RODIN Collection

 
Auguste Rodin - his life and art


Auguste Rodin is generally recognized as the most important sculptor of the nineteenth century. Born to a family of modest means in 1840 and slow to gain recognition, Rodin nonetheless won five of Franceís largest commissions for monuments during the 1880s and 1890s. During these decades he produced grand public works and a vast oeuvre of drawings and small sculptures. By 1890 Rodin had become the most renowned sculptor in France; by 1900 he had achieved international recognition. His innovations in form and subject matter established his reputation as the first master of modern sculpture. Rodinís fame and productivity have been matched by only one artist in the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso.

Rejected by the state-sponsored art school, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Rodin was one of the few self-taught French sculptors of the nineteenth century. He moved from novice to sculptorís assistant (praticien) without benefit of prolonged academic training. Rodin learned about techniques on the job and about style by studying in the galleries of the Louvre. Devoted to Greek and Roman art, he also studied the masters of the French Renaissance, Germain Pilon (1528-1590) and Pierre Puget (1620-1694). Not averse to learning from more contemporary masters, Rodin looked for guidance to FranÁois Rude (1769-1815), James Pradier (1792-1852), and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875).

Rodinís career can be divided into four phases: training and apprenticeship (1854-76), maturity (1877-89), zenith (1890-1901), and final years (1902-17). Each of these periods was characterized by a defining event. After a decade of living in poverty and working for other sculptors, in 1876 Rodin made a pilgrimage to Italy. His study of antique sculpture, Michelangelo, and other artists of the Italian Renaissance provided the necessary impetus for him to make the transition from Rodin the gifted artisan to Rodin the artist. In 1880, after his submissions to the Salon were accorded modest success, Rodin received the commission for the huge bronze doors for a proposed Musťe des Arts Dťcoratifs. Work on the doors, now known as The Gates of Hell, coincided with Rodinís reading of Baudelaire and Dante, kindred souls who inspired his art of the next decades.

Two great exhibitions, both held in Paris, bracket the height of Rodinís career: the 1889 exhibition at Galerie Georges Petit, which he shared with Claude Monet; and the grand retrospective that he installed in his own pavilion on the pont díAlma for the Universal Exposition of 1900. The Georges Petit exhibition sealed Rodinís position as Franceís premier sculptor and opened doors to collections and museums around the world. After the close of the Universal Exposition in 1901, Rodin reerected his pavilion beside his villa-studio in Meudon. This first "Musťe Rodin," the pavilion was the artistís last completed public project; it became a perpetual monument and salesroom for him. He had become a living legend. Great commercial success and modest innovation marked Rodinís final years, which he devoted largely to creating drawings, assemblages, and small-scale works, and looking after his collections of antique sculpture and contemporary paintings.

The subject of numerous biographies, Rodin remains largely a riddle. Despite the fact that his life is accompanied by vast documentation, the motives of his personal life and career are often difficult to fathom. His personality encompassed the simultaneous expression of intensely private and grandly public personas. In her exhaustive and deeply probing biography of the artist, Ruth Butler summarized his personality as "lonely."1 Conventional in his tastes, he held to the opinions and prejudices of a lower-middle-class upbringing: until the last phase of his life, he preferred to live in humble circumstances without such modern improvements as heat and electric light. Despite modest accommodations and a mind-numbing work schedule, Rodin was never intellectually insular. He accrued a wide knowledge of art and literature and an extraordinary range of human contact. Yet he had few friends. Rather, he had colleagues and defenders-including some of the most powerful cultural personalities and politicians of his day-and enemies in abundance. Although generally awkward in public, Rodin could be courtly and effusive in audiences, elegant and open in his written correspondence and interviews.

The key to Rodinís life was his relationships with women: his strong ties to his sister, who died when he was twenty-two; a lifelong union with Rose Beuret, whom he married only at the very end of their lives; and a heartbreaking affair with Camille Claudel, from which neither participant ever fully recovered. These ties formed the tragic core of a personality that also sought out relationships on many levels with a host of female artists, models, dancers, fortune hunters, grandes dames, and aristocratic soul mates. Throughout his maturity, Rodin was deeply committed to these erotic and intellectual liaisons, attachments that were a primary source of his creativity.

Convinced early on that he was a great artist, Rodin was as determined to establish his reputation as he was prolific and audacious in his production. From 1872 to 1885 Rodin worked incessantly until he gained the status and network necessary to produce major commissions. Especially in his later years, the role of Rodin the entrepreneur who managed several large ateliers and the simultaneous production of multiple commissions drove the Rodin the artist into ever more idiosyncratic refuges. Stays in various hideaways and increasingly emotional approaches to drawing and making small sculpture provided some relief from business and personal pressures. Despite conflicts, rejections, and his ineptitude as a public figure, Rodin managed the most complex career of his age with more skill and success than any other artist of his generation.

Although Rodinís materials and methods for making sculpture were not novel, even his earliest figures are original. To the academic practice of creating a balance between nature and an ideal, Rodin brought three innovations: an equal attention to every detail of the work; an insistence that the figure itself is the subject, not that the figure portrays a subject; and the dynamism supplied by complex asymmetrical axes. Such innovations would have remained intellectual and technical were it not for the genius of Rodinís hands. He had a superb, unmatched gift for modeling clay and plaster. Rodin was able to translate his immense passion for work and his abiding love of the human form into thousands of small and many grand works, the animate patterns of solitary genius.

"Nature" and "movement" were terms used by Rodin as touchstones for making sculpture. Following nature, which Rodin insisted was essential for a work of value, meant working from a model. The initial stages of creating a form involved drawings and clay sketches, which he manipulated until he had selected a pose and scale for a fully modeled work in clay. For both small and large figures, he worked from the live model to develop a series of profiles. Normally, Rodin employed professionals from Paris; however, for commissions with important historical themes, such as The Burghers of Calais, he sought out individuals with the same origins and from the same regions as the historic subjects. To imbue his figures with movement, or "life" (another of his terms), Rodin returned to his models in session after session, making additions, new profiles, and other changes. Only when the clay figure possessed the required movement-in terms of both implied motion and animate surface-did Rodin proceed to make an image in plaster or another medium.

During his career, Rodin pulled hundreds of molds from his clay models. He then made plaster casts from these molds, casts that he would sometimes modify. The majority of Rodinís innovations and refinements involved plaster, the medium he favored not only for experiments and improvements of a work but for first exhibitions in the Paris Salons and gifts to friends and patrons. His involvement in casting his works in bronze was limited to his choice of mold makers, foundries, and patinators, whose work he supervised with exacting care. Perhaps because in his early years he had been required to carve stone for other artists, once successful, Rodin limited his work in marble to shaping key details and adjusting final finishes.2

In theory and practice Rodin emphasized a link, not merely between the physical and the spiritual, but also between the sensual and the spiritual. Such a dynamic had been developed by Renaissance and baroque masters, but Rodinís work is unique in the intensity and omnipresence of sensual themes, in his monuments as well as in his smaller creations. Rodin never tired of female subjects. Their beauty, energy, and sexuality-expressed in figures dancing, falling, walking, and writhing-became the primary themes of the private work of his late years.

These forms, sometimes abbreviated or reduced to a hand or a torso, often repeated with small variations and always animate and sensual, expressed the aesthetics of the fragment, of a work always in process. During the final stages of his career, Rodin learned to abandon, or to release, his forms from completion, rather than force them into a finished state. He also learned to create by assemblage and by subtraction and also that the process of making, rather than of developing explicit meaning, was the primary activity of his art. Rodin distilled this process into the phrase "to work well." The aesthetic of the fragment and the studio as the final shape of art constitute Rodinís legacy for modern sculpture.

Movement and sensuality were not, of course, Rodinís only themes. His great individual figures and best monuments reveal a depth of feeling for humanity and a nobility of thought that place them among the finest works of European sculpture. The human and historic content of The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais transcends the circumstances of their making, establishing a rapport with past masterpieces by Donatello and Michelangelo as well as with works by twentieth-century masters. Rodinís sculpture has an accessibility and breadth often lacking in works by even his most gifted contemporaries. This universality looks forward to the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore.

Rodinís position is now assured, even though it was not so at the end of his life. The momentous changes in art of the first decades of the twentieth century made Rodinís work and way of working seem anachronistic. After his death in 1917, curators at the Musťe Rodin inventoried his collections and issued casts, principally through the Alexis Rudier foundry, but Rodinís reputation went into eclipse between 1930 and 1960. His achievement was so great, however, that beginning in the 1960s a number of extraordinary scholars began to reexamine his life and work. This reevaluation has led to a series of internationally significant exhibitions and publications and to the reestablishment of Rodinís reputation as one of the great masters of European art.


Notes

1. Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius (New Haven and London, 1993), p. 514.

2. The disparity between the content and techniques of Rodinís personal works and these features in his large commissions has been a major point of discussion in scholarship over the last three decades. Modernist critics have generally disparaged the bronzes and marbles because Rodin, in keeping with nineteenth-century academic practice, delegated their execution to his foundry men (fondeurs) and praticiens.
Leo Steinberg and scholars following him conclude that Rodinís achievements are limited to the drawings, clays, and plasters that exhibit his extraordinary command of the materials and through which he developed an aesthetic of movement and sensuality most fully exemplified in the fragments and unevenly finished works. Critics grounded in nineteenth-century art, led by Albert Elsen, by contrast, have proposed that Rodinís greatness is consistent, albeit different, in his personal and public works.