Born in Lyon in February 1855, Carriès was a virtuoso sculptor of his generation. Death will loom large in his life and work. His father had been an orphan and by a terrible stroke of fate Carriès, too, was orphaned at the age of six. Disconsolate, the memory of his mother followed him his whole life. His younger sister died at 18. Carriès himself was struck down at 39.
Carriès was raised in an orphanage under the protection of Sister Callamand, the same nun who had raised his father. A devoted and remarkably caring woman, she found him well-to-do god-parents and supervised his apprenticeship at the age of 12 to Pierre Vermare, a medallion sculptor and modeler of pious images. Four years later, Sister Callamand helped Carriès earn his first commissions by recommending him as a talented, young portrait sculptor to bourgeois Lyon families. His remarkable skill as a modeler prompted Mother Callamand (she had become Mother Superior) to suggest that he attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Thanks to her guiding hand, his godparents and other Lyon notables agreed to finance his studies in Paris. In January 1874, at the age of 19, Carriès enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a pupil of Augustin Dumont (1801-1884) a very senior and respected academic sculptor of his day.
Carriès quickly felt out of place in this rigid, academic environment. Independent by temperament and upbringing, self-inspired and largely self-taught, Carriès's classmates saw him as the odd-ball of the class - which he was. Carriès had a remarkable degree of dexterity, worked at great speed and with astonishing self confidence. Begrudgingly, his classmates admired his gift of observation and reproduction. But his technique was unconventional and his idiosyncratic habit of mixing and applying patinas to plaster or terracotta during the sculpting process left his classmates and professor perplexed. They became disdainful of his originality. Quickly, the diffident black sheep became fed up with his classmates’ sarcasm as well as the strictures of academic sculpture. After six months at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Carriès left, never to attend a class again.
Henceforth, Carriès was free to develop in his own way and he eked out a very meager existence during the next few years. His two masters were "le Louvre et Notre Dame." In the Louvre he spent week after week sketching the sculptures of Michelangelo and the French Renaissance; in the great cathedral he spent hours admiring the expressive faces of gothic statuary, both the grotesque and the sublime. It is during this period of deep solitude, raw ambition and defiant self-confidence, a time when he was too poor to pay for sitting models that Carriès began to sculpt his first series of pauper portraits. Like the world of Gothic representation, they are both luminous and dark.
Much of Carriès's art is amplified by his superb, rich patinas and he was passionate about crafting his own coatings to very high personal standards. Carriès believed that patinas were more than mere dressings to a finished piece - they gave "life and soul" to a sculpture. He developed his own recipes for subtle shadings, layered reflections and lustrous undertones. The results are portraits of incarnate personalities, life-like representations inhabited by beings that we seldom forget.
Carriès first appeared at the 1875 Salon, at the age of twenty. He earned increasing recognition with every Salon, winning a double Mention Honorable in 1881and another Mention Honorable in 1883. By the age of 35 Carriès had won the admiration of a large part of the art establishment. Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) wrote that Carries's private exhibition at the Cercle des Arts Libéraux in 1882 made "a considerable impact"; the officially feted sculptor and Beaux-Arts professor Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900) bought his work; the established senior sculptor Antonin Mercié (1845-1916) and junior sculptor Jean-Antoine Idrac (1849-1884) were advocates of Carriès’s powerfully progressive style, while High Society portraitist Carolus-Duran (1838-1917) praised him; Jules Breton (1827-1906) commissioned him to sculpt his portrait; the famous glass master Emile Gallé (1846-1904) expressed his "esteem and admiration"; Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942) put Carriès on a par with Rodin; and the great sculptor Jules Dalou (1838-1902) both nominated Carriès and presented him with the Legion d'Honneur in 1892, at the age of 37. He died two years later.
The Russian Beggar belongs to a series of haunting sculptures entitled "The Derelicts", "The Wretched", "The Forsaken" or "The Bereft" (les Epaves, les Déshérités, les Désespérés, les Désolés),names that Carriès used interchangeably to describe his portraits of paupers who roamed the streets of his down-trodden neighborhood of the Rue de la Huchette in the late 1870s. A deeply sensitive and compassionate man whose own childhood had been blighted by the death of his parents, Carriès identified with these human shadows whose pitiful existence resonated with his own sense of loss and longing. "The Derelicts" are masterpieces of expressive portraiture that have no parallel in 19th century sculpture. The Russian Beggar is one of the finest in this series.
Dating from 1875-1880, The Russian Beggar is the bust of a gaunt, bearded hunchback to whom Carriès paid a sou (a farthing) to sit for him in his candle-lit garret. His skin is rendered in Carriès's usual delicate style and the rich brown patina brings out the fine details of eye lashes, ragged beard, hunger-raised cheekbones and tired puffiness under eyes that stare out with a glazed expression of harmless mental alienation. Carriès's preference for this particular patina which he called vieux bois, or "old wood" is characteristic of many of his life-size busts, both his historical works (Velasquez, Frans Hals and Saint Louis) and his contemporary commissions (the journalist Vacquerie, the painters Jules Breton and Gustave Courbet and the politician Gambetta).
The Russian Beggar is dedicated to Carriès's close friend, Auguste Arnault. We know very little about Arnault except that the two became friends when Carriès was 25, about the time when he was still modeling "The Derelicts" series. Carrriès used to fetch Arnault at the Saint Geneviève Library in the evenings and bring him back to his garret studio where Arnault "stood in admiration in front of Carriès's work of the day." It is quite possible that Arnault witnessed the creation of The Russian Beggar and thus became its dedicatee. The Russian Beggar was first presented at the Salon in 1892 and again posthumously in 1895 to very positive reviews.
The Russian Beggar has an exceptional provenance: it was once part of the Joseph Uzanne Collection. Joseph Uzanne and his brother Octave were important literary and social figures in late 19th century Paris. Uzanne was Carriès's trusted friend who advised and helped the unpractical artist conduct his business affairs. Carriès named Uzanne as his executor and gave him this very copy of The Russian Beggar in 1884 as a token of his esteem and gratitude. It remained in the Uzanne collection, among descendants until the present day.
Only seven other copies of The Russian Beggar are known:
- Patinated plaster, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, (inv. PPS 1209, 1927, catalogue No. 849)
- Patinated plaster, Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon (inv. 1936-2, Delaroche donation).
- Patinated plaster exhibited at the Exposition Carriès, Galerie P. Bellanger, Paris, 1997.
- 3 bronze Bingen casts, one exhibited at the Exposition Carriès, Galerie P. Bellanger, Paris 1997.
- Stoneware version that once belonged to the Paul Jeanneney collection.
Because Carriès’s life was so short, his works are very few and appear seldom on the market.
Joseph Uzanne Collection, 1884-2002