RODIN, AUGUSTErodin's mature style
fame and fortune
the legacy, the scholarship
RODIN, AUGUSTE (1840–1917), French sculptor.
François-Auguste Rodin was born on 12 November 1840, in Paris. He was introduced to drawing at the age of fourteen. In 1860, in hope of becoming a sculptor, he vowed to enter the reputed School of Fine Arts but was refused three times. To make a living, he undertook rather tiresome decorative work as a mason, an ornamental decorator, and a chiseler, while attending at night a course on sculpture.
In 1863, Rodin met Rose Beuret, a young seamstress who became his life-long companion and bore him a son. In 1864, having studied ancient Roman heads, he submitted to the Paris Salon a work entitled The Man with a Broken Nose, which was refused under its original title but later accepted as Portrait of a Roman. Between 1864 and 1870, Rodin set up his first studio in an abandoned stable while still working full-time as a decorator. In 1875, Rodin visited Italy where he encountered the works of Donatello and Michelangelo, effecting his separation from academism. While most of his contemporaries were still convinced that the block had to be skillfully sculpted to represent a commemorative figure or a precise event following the aesthetics of illusionist naturalism that had borne witness since the Italian Renaissance to principles of mimetic representation, Rodin deemed such ideas both outmoded and inadequate.
The subject matter of The Gates of Hell is drawn from Les fleurs du mal by French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire and from Dante's Divine Comedy through Gustave Doré's illustrations and William Blake's engravings. The design was inspired by both Ghiberti's Paradise Gate for the Florence Bapistry and Leonardo da Vinci's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The work provides the viewer with a suggestive and deliberately frenzied chaos of tormented, anguished figures. Those figures show an important aspect of Rodin's art: his opposition to the accepted academic insistence on the noble image of humanity. Instead he focused on the distress and anxiety of the human condition while at the same time celebrating human heroism in the face of sorrow.
Two years later, in 1877, confirming his new anti-academic stance, Rodin began working on his first independent major work, a free-standing sculpture of a man, originally titled The Vanquished, which would be exhibited as The Age of Bronze. Despite its degree of realism, the work's reflecting quasi-impressionist, vibrant surfaces, which are formed in large part by the sculptor's most intimate thoughts and beliefs on the dilemma of the private human being in modern society, give evidence to the fact that Rodin wanted to express a new sensitive reality through the human body, and to expose it as a vehicle of unabashed sensuality. But it is that work's lifelike quality rendered through Rodin's novel modeling and his accurate depiction of proportion or anatomy, as well as his rendering of movement, that caused a violent controversy. In 1878, Rodin was accused of having cast it directly from the living model but an investigative committee cleared him of the charge.
During the period between 1879 and 1890, embarking upon a vigorous confrontation with modern life, Rodin tried to create a new type of sculpture by using fragments to portray specific facets of life or partial depictions of the whole. In 1878, he completed two masterful works of expressive power, The Walking Man and Saint John the Baptist Preaching, the latter bringing him his first official honor from the Paris Salon, a third-prize medal. The French government awarded him a studio in the state marble depository. In 1883, Rodin began a tumultuous love affair with young Camille Claudel (1864–1943), a student of modeling who became his inspiration, lover, model, apprentice, and collaborator until 1893. After receiving a state commission for a large sculptured portal for the new Museum of Decorative Arts, in 1883 Rodin started working on his greatest masterpiece, The Gates of Hell, and for some thirty-odd years he worked on as many as 182 free-standing figures and figure combinations adapted from it. The emotional and violent content of The Gates set out to denounce the moral issue of Rodin's era. Thus, to reveal conditions of distress, anxiety, convulsive revolt, and striving, Rodin gave some parts of the portal a delicate finish, while leaving other parts undeveloped, and multiplied surface accidents and shadowy effects that arrest the gaze of the viewer.
In these works, as a way of dealing with problems of three-dimensional spatial relations or compositions, against the static heritage of classical sculpture with its mimetic norms and ways, Rodin addressed the question of an autonomous sculptural object, a nonacademic concept involving the significant interplay of nonrepresentational sculptural components or variables. Combining literary and symbolic themes with pure sculptural form, this mature artistic style was mainly characterized by a newly expressionist aesthetic that was based in the beliefs that the flesh is the sign of the spirit and that emotions are deeply rooted in the soul.
In that sense, through his use of suggestive emotion or feeling, symbolic distortion, suggestions of volume and movement, and through his amazing utilization of fragments, Rodin showed a very modern preoccupation with posturing, surface interactions and effects, nonrhetorical or nonallegorical gestures, an absence of ornamentation or allegorical attributes, and a vivid description of the subject combined with a newly found liberty of interpretation of its materiality.
While opening up new avenues for the sculptor and viewers alike, such experimentation drew a torrent of adverse criticism and aroused a great deal of controversy. Therefore The Gates of Hell, as well as most of Rodin's other public commissions, were deemed unsuitable by an opposition that could not make sense of his stylistic ideas. As a result, many of Rodin's mature works were left unfinished, or were never erected as planned, as only a few of his monuments went beyond the stage of sketches or models.
Besides working on The Gates and on related figures, between 1883 and 1900 Rodin created a series of busts of important people and artists. Also, in 1884, he completed The Thinker. That same year, he began a monumental sculpture for the city of Calais entitled The Burghers of Calais (1884–1886), which was only erected ten years after its completion and not according to Rodin's original design. Other great works followed: The Kiss, in 1886; a state-commissioned monument to French novelist Victor Hugo (1802–1885) for the Pantheon produced between 1889 and 1896; and a statue of French novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), arguably Rodin's most mature work, completed in 1898.
In 1889, in recognition for his work, Rodin received the French Legion of Honor. Four years later, the French state selected three sculptures by Rodin for Chicago's World Columbian Exhibition. From 1897 onward, while pursuing numerous liaisons with female students and benefactors, Rodin settled in the Villa des Brillants in Meudon with Rose Beuret, whom he eventually married in January 1917, near the end of his life. After the turn of the century, Rodin attained international fame in Europe and in America, and acquired considerable
wealth through his full-length portraits and busts of the eminent personalities of the time. In 1900, at his own expense, he organized a complete retrospective of his work for the Paris World's Fair.
Before World War I, Rodin completed innumerable small-scale sculptures, drawings, and watercolors of nude women, dancers, and heads, but did not undertake a new large-scale commission. Inspired by the art of the dance, Rodin excelled at portraying movement and anatomical details through modeling and composition in his statuettes. In 1913, seven drawings by Rodin were shown at the Armory Show and two years later he participated in San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition. Rodin died in Meudon on 17 November 1917.
After his death, Rodin's influence on the next generation of sculptors was profound, even though many critics violently denounced his innovative sculptural ideas. Because of his singular combination of realistic characterization and fragmented modeling, Romanticism and modernity, they could not appreciate these seemingly contradictory aesthetic preferences.
To that extent, between 1910 and 1940, during the heyday of avant-garde European modernist sculpture with its emphasis on purely geometrized sculptural form, because of its literary and symbolic existential references, Rodin's art was seen as not in line with contemporary artistic trends. But beginning after World War II and through the 1970s, art historian Albert E. Elsen and influential American art critics such as Clement Greenberg, Rosalind E. Krauss, and especially Leo Steinberg showed a renewed interest in Rodin's experiments with fragmentation and with three-dimensional spatial composition. They recognized that Rodin addressed the issue of non-iconic, self-referential visual and plastic surface components in sculpture, thereby putting forth a new idiom that dominated twentieth-century sculpture until the advent of postmodernist art-making in the 1970s.
Bartlett, Truman H., ed. "August Rodin, Sculptor." American Architect and Building News 25 (1889): 687–703. These conversations between American sculptor Truman H. Bartlett and Rodin resulted from Bartlett's numerous visits to the sculptor's Parisian studio in 1888–1889.
Dujardin-Beaumetz, Henri, ed. Entretiens avec Rodin. Paris, 1913. In these conversations the aging artist looked back on his life and times.
Gsell, Paul, ed. On Art and Artists. Translated by Mrs. Romilly Fedden. New York, 1957. Shortly before Rodin's death, French critic Paul Gsell compiled this collection of the artist's writings.
Rodin, Auguste. "To the Venus of Milo." Camera Work 34–35 (April–July 1911). Translation of "À la Vénus de Milo." Rodin's first attempt at expressing his ideas on art.
——. Les Cathédrales de France. Paris, 1914. In this book published in Paris thirty-seven years after his first encounter with the Gothic cathedrals of France, Rodin explained his fascination for the size, scope, effect, and splendor of these monuments.
——. Rodin on Art and Artists. New York, 1984. Sculptor's wide-ranging comments on the meaning of art and on the relations of sculpture to painting, poetry, and music.
Butler, Ruth. Rodin in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1980. Sets the stage for Rodin and his contemporaries. Contains historical articles and critical essays by Rodin himself, fellow artists, art critics, and specialists.
Cladel, Judith. Rodin: The Man and His Art, with Leaves from His Notebook. Translated by S. K. Star. New York, 1917. Early laudatory monograph of Rodin that dealt mainly with his love affairs and overrated their importance on his creative energy and impulse.
Elsen, Albert E. Rodin. London, 1963. In this thoroughly researched study of Rodin's life and art, the author set the standard in English for all future scholarship.
Grunfeld, Frederic V. Rodin: A Biography. New York, 1987. Well-documented popular biography on the life and times of Rodin.
Jarrassé, Dominique. Rodin: A Passion for Movement. Translated by Jean-Marie Clarke. London, 1995. Explores Rodin's major works through three basic dimensions of his art: movement, light and shade, and the fragmented figure.
Krauss, Rosalind E. Passages in Modern Sculpture. New York, 1977. The author discusses at length the modernity of The Gates of Hell, and documents its specific influence on twentieth-century sculpture.
Steinberg, Leo. "Rodin." In Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art, 322–403. New York, 1972. First-rate critical reevaluation of Rodin's mature style, and use of fragments, by one of America's leading contemporary art critics.
The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) conceived of his sculpture largely as volumes existing in space, as materials to be manipulated for a variety of surface effects. Thus he anticipated the aims of many 20th-century sculptors.
Auguste Rodin, the son of a police inspector, was born in Paris on Nov. 12, 1840. He studied drawing under Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran and modeling under the sculptor Jean Baptiste Carpeaux at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris (1854-1857). Simultaneously Rodin studied literature and history at the Colle‧ge de France. Rejected three times by the École des Beaux-Arts, he supported himself by doing decorative work for ornamentalists and set designers.
In 1862, as a result of the death of his sister Maria, who had joined a convent, Rodin attempted to join a Christian order, but he was dissuaded by the perceptive father superior. Rodin continued as a decorator by day and at night attended a class given by the animal sculptor Antoine Louis Barye.
In 1864 Rodin began to live with the young seamstress Rose Beuret, whom he married the last year of his life. Also in 1864 he completed his Man with a Broken Nose, a bust of an old street porter, which the Salon rejected. That year he entered the studio of Carrier-Belleuse, a sculptor who worked in the light rococo mode of the previous century. Rodin remained with Carrier-Belleuse for six years and always spoke warmly of him. In 1870 he and his teacher went to Brussels, where they began the sculptural decoration of the Bourse. The next year they quarreled, and Carrier-Belleuse returned to Paris, while Rodin completed the work under A. J. van Rasbourg.
The Human Figure
In 1875 Rodin went to Italy, where he was deeply inspired by the work of Donatello and of Michelangelo, whose sculpture he characterized as being marked by both "violence and constraint." Back in Paris in 1876, Rodin made a bronze statue of a standing man raising his arms toward his head in such a way as to project an air of uncertainty, a figure held in a pose of slight torsion suggestive of Michelangelo's Dying Slave. Rodin originally entitled the piece the Vanquished, then called it the Age of Bronze. When he submitted it to the Salon, it caused an immediate controversy, for it was so lifelike that it was believed to have been cast from the living model. The piece was unusual for the time in that it had no literary or historical connotations. After Rodin was exonerated by a committee of sculptors, the state purchased the Age of Bronze.
In 1878 Rodin began work on the St. John the Baptist Preaching and various related works, including the Walking Man. Lacking not only moral and sentimental overtones but a head and arms as well, the Walking Man was an electrifying image of forceful motion. Derived partially from some of Donatello's late works, it was based on numerous poses of the model in constant motion. Rodin raised the very act of walking into a subject worthy of concentrated study.
Rodin's interests continued to broaden. Between 1879 and 1882 he worked at ceramics, and between 1881 and 1886 he produced a number of engravings. By 1880 his fame had become international, and that year the minister of fine arts commissioned him to design a doorway for the proposed Museum of Decorative Arts. The project, called the Gates of Hell after Dante's Inferno, occupied Rodin for the rest of his life, and particularly in the next decade, but it was never finished. The Gates were cast in their incomplete state in the late 1920s.
For Rodin, the study of the human figure in a variety of poses indicative of many emotional states was a lifelong preoccupation. In the St. John the artist caught the prophet at the moment when he was moved deeply, gesturing automatically by the strength of the idea he was presenting. The gestures of Rodin's figures seem motivated by inner emotional states. In his bronze Crouching Woman (1880-1882) an almost incredibly contracted pose becomes something beyond a mere mannerism. The cramped posture of the woman suggests humility, perhaps a conviction of debasement.
One of Rodin's most ambitious conceptions was the group commissioned by the municipality of Calais as a civic monument. The Burghers of Calais (1884-1886), a group larger than life size, commemorates the episode during the Hundred Years War when a group of local citizens agreed to sacrifice their lives to save their city. The pathos and horror of the subject accord with the romantic sentiments of the time. One of the figures clutches his head, another exhorts his companion, an older man walks stoically ahead. Each of the burghers is individualized, even while they all move ahead to a common purpose. The psychological interactions of the figures were acutely observed, and a lifelike immediacy was achieved. The group was finally installed in 1895.
From the late 1880s Rodin received many commissions from private individuals for portrait busts and from the state for monuments commemorating renowned people. Most of the state commissions exist in the state of models, such as the monument to Victor Hugo (begun 1889), which was to have been placed in the Panthéon in Paris, and the monuments to James McNeill Whistler, Napoleon, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Among Rodin's portrait busts are those of George Bernard Shaw, Henri Rochefort, Georges Clémenceau, and Charles Baudelaire.
In the Head of Baudelaire (1892), as in his other portraits, Rodin went beyond mere verisimilitude to catch the inner spirit. Baudelaire's face looks ahead with rapt attention, and the eyes seem to be transfixed upon something invisible. Remarkably, Rodin used as his model not Baudelaire, who had died in 1867, but a draftsman named Malteste, who, for the sculptor, had all the characteristics of the Baudelairean mask: "See the enormous forehead, swollen at the temples, dented, tormented, handsome nevertheless…."
In 1891 the Societé des Gens de Lettres commissioned Rodin to do a statue of Honoré de Balzac, a work that was subsequently rejected. It was not until 1939 that this work was placed at the Raspail-Montparnasse intersection in Paris. Here, too, Rodin went beyond the external appearance of the subject to catch the inner spirit. As is seen in a bronze of 1897, Balzac, wrapped in his dressing gown, is in the throes of inspiration. Details and articulations of the body are not indicated, all the better to call attention to the haughty yet grandiloquent pose of the inspired writer.
Almost single-handedly Rodin inaugurated the modern spirit in sculpture by freeing it from its dependence upon direct representation and conceiving of sculptural masses as abstract volumes existing in space. To conceive of his aims as being analogous to those of the impressionist painters is not entirely correct, for while the roughness of the surfaces of his sculpture may be connected with the loose handling of the painters, Rodin's painfully slow, intense realizations of the inward spirit of his subjects are foreign to the surface effects of most of the impressionists.
Rodin matured slowly, and his first principal work, the Age of Bronze, was not made until he was past 35, yet he achieved fame in his lifetime. After 1900 he knew intimately many of the great men of his time, and his apprentices included Antoine Bourdelle and Charles Despiau. In 1916 Rodin bequeathed his works to the state. He died in Meudon on Nov. 17, 1917.
Gates of Hell and Related Compositions
The Gates of Hell was conceived in the tradition of the great portals of Western art, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise in Florence. Rodin was unable to plan the Gates as a total organized design, and they remained a loose federation of groups. Yet certain of the isolated figures or groups of figures, when enlarged and executed separately, became some of Rodin's finest pieces: Three Shades (1880), Crouching Woman (1885), the Old Courtesan (1885), the Kiss (1886), and the Thinker (1888).
The Thinker on the upper lintel of the Gates regards the debauchery and despair in the sections below. The Thinker was formally inspired by Michelangelo's terribilita', and the motif of the right elbow crossed over the left thigh derives from Michelangelo's Medici tombs. In this piece Rodin conceived of man as beset by intellectual frustrations and incapable of acting: the figure is self-enclosed, completely introverted.
The Three Shades on the top of the portal also derives from Michelangelo, especially from the figures of the Slaves, but instead of repeating the inner torment of Michelangelo's figures, they seem beset by languor and utter despair.
The Kiss was derived from one of the pairs of intertwined lovers on the Gates. The over-life-sized marble figures, sitting on a mass of roughhewn marble, seem to emerge out of the unfinished block in the manner of Michelangelo. But the surfaces of the bodies of the lovers are soft and fluid and suggest the warmth of living flesh. As seen in the Kiss, Rodin was capable of unabashed eroticism.
The Old Courtesan, based on a study of an aged Italian woman, may have been inspired by a poem of François Villon. Here Rodin showed through the sagging breasts, wrinkled skin, and phlegmatic gestures a completely different conception of the human female form, but the response of the observer is not one of revulsion. In this old, tottering body Rodin captured not ugliness but an uncommon sort of beauty.
Albert E. Elsen, Rodin (1963), is a well-documented study of Rodin as the great innovator in 19th-century sculpture, with particular emphasis on the Gates of Hell. Elsen's Auguste Rodin: Readings on His Life and Works (1965) contains writings about Rodin by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was his secretary, and by Truman H. Bartlett and Henri Dujardin-Beaumetz. Other studies of Rodin include Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin (1945), and Denys Sutton, Triumphant Satyr: The World of Auguste Rodin (1967). Sommerville Story, Rodin and His Works (1951), and Robert Descharnes and Jean-François Chabrun, eds., Auguste Rodin (1967), are valuable for their illustrations. For background consult Louis W. Flaccus, Artists and Thinkers (1916), and Sheldon Cheney, Sculpture of the World: A History (1968). □
The French sculptor Auguste Rodin created his sculptures largely as volumes existing in space, as materials to be controlled for a variety of surface effects. By doing this he anticipated the aims of many twentieth-century sculptors.
François Auguste Rodin, the son of a police inspector, was born in Paris, France, on November 12, 1840. A shy child, Rodin showed little interest in anything besides drawing, and by the time he turned thirteen he had decided to dedicate his life to becoming an artist.
Rodin studied drawing under Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran and modeling under the sculptor Jean Baptiste Carpeaux at the School of Decorative Arts in Paris (1854–1857). At the same time Rodin studied literature and history at the College de France. Rejected three times by a well-known art school, he supported himself by doing decorative work for ornamentalists and set designers.
In 1864 Rodin began to live with the young seamstress Rose Beuret, whom he married the last year of his life. Also in 1864 he completed his Man with a Broken Nose, a bust of an old street porter, which the Salon (French art gallery) rejected. That year he entered the studio of Carrier-Belleuse, a sculptor who worked in the light rococo, or elaborate, mode of the previous century. Rodin remained with Carrier-Belleuse for six years and always spoke warmly of him. In 1870 he and his teacher went to Brussels, Belgium, where they began the sculptural decoration of the Bourse.
The human figure
In 1875 Rodin went to Italy, where he was deeply inspired by the work of Donatello (c. 1386–1466) and of Michelangelo (1475–1564), whose sculpture he characterized as being marked by both "violence and constraint." Back in Paris in 1876, Rodin made a bronze statue of a standing man raising his arms toward his head in such a way as to project an air of uncertainty. Rodin originally entitled the piece the Vanquished, then called it the Age of Bronze. When he submitted it to the Salon, it caused an immediate controversy, for it was so lifelike that it was believed to have been cast from the living model. The piece was unusual for the time in that it had no literary or historical meaning.
In 1878 Rodin began work on the St. John the Baptist Preaching and various related works, including the Walking Man. Influenced partially by some of Donatello's late works, it was based on numerous poses of the model in constant motion. Rodin raised the very act of walking into a subject worthy of concentrated study.
By 1880 Rodin's fame had become international, and that year the French government hired him to design a doorway for the proposed Museum of Decorative Arts. The project, called the Gates of Hell after Dante's (1265–1321) Inferno, occupied Rodin for the rest of his life, and particularly in the next decade, but it was never finished. The gates were cast in their incomplete state in the late 1920s.
The Gates of Hell was conceived in the tradition of the great portals (gateways) of Western art, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti's (1378–1455) Gates of Paradise in Florence, Italy. Rodin was unable to plan the gates as a complete organized design and they remained a loose collection of groups. Yet certain of the isolated figures or groups of figures, when enlarged and executed separately, became some of Rodin's finest pieces: Three Shades (1880), Crouching Woman (1885), the Old Courtesan (1885), the Kiss (1886), and the Thinker (1888).
From the late 1880s Rodin received many commissions from private individuals for portrait busts and from the state for monuments recognizing well-known people. Among Rodin's portrait busts are those of playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), writer Henri Rochefort (1830–1913), and poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867).
In the Head of Baudelaire (1892), as in his other portraits, Rodin went beyond mere realism to catch the inner spirit. Baudelaire's face looks ahead with strict attention, and the eyes seem to be transfixed (concentrated) upon something invisible.
Rodin matured slowly, and his first principal work, the Age of Bronze, was not made until he was past thirty-five, yet he achieved fame in his lifetime. After 1900 he knew intimately many of the great men of his time, and his apprentices included Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929) and Charles Despiau (1874–1946). In 1916 Rodin left his works to the state. He died in Meudon, France, on November 17, 1917.
For More Information
Grunfeld, Frederic R. Rodin: A Biography. New York: Holt, 1987.
Sutton, Denys. Triumphant Satyr: The World of Auguste Rodin. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967.