François Auguste René Rodin: biography
François Auguste René Rodin: the works
L’Homme au nez cassé (The Man with the Broken Nose)
In 1864 Rodin entered the atelier of the sculptor Carrier-Belleuse and that same year he sent this statue of TheMan with the Broken Nose to the Salon. It was rejected by the reviewing committee which probably thought the statue was overly realistic and anti-academic as it was clearly based on a live model. The bronze head, the portrait of a man called Bibi, reveals profound respect for classical sculptural models, and at the same time it is audaciously original. The working class man portrayed with the dignity of an ancient Roman philosopher could be considered in harmony with the socialist spirit of the works of “realist” artists such as Courbet or Daumier during the eighteen forties and fifties. Furthermore, Rodin had perceived that this first attempt on his part would mark a drastic turning point in the style he had followed up to then. The final result comes from a terracotta original that showed some clear technical inaccuracies on the back of the head. Instead of correcting the flaw or abandoning the piece Rodin decided to consider it an expressive element and event sent it to the Salon. Only after its failure to be accepted did Rodin decide to recast it. A later version – a marble bust – that was much more “finished” was accepted by the Salon in 1875. This statue became one of the earliest components of his vast repertory of shapes, an assortment of human body parts that he would later use in all his works in a variety of sizes and compositions.
This is the original model that Rodin used for The Gates of Hell where it occupied the central position in the rectangular tympanum of the portal. Behind him there is a multitude of smaller figures in different, varyingly dramatic poses. The direct inspiration came from the second circle of The Inferno where Minos sits in judgment of the souls the new sinners of the flesh. Separated from the support of the door, and enlarged, this figure became one of Rodin’s most famous works. The bronze version was made through a public subscription and placed in front of the Pantheon in Paris. It was considered too small for that site, so it was moved to the garden of the Musée Rodin at the Hotel Biron in 1922. Rodin loved Dante’s epic poem that served as his inspiration for many beautiful drawings: “I have an unequaled admiration for Dante (…). Dante was not only a visionary and a writer; he was also a sculptor.” And it was precisely to the Florentine that Rodin wanted to refer with this statue of a Thinker, that is also known as The Poet, as the fulcrum of the door. Like an elegant antihero, a symbol of contemporary culture, he represents thought, the meditative process that precedes the creative act, the man who, inspired by a mysterious illumination, gives life to the primary idea. The nude figure, that is anatomically perfect in its muscular tensions recalls the classic shapes of the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican and the heroic forms of Michelangelo’s Moses. The mode of giving formal expression to the concept of thought through the contraction of each muscle also makes the sculpture extremely modern and almost alive.
The Gates of Hell
This plaster model, conserved in the Musée d’Orsay, is the complete model of the monumental bronze Gates of Hell commissioned in 1880. It was made by Léonce Bénédite (the first curator of the Rodin Museum) in 1917, the year of the master’s death. Destined for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs that was then in the planning phase, the ornamental door was to be decorated with bas-reliefs inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Initially the artist had thought of separate panels, like Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry in Florence. Then he turned to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel because of the greater compositional freedom of the figures in open space. By the time he started the second sketch Rodin had eliminated the subdivisions and animated the surfaces with countless fluctuating figures inspired only by The Inferno, the preferred portion of the Comedy because of its obscurity and mystery that were further accentuated by Baudelaire’s interpretation that the artist also took into account. Only a few of the figures can be accurately identified, Paolo and Francesca, Count Ugolino and His Sons, the Shades (on the upper frame) and Dante himself in the figure of the Thinker in the center of the frieze and the focus of the entire composition. The entire project was supposed to have been completed in three years, but it became an “open-ended” piece in the sense that the individual figures or tutto tondo groups were created continuously (enlarged or reduced, in plaster, marble or bronze) and displayed individually or reused for new compositions. Because of its formal and poetic freedom it remains a work without precedent or successors.
The reference model for this group can be traced to the drawings of the figures for The Gates of Hell, the grandiose public commission of 1880 that he never actually completed. Specifically, this small bronze would seem to be a variation of the Two Embracing Figures or of Paolo and Francesca, both groups of embracing lovers created for The Gates that reappear in I Am Beautiful and The Kiss. All these statues, be they small or monumental, testify to Rodin’s inexhaustible creativity in inventing shapes and figures that throb with life, concentrated in a sensual intertwining of bodies with true poetic tension. Although this Eternal Spring was never placed on The Gates of Hell, it became one of Rodin’s most popular works along with The Kiss, because of its sentimental and romantic immediacy and the lack of drama that characterizes other less polished and clean works that emanate more of a Michelangelesque tension. The passionate embrace is captured in a theatrical and lyrical dimension, especially because of the crossed positions of the two figures, the male with one arm and one leg extending outwards, and the female kneeling as in the Torso of Adele. Like many of Rodin’s sculptures, this statue was reproduced and copied in different sizes by various foundries with the master’s consent.
Les Bourgeois de Calais (The Burghers of Calais)
The dramatic sculptural group of The Burghers of Calais is a unique and original monument in that, instead of celebrating a single heroic character, it portrays six men of equal importance captured, as it were, in their individuality and joined by their collective heroism. This sculpture was commissioned by the mayor of the city of Calais to reaffirm the city’s bonds with its past in the face of spreading industrialization. It was financed by a national subscription managed by a committee that was dissolved in 1886 leaving Rodin free of any influence. The theme was linked to an episode in the city’s history from the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337 to 1475). In 1347 Edward III of England offered to spare Calais that had been abandoned by Philip VI and besieged by the English troops, if the city’s illustrious men would go before the king barefoot, in shirts and with ropes around their necks and give him the keys to the city before they were executed. The six figures were placed on a pedestal while Rodin, as he wrote, would have preferred “the statues to stand in line, one behind the other, in front of the City Hall, on the pavement, like a living capital of suffering and sacrifice.” Each of the six sculptures was designed individually with its own expression of pathos and anguish and together they comprise one of the artist’s most fascinating and vibrant works.
The couple was an inexhaustible source of sculptural ideas for Rodin. This marble group is considered the most classic of his works, partly because of the source of inspiration, the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno that recalls the doomed love of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini. Notwithstanding the grandiosity of the inspiration, the piece was carved with moderation without mannerisms or false sentimentality. He had made an earlier, small version for The Gates of Hell in 1886, which was most favorably received when he showed it in Paris in 1887. The French government then decided to finance the marble version to transpose the subject into monumental form for the Universal Exposition of 1889. But when Rodin exhibited The Kiss (only in 1898 along with the statue of Balzac) he was not very satisfied because he considered it very academic. Even the Austrian poet, Rilke, who had been Rodin’s secretary for a while, expressed a rather unconvinced opinion: “The embrace of The Kiss is definitely graceful, but I did not find anything in this group. It is a topic treated according to tradition; a subject that is complete in itself, but isolated from the rest of the world that carries it along.” Thanks to its balanced shapes and sensuality, it did bring the artist considerable success. Along with the Eternal Spring he authorized a foundry to reproduce it in four different sizes.
The features of this female head that emerges from a barely roughed block of marble belong to the sculptress Camille Claudel (1856-1943) who at just twenty-two years of age became Rodin’s pupil, then his mistress and model and soon his studio assistant. The complex personality of the beautiful Camille and her strong, sensitive spirit are highlighted in this portrait with its serious, absorbed and melancholy expression. The head-cover is a Breton cap and contributes to creating an air of austerity in the smooth and polished face in contrast to the material roughness of the marble block, the lower and “corporeal” part of the whole sculpture. Rodin’s great passion for Camille was a solid inspiration for many pieces that portray her with a careful and profound psychological study. The decision to portray her with a traditional Brittany cap – which is actually a bridal headdress symbolizing the intransigence of the faith that Rembrandt and Van Gogh had portrayed before Rodin – was obviously motivated by the image of Camille’s strong character. In fact, the piece is entitled The Thought as if to emphasize the intellectual virtues and great female energy that characterized her life that she lived intensely and without compromises. Her tormented affair with Rodin lasted for about fifteen years (from 1882 to around 1899) but it had a sad epilogue for Camille who spent the last years of her life in a psychiatric hospital.
Model for the Monument to Victor Hugo
The most important of the many technical-formal and mainly ideal and conceptual innovations introduced by Rodin was the public monument which, starting with David d’Angers was supposed to educate by evoking the memory of great men. Rodin did not merely describe the subject through his physiognomical features and the historical context to be remembered. Instead he tried to render his profound sentiments and thoughts. In addition to the famous monument to Balzac, the most important of his great projects (that was never completed) is the monument to Victor Hugo that was commissioned in 1889 for the Panthéon. The new monument to the writer commissioned in 1891 for the Luxembourg gardens portrays Hugo nude, immersed in thought with his arms open, like God the Creator in Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel. The Muses were added later, they were part of the order, but the artist did not approve. The statue was unveiled in the gardens of the Palais Royal on 30 September 1909, eighteen years after it had been ordered.
The Hand of God
With this statue Rodin, whom the poet Rilke defined as a “dreamer whose dream goes up through his hands,” wanted to symbolize a concept that was very dear to him, the revelation of the artist’s creative process. The sculptor comes close to God, the ultimate creator and modeler of bodies. The hand of God is the hand that shaped material, the earth, marble, it is the hand of the sculptor, the hand of Rodin who gave life to his still sleeping, dreaming creations. That is exactly how the two intertwined bodies, that are still part of the formless material from which they come, ready to be brought to life by the large hand that holds them seem to be. It is a work of the imagination that does not resolve itself in the conventional plastic sense alone, it requires the artist’s self-referencing concept. He identified himself as a divine genius of sculpture with a monumental creative hand. This piece is also known as Creation and it seems that the idea of representing God through a hand is derived from Medieval painting in which God the Father was often evoked by two hands appearing through a cloud on high. The structure of the hand is identical to one of the Burghers of Calais and this confirms one of the characteristics of Rodin’s art that was the reutilization of parts of figures in various expressive contexts. Even the theme of the couple, a favorite of Rodin’s, recurs in the intertwining of the two nude bodies.
Kneeling Torso in a Basin
By the time he made this statue Rodin had become an avid art lover and collector of paintings, marbles, bronzes, Medieval sculpture, works by his contemporaries such as Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir, and above all of ancient objects such as terracottas, wood, glass, ivory and hundreds of Greek, Roman and Egyptian vases. At that point he considered himself so much as one with antiquity that he often assembled ancient pieces with his creations. Here, for example, in a Greek basin is a plaster figurine modeled by Rodin, a headless, armless female nude, a kneeling Venus, a classical fragment that is not classical. The combination of ancient and modern that almost blend into one seems to have a “post-modern” flair for the contemporary observer. What we can define as the “poetics of the fragment” was always a feature of Rodin’s art, and the words of Rilke when he visited the studio at Meudon for the first time, clarify the motivations: “Suddenly you understand that considering the body as a whole is the task of the scientist, while it is up to the artist, starting from these elements, to create new relationships, new entities that are bigger, more legitimate and more eternal; and this inextinguishable wealth, this infinite invention perpetuates this presence of the spirit, this purity and this vehemence of expression, this youth, this gift of having something that is always different, of continuously improving, so to speak, the human story without any equal.”Iconography
The Walking Man
During the final years of his career, Rodin turned to the study of ancient art, the clear reference for this unusual and deliberately mutilated statue that is almost a “fragment.” The piece is the result of an assemblage in the late eighteen nineties of the legs of St. John the Baptist, and a study for a male torso. At the Exposition of 1900 it had been featured – in a smaller size - atop a column and entitled St. John the Baptist. Enlarged in 1905, it was given its definitive title, The Walking Man, two years later; a title that is generic, descriptive, classically ascetic and lacking any iconographic connotation. Henry Moore defined this statue as a “sort of self-portrait of Rodin,” as it seems to express an essential, precise human and sculptural ideal as if it were a summary of an individual poetic. The “unfinished” statue evokes the classical fragment, like the Venus of Milo, but at the same time it reveals a modern concept of formal minimalism and goes beyond the realistic description. The essence of this energetic headless, armless sculpture is the concept of motion: the feet are firmly anchored to the ground, but they are captured in a continuum of movement that rises up the muscular legs to the springing torso. This extraordinary “simultaneous” sense of the body in motion seems to herald the studies that Boccioni and the Italian Futurists would delve into deeply just a few years later.
After the turn of the century Rodin did many portraits of high society figures – mainly from England and America – as they were a not insignificant source of income. Lady Sackville was an English noblewoman, a loyal friend of Rodin, who maintained a lengthy correspondence with the artist that reflected their relationship based on fondness and mutual respect. Rodin began working on the portrait in Paris around 1912 and completed it during the war. It was his last marble sculpture. He believed that no artistic work required more introspection than a portrait and, indeed, he succeeded in creating a profound psychological profile through the subject’s visible, external features. This sculpture is essentially the portrait of a soul since the dreamy image of the woman seems to want to go beyond the material sense of life and reveal her feelings and dreams. The head, tilted to one side, was carved from a barely roughed block of marble. It recalls Michelangelo’s unfinished works, like the antithesis of spirit and material, between the smoothness of the surfaces and the tangibility of the material in its natural state. Contrary to appearances, the unfinished surface of the base was done with precision and deliberateness to achieve this “dramatic” and unadorned effect. On the head, the master began carving the features with the profile working around it 360 degrees to create a simultaneous vision of several viewpoints. The hair reveals the marks of the sculptor’s tools and it blends in with the roughness of the base.