Rodin.Auguste Rodin (born François Auguste René Rodin;
November 12, 1840 – November 17, 1917) was a French artist, most
famous as a sculptor, but also a painter and printmaker. He was the
preeminent French sculptor of his time, and remains one of the few sculptors
with broad name recognition outside the visual arts community. Sculpturally,
he possessed a unique ability to organize a complex, turbulent, deeply
pocketed clay surface.
In late nineteenth-century
Paris, Rodin played a pivotal role in redefining sculpture. The predominant
figure sculpture tradition of the time required an almost formulaic
approach, and most sculpture was either decorative or highly thematic.
Rodin's most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology
and allegory, modelled the human body with high realism, and celebrated
individual character and physicality. Although Rodin is considered the
progenitor of modern sculpture, he did not set out to rebel against
tradition. He was schooled traditionally in Paris's École des
Beaux-Arts system, and desired academic recognition.
Many of his most
notable sculptures were roundly criticized during his lifetime, from
the surprising realism of his first major figure, The Age of Bronze,
to the unconventional memorials whose commissions he later sought. Rodin
was sensitive to the controversy, but did not change his style, and
successive works brought increasing favor from the government and the
artistic community. By 1900, Rodin was a world-renowned artist. Wealthy
private clients sought his work, and he kept company with a variety
of high-profile intellectuals and artists. His sculpture suffered a
decline in popularity after his death in 1917, but within a few decades
his legacy solidified: he was the man who revitalized sculpture after
centuries of stasis.
The Gates of Hell,
Musée Rodin.Rodin was born in 1840 into a working-class family
in Paris, the son of Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin, a police
department clerk. He was largely self-educated, and began to draw
at ten. From 14 to 17, he attended the Petite École, a school
specializing in art and mathematics, where he studied drawing with de
Boisbaudran and painting with Belloc. Rodin submitted a clay model of
a companion to the Grand École in 1857 in an attempt to win entrance;
he did not succeed, and two further applications were also denied.
Given that entrance requirements at the Grand Ecole were not particularly
high, the rejections were considerable setbacks. Rodin's inability
to gain entrance may have been due to the judges' Neoclassical tastes,
while Rodin had been schooled in light, 18th century sculpture. Leaving
the Petite École in 1857, Rodin would earn a living as a craftsman
and ornamenter for most of the next two decades, producing decorative
objects and architectural embellishments.
Rodin's sister Maria,
two years his senior, died of peritonitis in a convent in 1862. Her
brother was anguished, and felt guilty because he had introduced Maria
to an unfaithful suitor. Turning away from art, Rodin briefly joined
a Christian order. Father Peter Julian Eymard recognized Rodin's talent,
however, and encouraged him to continue with his sculpture. He returned
to work as a decorator, while taking classes with animal sculptor Antoine-Louis
Barye. The teacher's attention to detail—for example, in rendering
the musculature of animals in motion—significantly influenced
In 1864, Rodin began
to live with a young seamstress named Rose Beuret, with whom he would
stay—with ranging commitment—for the rest of his life. The
couple bore a son, Auguste-Eugène Beuret, in 1866. The year that
Rodin met Beuret, he offered his first sculpture for exhibition, and
entered the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful mass
producer of objects d'art. Rodin worked as Carrier-Belleuse' chief assistant
until 1870, designing roof decorations and staircase and doorway embellishments.
With the arrival of the Franco-Prussian War, Rodin was called to serve
in the National Guard, but his service was brief due to his near-sightedness.
Decorators' work had dwindled because of the war, yet Rodin needed to
support his family. Carrier-Belleuse soon asked Rodin to join him in
Belgium, where they would work on ornamentation for Brussels' stock
Rodin spent the
next six years abroad. Though his relationship with Carrier-Belleuse
deteriorated, he found other employment in Brussels, and his companion
Rose soon joined him there. Having saved enough money to travel, Rodin
visited Italy for two months in 1875, where he was drawn to the work
of Donatello and Michelangelo. Their work had a profound effect on
his artistic direction.: Rodin said, "It is [Michelangelo] who
has freed me from academic sculpture." Returning to Belgium,
he began work on The Age of Bronze, a life-size male figure whose realism
brought Rodin attention, but lead to accusations of sculptural cheating.
Rose Beuret and Rodin returned to Paris in 1877, moving into a small
flat on the Left Bank. Misfortune surrounded Rodin: his mother, who
wanted to see her son marry, was dead, and his father was blind and
senile, cared for by Rodin's sister-in-law, Aunt Thérèse.
Rodin's eleven-year-old son Auguste, possibly mentally retarded or brain-damaged
from a fall, was also in the ever-helpful Thérèse's care.
Rodin had essentially abandoned his son for six years, and would
have a very limited relationship with him throughout their lives. Son
and father now joined the couple in their flat, with Rose as caretaker.
The charges of fakery surrounding The Age of Bronze continued. Rodin
increasingly sought more soothing female companionship in Paris, and
Rose stayed in the background.
Rodin earned his
living collaborating with more established sculptors on public commissions,
primarily memorials and neo-baroque architectural pieces in the style
of Carpeaux. In competitions for commissions, he submitted models
of Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and Lazare Carnot, all to no
avail. He worked on his own time on studies leading to the creation
of his next important work, St. John the Baptist Preaching.
In 1880, Carrier-Belleuse—now
art director of the Sèvres national porcelain factory—offered
Rodin a part-time position as a designer. The offer was in part a gesture
of reconciliation, and Rodin accepted. That part of Rodin that appreciated
18th-century tastes was aroused, and he immersed himself in designs
for vases and table ornaments that gave the factory renown across Europe.
The artistic community appreciated his work in this vein, and Rodin
was invited to society gatherings by such friends as writer Léon
Cladel. French stateman Leon Gambetta expressed a desire to meet Rodin,
and at this salon the sculptor impressed him. In turn, Gambetta spoke
of Rodin to several government ministers, likely including Edmund Turquet,
the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts.
with Turquet was rewarding: through him, he won the 1880 commission
to create a portal for a planned museum of decorative arts. Rodin dedicated
much of the next four decades to his elaborate Gates of Hell, an unfinished
portal for a museum that was never built. Many of the portal's figures
became sculptures in themselves, including The Thinker and The Kiss.
With the commission came a free, sizeable studio, granting Rodin a new
level of artistic freedom. Soon, he stopped working at the porcelain
factory; his income came from private commissions.
Rodin in 1893.
Camille Claudel (1864–1943).In 1883, Rodin agreed to supervise
a sculpture course for Alfred Boucher during his absence, where he met
the 18-year-old Camille Claudel. The two formed a passionate but stormy
relationship, and influenced each other artistically. Claudel inspired
Rodin as a model for many of his figures, and she was a talented sculptor,
assisting him on commissions.
Although busy with
The Gates of Hell, Rodin won other commissions. He pursued an opportunity
to create a monument for the French town of Calais, to depict an important
moment in the town's history. For a monument to French author Honoré
de Balzac, Rodin was chosen in 1891. His execution of both sculptures
clashed with traditional tastes, and met with varying degrees of disapproval
from the organizations that sponsored the commissions. Still, Rodin
was gaining support from diverse sources that continued his path toward
In 1889, the Paris
Salon invited Rodin to be a judge on its artistic jury. Though Rodin's
career was on the rise, Claudel and Beuret were becoming increasingly
impatient with Rodin's "double life". Claudel and Rodin shared
an atelier at a small old castle, but Rodin refused to relinquish his
ties to Beuret, his loyal companion during the lean years, and mother
of his son. During one absence, Rodin wrote to her, "I think of
how much you must have loved me to put up with my caprices…I remain,
in all tenderness, your Rodin." He never fulfilled a contract
with Claudel to give up all contact with other women and marry her.
The couple parted in 1898, and Claudel's mental health deteriorated.
Known for his love affairs and his interest in the sensual, Rodin was
a short, stocky, and bearded man, sometimes referred to as a "brute".
Very devoted to his craft, he worked constantly, but not feverishly.
Though he has been stereotyped as temperamental and loquacious—
especially in his later years—he has also been described as possessing
a silent strength, and during his first appearances at Parisian
salons, he seemed shy. Decades after the charges of surmoulage early
in his career, he was still wary of garnering such criticism—he
ensured that the sizes or designs of his figures made it obvious that
his creations were entirely original.
In 1864, Rodin submitted his first sculpture for exhibition, The Man
with the Broken Nose, to the Paris Salon. The subject was an elderly
neighbourhood street porter. The unconventional bronze piece was not
a traditional bust, but instead the head was "broken off"
at the neck, the nose was flattened and crooked, and the back of the
head was absent, having fallen off the clay model in an accident. The
work emphasized texture and the emotional state of the subject; it illustrated
the "unfinishedness" that would characterize many of Rodin's
later sculptures. The Salon rejected the piece.
the inspiration of Italy
The Age of Bronze, 1877.In Brussels, Rodin created his first full-scale
work, The Age of Bronze, having returned from Italy. Modelled by a Belgian
soldier, the figure drew inspiration from Michelangelo's Dying Slave,
which Rodin had observed at the Louvre. Attempting to combine Michelangelo's
mastery of the human form with his own sense of human nature, Rodin
studied his model from all angles, at rest and in motion; he mounted
a ladder for additional perspective, and made clay models, which he
studied by candlelight. The result was a life-size, well-proportioned
nude figure, posed unconventionally with his right hand atop his head,
and his left arm held out at his side, forearm parallel to the body.
In 1877, the work
debuted in Brussels and then was shown at the Paris Salon. The statue's
apparent lack of a theme was troubling to critics—it did not commemorate
mythology nor a noble historical event—and it is not clear whether
Rodin intended a theme. He first titled the work The Vanquished,
in which form the left hand held a spear, but he removed the spear because
it obstructed the torso from certain angles. After two more intermediary
titles, Rodin settled on The Age of Bronze, suggesting the Bronze Age,
and in Rodin's words, "man arising from nature". Later,
however, Rodin said that he had in mind "just a simple piece of
sculpture without reference to subject".
Its mastery of form,
light, and shadow made the work look so realistic that Rodin was accused
of surmoulage—having taken a cast from a living model. Rodin
vigorously denied the charges, writing to newspapers and having photographs
taken of the model to prove how the sculpture differed. He demanded
an inquiry and was eventually exonerated by a committee of sculptors.
Leaving aside the false charges, the piece polarized critics. It had
barely won acceptance for display at the Paris Salon, and criticism
likened it to "a statue of a sleepwalker" and called it "an
astonishingly accurate copy of a low type". Others rallied
to defend the piece and Rodin's integrity. The government minister Turquet
admired the piece, and The Age of Bronze was purchased by the state
for 2,200 francs—what it had cost Rodin to have it cast in bronze.
A second male nude,
St. John the Baptist Preaching, was completed in 1878. Rodin sought
to avoid another charge of surmoulage by making the statue larger than
life: St. John stands almost 6'7''. While the The Age of Bronze is statically
posed, St. John gestures and seems to move toward the viewer. The effect
of walking is achieved despite the figure having both feet firmly on
the ground—a physical impossibility, and a technical achievement
that was lost on most contemporary critics. Rodin chose this contradictory
position to, in his words, "display simultaneously…views
of an object which in fact can be seen only successively".
Despite the title, St. John the Baptist Preaching did not have an obviously
religious theme. The model, an Italian peasant who presented himself
at Rodin's studio, possessed an idiosyncratic sense of movement that
Rodin felt compelled to capture. Rodin thought of John the Baptist,
and carried that association into the title of the work. In 1880,
Rodin submitted the sculpture to the Paris Salon. Critics were still
mostly dismissive of the work, but the piece finished third in the Salon's
Regardless of the
immediate receptions of St. John and The Age of Bronze, Rodin had achieved
a new degree of fame. Students sought him at his studio, praising his
work and scorning the charges of surmoulage. The artistic community
knew his name.
The Thinker, Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul.A commission to create a
portal for the planned Museum of Decorative Arts was awarded to Rodin
in 1880. Although the museum was never built, Rodin worked throughout
his life on elements of this monumental sculptural group, The Gates
of Hell, depicting scenes from Dante's Inferno in high relief. Many
of his best-known sculptures started as designs of figures for this
monumental composition, such as The Thinker (Le Penseur), The Three
Shades (Les Trois Ombres), and The Kiss (Le Baiser), and only later
presented as separate and independent works.
The Thinker (Le
Penseur, originally titled The Poet, after Dante) was to become one
of the most well-known sculptures in the world. The original
was a 27.5 inch-high bronze piece created between 1879 and 1889, designed
for the Gates' lintel, from which the figure would gaze down upon Hell.
While The Thinker most obviously characterizes Dante, aspects of the
Biblical Adam, the mythological Prometheus, and Rodin himself have
been ascribed to him. Other observers stress the figure's rough
physicality and emotional tension, and suggest that The Thinker's renowned
pensiveness is not intellectual.
works derived from The Gates are the Ugolino group, Fugitive Love, The
Falling Man, The Sirens, Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone, Damned
Women, The Standing Fauness, The Kneeling Fauness, The Martyr, She Who
Once Was the Beautiful Helmetmaker's Wife, Glaucus, and Polyphem.
The Burghers of
The Burghers of Calais in Victoria Tower Gardens, London, England.The
town of Calais had contemplated an historical monument for decades when
Rodin learned of the project. He pursued the commission, interested
in the medieval motif and patriotic theme. The mayor of Calais was tempted
to hire Rodin on the spot upon visiting his studio, and soon the memorial
was approved, with Rodin as its architect. It would commemorate the
six townspeople of Calais who offered their lives to save their fellow
citizens. During the Hundred Years' War, the army of King Edward III
besieged Calais, and Edward asked for six citizens to sacrifice themselves
and deliver to him the keys to the city, or the entire town would be
pillaged. The Burghers of Calais depicts the men as they are leaving
for the king's camp, carrying keys to the town's gates and citadel.
Rodin began the
project in 1884, inspired by the chronicles of the siege by Jean Froissart.
Though the town envisioned an allegorical, heroic piece centred on Eustache
de Saint-Pierre, the eldest of the six men, Rodin conceived the sculpture
as a study in the varied and complex emotions under which all six men
were laboring. One year into the commission, the Calais committee was
not impressed with Rodin's progress. Rodin indicated his willingness
to end the project rather than change his design to meet the committee's
conservative expectations, but Calais said to continue.
In 1889, The Burghers
of Calais was first displayed to general acclaim. It is a bronze sculpture
weighing two tons, and its figures are 2 metres tall. The six men
portrayed do not display a united, heroic front; rather, each is
isolated from his brothers, individually deliberating and struggling
with his expected fate. Rodin soon proposed that the monument's high
pedestal be eliminated, wanting to move the sculpture to ground level
so that viewers could "penetrate to the heart of the subject".
At ground level, the figures' positions lead the viewer around the work,
and subtly suggest their common movement forward. The committee
was incensed by the non-traditional proposal, but Rodin would not yield.
In 1895, Calais succeeded in having Burghers displayed its way: the
work was placed in front of a public garden on a high platform, surrounded
by a cast-iron railing. Rodin had wanted it located near the town hall,
where it would engage the public. Only after damage during the First
World War, subsequent storage, and Rodin's death was the sculpture displayed
as he had intended. It is one of Rodin's most well-known and acclaimed
Monument to Balzac.The Société des Gens des Lettres, a
Parisian organization of writers, planned a monument to French novelist
Honoré de Balzac immediately after his death in 1850. The society
commissioned Rodin to create the memorial in 1891, and Rodin spent years
developing the concept for his sculpture. Challenged in finding an appropriate
representation of Balzac given his rotund physique, Rodin produced many
studies: portraits, full-length figures in the nude, wearing a frock
coat, or in a robe—a replica of which Rodin had tailored to contemplate
upon. The realized version displayed Balzac cloaked in the ample drapery,
looking forcefully into the distance, with deeply gouged features. Rodin's
intent had been to show Balzac at the moment of conceiving a work—to
express courage, labor, and struggle.
When Balzac was
exhibited in 1898, the negative reaction was not surprising. The
Société rejected the work, and the press ran parodies.
Criticizing the work, Morey (1918) reflected, "there may come a
time, and doubtless will come a time, when it will not seem outre to
represent a great novelist as a huge comic mask crowning a bathrobe,
but even at the present day this statue impresses one as slang."
A contemporary critic, indeed, indicates that Balzac is considered one
of Rodin's masterpieces. The monument had its supporters in Rodin's
day; a manifesto defending him was signed by Monet, Debussy, and future
Premier Georges Clemenceau, among many others.
Rather than try
to convince skeptics of the merit of the monument, Rodin repaid the
Société his commission and moved the figure to his garden.
After this experience, Rodin did not complete another public commission.Only
in 1939 was Monument to Balzac cast in bronze.
create a monument to French writer Victor Hugo in 1889, Rodin dealt
extensively with the subject of artist and muse. Like many of Rodin's
public commissions, Monument to Victor Hugo met with resistance because
it did not fit conventional expectations. Commenting on Rodin's monument
to Victor Hugo, The Times in 1909 expressed that "there is some
show of reason in the complaint that [Rodin's] conceptions are sometimes
unsuited to his medium, and that in such cases they overstrain his vast
technical powers". The 1897 plaster model was not cast in bronze
The popularity of Rodin's most famous sculptures tends to obscure his
total creative output. A prolific artist, he created thousands of busts,
figures, and sculptural fragments over more than five decades. He painted
in oils (especially in his thirties) and in watercolors. The Musée
Rodin holds 7,000 of his drawings and prints, in chalk, charcoal, and
13 very vigorous drypoints. He also produced a single lithograph.
an important component of Rodin's oeuvre, helping him to win acceptance
and financial independence. His first sculpture was a bust of his
father in 1860, and he produced at least 56 portraits between 1877 and
his death in 1917. Early subjects included fellow sculptor Jules
Dalou (1883) and companion Camille Claudel (1884). Later, with his reputation
established, Rodin made busts of prominent contemporaries such as English
politician George Wyndham (1905), Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw
(1906), Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1909), and French statesman
Georges Clemenceau (1911).
A famous "fragment": The Walking Man.Rodin was a naturalist,
less concerned with monumental expression than with character and emotion.
Departing with centuries of tradition, he turned away from the abstraction
and idealism of the Greeks, and the decorative beauty of the Baroque
and neo-Baroque movements. His sculpture emphasized the individual and
the concreteness of flesh, and suggested emotion through detailed, textured
surfaces, and the interplay of light and shadow. To a greater degree
than his contemporaries, Rodin believed that an individual's character
was revealed by his physical features.
Rodin's talent for
surface modeling allowed him to let every part of the body speak for
the whole. The male's passion in The Kiss is suggested by the grip of
his toes on the rock, the rigidness of his back, and the differentiation
of his hands. Speaking of The Thinker, Rodin illuminated his aesthetic:
"What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his
brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed
lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched
fist and gripping toes."
To Rodin, sculptural
fragments were autonomous works, and he considered them to portray the
essence of his artistic statement. His fragments—perhaps lacking
arms, legs, or a head—took sculpture further from its traditional
role of portraying likenesses, and into a realm where forms existed
for their own sake. Notable examples are The Walking Man, Meditation
without Arms, and Iris, Messenger of the Gods.
Rodin saw suffering
and conflict as hallmarks of modern art. "Nothing, really, is more
moving than the maddened beast, dying from unfulfilled desire and asking
in vain for grace to quell its passion." Charles Baudelaire
echoed those themes, and was among Rodin's favorite poets. Rodin enjoyed
music, especially the opera composer Gluck, and wrote a book about French
cathedrals. He owned a work by the as-yet-unrecognized Van Gogh, and
admired the forgotten El Greco.
A plaster of The Age of Bronze.Instead of copying traditional academic
postures, Rodin preferred to work with amateur models, street performers,
acrobats, strong men and dancers. In the atelier, his models moved about
and took positions without manipulation. The sculptor made quick
sketches in clay that were later fine-tuned, cast in plaster, and forged
into bronze or carved in marble. Rodin was fascinated by dance and spontaneous
movement; his John the Baptist shows a walking preacher, displaying
two phases of the same stride simultaneously. As France's best-known
sculptor, he had a large staff of pupils, craftsmen, and stone cutters
working for him, including the Czech sculptors Josef Maratka and Joseph
Kratina. Through his method of marcottage (layering), he used the same
sculptural elements time and time again, under different names and in
different combinations. Disliking the formality of pedestals, Rodin
placed many of his subjects around rough rock to emphasize their immediacy
and provide contrast.
A portrait of Rodin by his friend Alphonse Legros.By 1900, Rodin's artistic
reputation was entrenched. Gaining exposure from a pavilion of his artwork
set up near the 1900 World's Fair (Exposition Universelie) in Paris,
he received requests to make busts of prominent people internationally,
while his assistants at the atelier produced duplicates of his works.
His income from portrait commissions alone totalled probably 200,000
francs a year. As Rodin's fame grew, he attracted many followers,
including the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and authors Octave Mirbeau,
Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Oscar Wilde. Rilke stayed with Rodin in
1905 and 1906, and did administrative work for him; he would later write
a laudatory monograph on the sculptor. Rodin and Beuret's modest country
estate in Meudon, purchased in 1897, became a regular host to such visitors
as King Edward, dancer Isadora Duncan, and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.
Rodin moved to the city in 1908, renting the main floor of the Hôtel
Biron, an 18th century townhouse. He left Beuret in Meudon, and began
an affair with the American-born Duchesse de Choiseul.
After the turn of
the century, Rodin was a regular visitor to Great Britain, where he
developed a loyal following by the beginning of the First World War.
He first visited England in 1881, where his friend, the artist Alphonse
Legros, had introduced him to the poet William Ernest Henley. Given
Henley's personal connections and enthusiasm for Rodin's art, he was
most responsible for Rodin's reception in Britain. Through Henley,
Rodin met Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Browning, in whom he found
further support. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of British artists,
students, and high society for his art, Rodin donated a significant
selection of his works to the nation in 1914.
During his later
creative years, Rodin's work turned increasingly toward the female form,
and themes of more overt masculinity and femininity. He concentrated
on small dance studies, and produced numerous erotic drawings, sketched
in a loose way, without taking his pencil from the paper or his eyes
from the model. Rodin met American dancer Isadora Duncan in 1900, attempted
to seduce her, and the next year sketched studies of her and her
students. In July 1906, Rodin was also enchanted by dancers from the
Royal Ballet of Cambodia, and produced some of his most famous drawings
from the experience.
into their relationship, Rodin married Rose Beuret. The wedding was
January 29, 1917, and Beuret died two weeks later, on February 16.
Rodin was ill that year; in January, he suffered weakness from influenza,
and on November 16 his physician announced that "[c]ongestion of
the lungs has caused great weakness. The patient's condition is grave."
Rodin died the following day, age 77, at his villa in Meudon, Île-de-France,
on the outskirts of Paris. A cast of The Thinker was placed next
to his tomb in Meudon.
Rodin willed to the state his studio and the right to make casts from
his plasters. Because he encouraged the reproduction of his work, Rodin's
sculptures are represented in many collections. The Musée Rodin
in Paris, founded in 1919, holds the largest Rodin collection. The relative
ease of making reproductions has also encouraged many forgeries: a survey
of expert opinion placed Rodin in the top ten most-faked artists.
To deal with unauthorized reproductions, the Musée in 1956 set
twelve casts as the maximum number that could be made from Rodin's plasters
and still be considered his work. (As a result of this limit, The Burghers
of Calais, for example, is found in 14 cities.) Art critics concerned
about authenticity have argued that taking a cast does not equal reproducing
a Rodin sculpture—especially given the importance of surface treatment
in Rodin's work. In the market for sculpture, plagued by fakes,
being able to prove the authenticity of a piece by its provenance increases
its value significantly. A Rodin work with a verified history sold for
US$4.8 million in 1999.
During his lifetime,
Rodin was compared to Michelangelo, and was widely recognized as
the greatest artist of the era. In the three decades following his
death, his popularity waned with changing aesthetic values. Since
the 1950s, Rodin's reputation has re-ascended; he is recognized
as the most important sculptor of the modern era, and has been the subject
of much scholarly work. The sense of incompletion offered by
some of his sculpture, such as The Walking Man, influenced the increasingly
abstract sculptural forms of the twentieth century. Though highly
honoured for his artistic accomplishments, Rodin did not spawn a significant,
lasting school of followers. His notable students included Antoine Bourdelle,
Charles Despiau, the American Malvina Hoffman, and his mistress Camille
Claudel, whose sculpture received high praise in France. The French
order Légion d'honneur made him a Commander, and he received
an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford.
Rodin restored an
ancient role of sculpture—to capture the physical and intellectual
force of the human subject—and he freed sculpture from the
repetition of traditional patterns, providing the foundation for greater
experimentation in the twentieth century. His popularity is ascribed
to his emotion-laden representations of ordinary men and women—to
his ability to find the beauty and pathos in the human animal. His most
popular works, such as The Kiss and The Thinker, are widely used outside
the fine arts as symbols of human emotion and character.
Born to modest means
on November 12, 1840, François-Auguste-René Rodin was
the second child of Jean-Baptiste Rodin and Marie Cheffer. He was somewhat
shy and very nearsighted, which proved a hindrance in his early academic
work. He took a serious interest in drawing and had his first drawing
lesson when he was ten years old. His father tried to help him academically
by sending him to his uncle's boarding school in Beauvais in 1851. He
remained there for three years, but still had difficulty reading and
writing, and the time was soon approaching for him to learn a trade.
to drawing early on, Rodin enrolled at the École Impériale
de Dessin, a government school for craft and design (also called the
"Petite École" or "Small School" to distinguish
itself from the more prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, or "School
of Fine Arts".) He kept himself very busy, attending classes at
La Petite École, visiting museums to study antique sculpture,
and attending the Gobelins tapestry manufactory, where he also studied
drawing. During these early years he also discovered clay and found
himself to be a very capable and promising sculptor. Although he was
awarded two prizes for drawing and modeling at the age of seventeen,
Rodin was unable to gain admittance to the prestigious and conservative
École des Beaux-Arts, which rejected him three times.
Early Struggles 1858-1870
To help support his family Rodin began working commercially in the decorative
arts in 1858. Paris was in a time of transformation, many statues and
other ornamental sculptures were being erected throughout the city in
courtyards, squares and in front of public buildings. Numerous workshops
throughout Paris were hiring artists to work on these public projects.
Rodin endured several years of laboring for others by day and trying
to fulfill his personal artistic aspirations by night.
Grief stricken by
the unexpected death of his sister in 1862, Rodin briefly joined a Catholic
order. Father Eymard, founder of the Order of the Holy Sacrament, quickly
detected that the monastic life was not Rodin's true calling. He encouraged
Rodin to draw and sculpt in order to revive him from his saddened mental
state. Father Eymard was successful and Rodin left the monastery to
pursue his dreams of being a sculptor.
Continuing to support
himself by working for decorative sculptors, Rodin was able to afford
to rent his first studio: a small, cold, and drafty stable. In the fall
of 1863, he began working on a portrait bust that he intended to submit
as his debut sculpture to the Paris Salon. The Salon was the official
exhibition held annually where artists could display their work to the
public. The atmosphere was very competitive, as each artist sought buyers
for their work. The official prizes awarded greatly influenced what
was sold. The Salon could make or break an artist's reputation.
Rodin working on Father Eymard's bust, 1863
Photograph by Charles Aubrey
For the first time, Rodin hired a model to sit for him. The model was
not a professional, but rather a neighborhood handyman named Bibi. Rodin
was very drawn to his features and wanted to depict him as he was–
broken nose and all. The Man with the Broken Nose became The Mask of
the Man with the Broken Nose when the cold conditions of Rodin's studio
caused the back of the head to freeze and break off. Rodin, favoring
the element of chance, wanted to exhibit the portrait bust as it was.
He continued to work on it for over a year before submitting it to the
Salon. Much to his disappointment, the Salon rejected the work twice
during 1864 and 1865. Rodin considered the portrait to be his earliest
major work and described it as the first exceptional piece of modeling
he ever did.
During this time
Rodin also met his lifetime companion, Rose Beuret, while working on
a decorative commission. She became his model and mistress and remained
completely devoted to him throughout her life. In 1866 she gave birth
to their son, although Rodin did not legally acknowledge paternity.
Inspiration and Controversy 1870-1880
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Thirty-year old Rodin was
drafted into the National Guard, but was soon discharged due to his
nearsightedness. Finding himself without work, Rodin accepted a job
with Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a fashionable commercial sculptor
whom Rodin had worked with off-and-on for several years. Carrier-Belleuse
had been commissioned to decorate the new stock exchange in the Belgian
capital of Brussels. Rodin decided to go to Brussels alone, leaving
Rose and their son behind in Paris. His stay in Belgium lasted six years
and would prove to be a creative and inspirational time for him. In
Brussels Rodin held his first exhibition, marking his debut as an independent
After an inspiring
trip to Italy in 1875, Rodin began work on a large-scale statue intended
for submission to the Paris Salon. Auguste Neyt, a Belgian soldier,
was his model. The life-size male nude, first titled The Vanquished,
showed influences of classical sculpture but was modeled in a more naturalistic
way, without the exaggerated musculature that Greek and Roman sculptors
often used. He first presented The Vanquished in Brussels, where critics
were suspicious of the statue's incredible realism and accused Rodin
of making a cast from the live model, a technique that a true sculptor
would never use. Rodin tried to defend himself against the accusations,
but to no avail. He returned to Paris but the rumors followed him as
he submitted the nude, now titled The Age of Bronze, to the Paris Salon
of 1877. It was praised for its beauty, but Rodin was again forced to
defend himself against allegations of casting from a live model.
Age of Bronze, 1876
Upon returning to
Paris, Rodin supplemented his income by working for the Sèvres
porcelain factory again with Carrier-Belleuse. The income was small
so he accepted additional work wherever he could find it. During this
time Rodin created one of his most powerful figures, Saint John the
Baptist, which would be exhibited with The Age of Bronze in 1880. Partly
to exonerate himself of the previous allegations, Rodin made this figure
larger than life-size. He created a stir among critics, however, for
his uncommon portrayal of the saint. His figure did not depend on Saint
John's more common attributes– a hair shirt, leather belt, or
a cross and scroll– but presented an unidealized nude figure which
his contemporaries found improper, ugly, and shocking.
The Gates of Hell,
and Growing Notoriety 1880-1900
Despite the criticism
and controversy of the early part of his career, Rodin was commissioned
by the French Ministry of Fine Arts to design his first large-scale
public project in 1880. The proposition was to create an entrance portal
for a museum of decorative arts to be built in Paris. Rodin's main source
of inspiration for the doorway, soon to be called The Gates of Hell,
was The Divine Comedy by twelfth-century epic poet Dante Aligheri. The
Inferno, one of the three parts of The Divine Comedy, was a common reference
in French art and literature during this time. An avid reader of Dante,
Rodin borrowed imagery directly from The Inferno in addition to creating
his own unique visual representations. He wanted to emulate Dante's
journey through the underworld as a three-dimensional single piece that
would incorporate many characters and scenes. He also drew inspiration
from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a
controversial book of verse from 1857.
Several of his most
famous independent sculptures, such as The Thinker, The Kiss and The
Three Shades, were derived from smaller reliefs contained within The
Gates of Hell. Beginning in the 1880's, Rodin exhibited many of these
figures independently as freestanding sculptures. By the end of the
1880's it was clear that the museum of decorative arts would never be
built, but Rodin continued to work on the project periodically for the
duration of his life.
During the 1880s,
while working on The Gates, Rodin was gaining notoriety. His work became
more and more sought after, especially among fashionable society people.
He modeled many portrait busts, often not as paid commissions but as
gestures of thanks or friendship. As his reputation grew so did the
activity in his studio. Rodin had several people assisting him, each
having their own particular job. There were assistants who created plaster
casts of the original clay models, a "pointer" who would ready
marble blocks to be carved, a bronze caster, and a patinater who finished
the outer surface of the completed bronze sculpture.
It was also during
this period that Rodin met nineteen-year-old Camille Claudel while filling
in for his friend who taught a sculpture class to a group of young women.
Rodin soon became captivated by Camille, who had noticeable talent and
an intense desire to succeed as a sculptor. While Rodin always retained
his feelings for Rose Beuret, he and Camille shared more similar interests
and passions. Before long she became his student, model, collaborator,
and mistress. The two held a great admiration for each other that was
notably evident in both of their works. Rodin created many sculptures
with Camille serving as his inspiration. He made many portraits of her,
in addition to creating numerous sculptures of loving couples in passionate
embraces, such as one of his most famous works, The Kiss. Although they
were very much in love, Rodin refused to leave his long-time companion
Rose Beuret and he and Camille severed their ties by 1898.
The Kiss, c. 1881-82
In 1884 Rodin took
on another monumental project, this time for the city of Calais, France.
The mayor of Calais commissioned a monument to be erected in honor of
a local hero, Eustache de Saint-Pierre. This hero was part of a dramatic
event that occurred in 1347, during the Hundred Years War. Six leading
citizens of Calais volunteered themselves as hostages to the English
King Edward III in exchange for his lifting an eleven-month siege on
their city. Eustache de Saint-Pierre was the first of six burghers to
surrender. The king ordered them to relinquish the keys to the city
and to prepare themselves for execution. The brave citizens walked towards
the king's camp, thinking that they were taking their last steps, but
in the end their lives were spared.
Rodin was greatly
moved by the power of the story and offered to depict all six men for
a modest sum. He began by studying the history surrounding the event
as well as other artistic depictions of the burghers. He decided to
show all six men taking their first steps toward the camp of Edward
III. Rodin's originality won him the commission for the monument and
by 1885 he was completing a second maquette for the final approval of
the Municipal Council.
Two years before
its completion, the commissioners of the monument disbanded. Rodin,
however, finished the Burghers of Calais in 1888 and exhibited it to
the public in 1889 at a joint exhibition in Paris with Impressionist
painter Claude Monet. The monument was not erected in Calais until 1895
and even then it was not placed to Rodin's specifications.
Balzac in Dominican Robe, 1891-92
In the late 1880's
Rodin continued to receive commissions for public monuments including
a monument to painter Claude Lorrain and another monument to French
novelist Victor Hugo. In 1891 Rodin received a commission by the Société
des Gens de Lettres (the Society of Men of Letters) to create a monument
to their founder, French writer Honoré de Balzac. Since Balzac
had been dead for forty years, Rodin faced the challenge of having to
render his likeness from photographs. He researched the writer extensively,
going so far as to order a suit from Balzac's tailor to visualize his
size and girth.
Rodin worked on
the Monument to Balzac for seven years. He completed at least fifty
studies, some based on Balzac's actual appearance and others more subjective
and abstract. Most of the studies were of Balzac's head, as Rodin felt
it more important to emphasize the heads of people of such high intellect.
He finished the monument in 1898 and presented the final nine-foot plaster
model to the public. It was met with outrage, disbelief, and ridicule,
and as a result the literary society refused to accept it. Deeply hurt
by the criticism, Rodin removed the sculpture to his studio at Meudon,
outside of Paris, and refused to allow it to be cast during his lifetime.
The Pinnacle of
By 1900 Rodin had
achieved the pinnacle of success. European nobility paid him tribute
and an entire pavilion was devoted to his work at the Paris World Exposition.
One hundred sixty-eight works were displayed in bronze, marble, and
plaster. Drawings and photos also adorned the walls and lectures were
given explaining Rodin's techniques. People came from all over the world
to visit the Exhibition, which made Rodin a success on an international
scale. His work became immensely popular as requests for exhibitions
began to surface from Montreal to Tokyo.
Monument to Victor Hugo,
large model incomplete 1897
definitive model completed shortly after 1900 Rodin's incredible popularity
did not slow his production. He revisited old figures, modeled portrait
busts of well known people, and completed several long term projects,
such as the Monument to Victor Hugo and a large scale version of The
Thinker. During these later years he also took a great interest in the
study of dancers as part of his desire to capture natural, spontaneous
movement. With commissions continuing to flood in, it has been speculated
that Rodin had as many as fifty assistants working for him during this
In 1908 Rodin moved
to the Hôtel Biron outside Paris. The Hôtel Biron had previously
been home to a religious community before the separation of church and
state. The rent was very low and Rodin was able to occupy much of the
ground floor. Several famous or soon to be famous tenants also lived
there such as writer Jean Cocteau, painter Henri Matisse, and dancer
Rodin's Funeral in Meudon,
November 24, 1917
In 1912, the state scheduled the Hôtel Biron for demolition and
ordered the tenants to vacate. After persuading state officials, Rodin
was allowed to stay. As an exchange, Rodin offered to bequeath his entire
estate to the French government if he could reside at the Hôtel
Biron for the remainder of his days and if they would convert the Hotel
to a musuem for his work after he died. After much debate the state
finally accepted the terms and he was allowed to live and work there
for the remainder of his life. The final seal of the agreement, however,
was not actually settled until one year before his death.
During his last
year Rodin married his lifetime companion Rose Beuret on January 29,
1917. Rose died three weeks later and Rodin followed shortly, passing
away on November 17, 1917. Friends and dignitaries came to Rodin's funeral
to see him laid to rest beside Rose at Meudon with The Thinker at the
base of his tomb.