitan Museum. Ugolino is depicted along with his four sons in an apparently torturous scene. The father, Ugolino is sitting in the middle of his four sons and is chained down to his seat while the surrounding kids cling to him for support. In his attempt to capture the suffering of this family, Carpeaux uses form to establish the importance of the father, Ugolino, and then proceeds to capitalize on subtle details including facial expressions, chains and the style of his children to show that Ugolino is not up to the task of supporting his family.
Carpeaux uses the overall shape of this sculpture to draw attention to Ugolino. The most striking feature of this sculpture while first observing it from its privileged point of view, which is straight on, is that it is clearly in the shape of a pyramid. The father is the center of this pyramid and his body provides the main structural support within the marble for the surrounding children. Carpeaux creates Ugolino as the center axis and the most structurally strongest point within the sculpture on purpose. It coincides with the fact the he is trying to depict Ugolino as the supporting figure for his four surrounding sons. Ugolino also draws the most attention because his head is the point of the pyramid. The structure of this sculpture draws even more attention to the father because he is the largest figure that is being represented. He is not simply the largest because he is a man surrounded by children because the children seem to be realistic sizes while he is larger than a normal man. His feet and hands are especially large, perhaps to emphasize the strength that a father has. Carpeaux wants to show that the most important figure within this sculpture is Ugolino by making him bigger and having him be the central supporting figure in his pyramid like structure.
The way that the artist depicts Ugolino in relation to his sons also stresses the importance of the role that the father plays. His four sons are surrounding him and are being physically supported by the father in some way. Without the sturdiness of the father in the center, the children would collapse all around him. They also all have very childish and dependent poses in relation to their father. The youngest son is curled up at the bottom with his head resting along his father’s feet. This son appears particularly weak as his body is very contorted and his eyes are closed. One son is resting his head in his father’s lap while another is leaning up against him with his arm in Ugolino’s lap. The largest and oldest son is the most striking. He is on his knees and grasping his father’s leg. He does not look like he could stand up or even kneel without the support of his father. He appears to be clinging on for dear life as the viewer can see his fingers digging into his father’s leg. The gazes of the children also show that they are looking to their father for leadership. They are all below him and three of the four are looking at him in some way. The two sons on the left appear to be gazing upwards at him while a third has his head bowed in Ugolino’s lap. The only son who is not looking at his father has his eyes closed and is crumpled at his feet. This child may simply be too weak, sick or even dead at this point to look at his father for help. Another way that Carpeaux illustrates the father’s responsibility in this sculpture is by emphasizing the age difference between the father and his sons. His sons are shown with youthful, flowing hair and fair, innocent looking faces, while Ugolino appears old and worn. This age difference naturally implies that the older man is responsible for the younger ones. These differences between Ugolino and his sons show that he is indeed the figure that is in charge in this scene.
Another way in which Carpeaux draws our attention to Ugolino is the way he sculpts his arms and hands. His own arms are leading back to his face which really forces the viewer to focus their attention on his face. Also, the way that his fingers are curled up and digging into his face make this area of the sculpture seem very important. This increased importance on this part of the sculpture further draws our attention to Ugolino and further emphasizes his importance to the overall scene.
The shape and form of this sculpture, combined with the contrast between Ugolino and his sons show that Ugolino is the man responsible in this scene. There is an overall desperate feel to this scene which we can see because of Carpeaux’s attention to detail. The sons are all contorted and the father’s facial expression is clearly one with much anxiety behind it. Therefore, the artist is implying that Ugolino is responsible for getting this family out of whatever situation they are in. He shows a few subtle details which express the fact that Ugolino will not succeed in this task. The first and most powerful of these details are the chains wrapped around Ugolino’s legs. These clearly show he is being restricted by some outside force that is out of his control. These chains make him seem powerless which show that he is not capable of successfully overcoming whatever challenges are plaguing him and his four sons.
The way that Carpeaux sculpts the form of Ugolino’s children also shows that there is little hope for this family. They are all sculpted in the nude, which is a good way to illustrate their lack of power or worthiness. This is reminiscent of the relief sculpting scene in the gothic cathedrals where the outer entrances depict scenes from the last judgment and those who are being denied are nude and hunched. This is very similar to how the sons are depicted in this work. Also, the nudity allows the viewer to see the bodies and form of these children much better and they are shown as rather weak and thin compared to the ideal muscular man. This muscularity can still be scene in Ugolino but not nearly as much in his sons. The nudity also emphasizes how contorted and twisted the children are which alludes to their overall discomfort and desperation. Overall, the nudity facilitates the bleak representation of the four sons which helps show the hopelessness of this scene.
Lastly, the gaze put on by Ugolino makes the viewer feel hopeless about the scenes outcome. He is clutching his face and biting his nails in a classic look of anxiousness and fear. He is looking out towards the privileged view of the sculpture which means he is looking out towards where the viewer will inevitably be standing. The look in his eyes is one of desperation and the viewer gets the desire to help him because he looks so hopeless. However, his expression tells us that we would be unable to help him.
It is sad to see the desperate look in the eyes of Ugolino’s sons looking towards their father for help but it is even sadder to see the look in the eyes of Ugolino who knows full well that he is unable to help his sons. Carpeaux shows this by having Ugolino have a desperate look of his own and also by chaining him down to his seat. Ugolino is also the only hope for the people in this scene because he is the biggest, most pronounced, and central figure within this configuration. Even though Ugolino is the most powerful figure in this scene, Carpeaux shows that he is not capable of overcoming the situation that he and his four sons have been put in.