Today is the birthday (1840) of François Auguste René Rodin, renowned French sculptor. Although Rodin is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, he did not set out to rebel against the past. Sculpturally, Rodin possessed a unique ability to model a complex, turbulent, deeply pocketed surface in clay. Many of his most notable sculptures were roundly criticized during his lifetime. They clashed with the predominant figure sculpture tradition, in which works were decorative, formulaic, or highly thematic. Rodin’s most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, modeled the human body with realism, and celebrated individual character and physicality. Rodin was sensitive to the controversy surrounding his work, but refused to change his style. Successive works brought increasing favor from the government and the artistic community.
From the unexpected realism of his first major figure – inspired by his 1875 trip to Italy – to the unconventional memorials whose commissions he later sought, Rodin’s reputation grew, such that he became the preeminent French sculptor of his time. By 1900, he was a world-renowned artist. Wealthy private clients sought Rodin’s work after his World’s Fair exhibit, and he kept company with a variety of high-profile intellectuals and artists. His sculptures suffered a decline in popularity after his death in 1917, but within a few decades, his legacy solidified. Rodin remains one of the few sculptors widely known outside the visual arts community.
Rodin was born in 1840 into a working-class family in Paris, the second child of Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin, who was a police department clerk. He was largely self-educated, and began to draw at age ten. Between ages 14 and 17, Rodin attended the Petite École, a school specializing in art and mathematics, where he studied drawing and painting.
In 1857, Rodin submitted a clay model of a companion to the École des Beaux-Arts in an attempt to win entrance. But he did not succeed, and two further applications were also denied. Given that entrance requirements at the Grande École 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 earned a living as a craftsman and ornamenter for most of the next two decades, producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments.
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 had a son, Auguste-Eugène Beuret (1866–1934). That year, Rodin offered his first sculpture for exhibition, and entered the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful mass producer of objets 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; poverty was a continual difficulty for Rodin until about the age of 30. Carrier-Belleuse soon asked Rodin to join him in Belgium, where they would work on ornamentation for Brussels’ bourse.
Rodin planned to stay in Belgium a few months, but he spent the next six years out of France. It was a pivotal time in his life. He had acquired skill and experience as a craftsman, but no one had yet seen his art, which sat in his workshop because he could not afford castings. 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 led to accusations of sculptural cheating.
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 Rousseau, and Lazare Carnot, all to no avail. On his own time, he worked 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 – gave Rodin a part-time position as a designer. That part of Rodin which appreciated 18th-century tastes was aroused, and he immersed himself in designs for vases and table ornaments that brought the factory renown across Europe. The artistic community appreciated his work in this vein, and Rodin was invited to Paris Salons by such friends as writer Léon Cladel. French statesman Leon Gambetta expressed a desire to meet Rodin, and the sculptor impressed him when they met at a salon. Gambetta spoke of Rodin in turn to several government ministers, likely including Edmund Turquet, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts, whom Rodin eventually met.
Rodin’s relationship 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 Rodin’s most famous, The Thinker and The Kiss. With the museum commission came a free studio, granting Rodin a new level of artistic freedom. Soon, he stopped working at the porcelain factory; his income coming from private commissions.
Although busy with The Gates of Hell, Rodin won other commissions. He pursued an opportunity to create an historical monument for the town of Calais, and was chosen for a monument to French author Honoré de Balzac 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 propelled him toward fame.
The Thinker (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 (700 mm)-high bronze piece created between 1879 and 1889, designed for the Gates of Hell’s 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.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the army of King Edward III besieged Calais, and Edward ordered that the town’s population be killed en masse. He agreed to spare them if six of the principal citizens would come to him prepared to die, bareheaded and barefooted, and with ropes around their necks. When they came, he ordered that they be executed, but pardoned them when his queen, Philippa of Hainault, begged him to spare their lives. 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 centered 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 (1,814 kg), and its figures are 6.6 ft (2 m) tall. The six men portrayed do not display a united, heroic front; rather, each is isolated from his companions, 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 nontraditional proposal, but Rodin would not yield. In 1895, Calais succeeded in having Burghers displayed in their preferred form: 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 best-known and most acclaimed works.
Commissioned to 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 was 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 until 1964.
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 and charcoal, and thirteen drypoints. He also produced a single lithograph.
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), former Argentinian president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and French statesman Georges Clemenceau (1911).
After the revitalization of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890, Rodin served as the body’s vice-president. In 1903, Rodin was elected president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. He replaced its former president, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, upon Whistler’s death. His election to the prestigious position was largely due to the efforts of Albert Ludovici, father of English philosopher Anthony Ludovici, who was private secretary to Rodin for several months in 1906, but the two men parted company after Christmas, “to their mutual relief.”
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.
Fifty-three years into their relationship, Rodin married Rose Beuret. The wedding was 29 January 1917, and Beuret died two weeks later, on 16 February. Rodin was ill that year; in January, he suffered weakness from influenza, and on 16 November his physician announced that “congestion of the lungs has caused great weakness. The patient’s condition is grave.” Rodin died the next 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; it was Rodin’s wish that the figure serve as his headstone and epitaph. In 1923, Marcell Tirel, Rodin’s secretary, published a book alleging that Rodin’s death was largely due to cold, and the fact that he had no heat at Meudon. Rodin requested permission to stay in the Hotel Biron, a museum of his works, but the director of the museum refused to let him stay there.
Rodin willed to the French state his studio and the right to make casts from his plasters. Because he encouraged the edition of his sculpted work, Rodin’s sculptures are represented in many public and private collections. The Musée Rodin was founded in 1916 and opened in 1919 at the Hôtel Biron, where Rodin had lived, and it holds the largest Rodin collection, with more than 6,000 sculptures and 7,000 works on paper.
I could probably dredge up for you a suitable Parisian recipe for you to celebrate Rodin, but I feel an inherent connexion between Rodin, decorative art, and cake making. So instead of a recipe I leave you with two images of wedding cakes using The Kiss as their motif. There’s also a certain ironic twist here in that Rodin had a relationship with the same woman – off and on – for decades and yet only married her weeks before her death.