Happy Birthday Monsieur François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840-1917)

‘Admiration is not spent as a marble wears away. To the poets, to the seekers, to the quiet artists, in the heart of the city’s tumult, you give long moments of refuge.  Ode to Venus by Auguste Rodin, written by him around 1912


Auguste Rodin was born on 12 November, 1840, and died on 17 November, 1917.  He was a French sculptor born in Paris, France. Rodin attended art school at a young age, but unable to advance to a higher education in art, he spent much of his early life working as a craftsman, doing decorative, architectural work.  It wasn’t until receiving a modest museum commission in 1880 that he was able to dedicate himself to his own art full-time.  By 1900, his dominating artistic career was well-established.  A prodigious worker, he remains best known for singular sculptures like The Thinker and The Kiss and his monuments to French writers Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo. While Rodin’s works can be found in museum collections and on public display in cities around the world, the Musee Rodin opened in Paris in his former residence in 1919 and continues to hold the largest single collection of the artist’s work. 
 AN EXCERPT FROM RODIN’S VENUSpublished in 1912. It is sculptor Auguste Rodin’s passionate ode to one of art’s great masterpieces, the Venus de Milo, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. 

“Man may be the forger of his happiness. The Antique and Nature are bound by the same mystery. The Antique it is the human workman arrived at a suprreme degree of mastery. But nature is above him. The mystery of Nature is even more insoluble than that of genius. The glory of the Antique is in having understood Nature. 

O, Venus of Melos, the prodigious sculptor that fashioned you knew how to make the thrill of that generous nature flow in you, the thrill of life itself O, Venus, arch of the triumph of life, bridge of truth, circle of grace!

What splendor in your beautiful torso seated firmly on your solid legs, and in those half tones that sleep upon your breasts, upon your splendid belly, large like the sea! It is the rhythmic beauty of the sea without end…You are in truth the mother of gods and of men.
The generative profile of that torso helps us to understand, reveals to us the proportions of the world. And the miracle is in this, that the assembled profiles, in the sense of depth, of length, and of width, express, by an incomprehensible magic, the human soul and its passions, and the character that shapes the heart of beings.

The ancients have obtained by a minimum of gesture, by their modeling, both the individual character and the grace borrowed from grandeur that relates the human form to the forms of the universal life. 

Modelled by the sea, which is the reservoir of all forces, you enchant us and you sway us by that grace and by that calm which strength alone possesses, and you bestow on us your serenity. It prevails like the charm of melodies powerful and deep. What triumphant amplitude! What vigorous shadows! From the boundaries of the two worlds throngs come to contemplate you, venerated marble; and the twilight deepens in the room that you may be more clearly seen, shining alone, while the silent hours pass, heavy with admiration. Still, you hear your clamors, immortal Venus! Having loved your contemporaries, you belong to us, now, to all of us, to the universe. The twenty-five centuries of your life seem only to have consecrated your invincible youth. And the generations, those waves of the ocean of the ages, to you, victorious over time, come and come again, attracted and recalled irresistibly.’

 Harry C. Ellis, Rodin in front of the showcases of the Pavillon de l’Alma, Meudon, circa 1902

 'You asked me to tell you in a few lines what I think of Rodin. You know what I think, but to say, I would have a talent that I do not own, write to me, not my job. But what I want to tell you, this is my grande admiration for he is unique in time and great among the greatest. The exhibition of his work will be an event.' Claude Monet

Here now are just a few of my favorite Rodin sculptures, mostly well-known and well-loved.

Rodin in his studio, leaning on The Kiss, circa 1888-1889

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)

The Kiss

Circa 1882
H. 181.5 cm ; W. 112.5 cm ; D. 117 cm
S.1002 /Lux.132
Commissioned by the French state in 1888, carved between 1888 and 1898. Joined the collections of the Musée du Luxembourg in 1901; transferred to the Musée Rodin in 1919.

The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy: slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them as they exchanged their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell. This group, designed in the early stages of the elaboration of The Gates , was given a prominent position on the lower left door, opposite Ugolino , until 1886, when Rodin decided that this depiction of happiness and sensuality was incongruous with the theme of his vast project.

He therefore transformed the group into an independent work and exhibited it in 1887. The fluid, smooth modelling, the very dynamic composition and the charming theme made this group an instant success. Since no anecdotal detail identified the lovers, the public called it The Kiss, an abstract title that expressed its universal character very well. The French state commissioned an enlarged version in marble, which Rodin took nearly ten years to deliver. Not until 1898 did he agree to exhibit what he called his “huge knick-knack” as a companion piece to his audacious Balzac , as if The Kiss would make it easier for the public to accept his portrait of the writer.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)

Monument to Balzac

1898, Musee Rodin, Paris, France, Bronze, H. 270 cm ; W. 120.5 cm ; D. 128 cm
S.1296. Cast by Alexis Rudier, 1935, for the museum collections.

Having conducted his research into Balzac’s body and head simultaneously, Rodin ended up with an assemblage in which these two elements conveyed their own values. While the head had evolved from a portrait resembling the writer into a concentration of expressive features , the body had moved in the opposite direction, veering towards a dilution of form in a symphony of nuances materialized in the fluid surface of the dressing gown .

What Rodin finally produced in 1897, after six years of labour, was a revolutionary monument. Stripped of the writer’s usual attributes (armchair, pen,book…), his Balzac was not so much a portrait but a powerful evocation of the visionary genius whose gaze dominated the world, of the inspired creator draped in the monk’s habit he used to wear when writing.

This overly innovative monument caused such an outrage when it was unveiled in 1898 that the commission was cancelled. Rodin never saw his monument cast in bronze.

Final Study of the Monument to Balzac, modeled 1897, this bronze cast 1972 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Auguste Rodin (French, 1840–1917), Bronz,H. 41 3/4 in. (106 cm) Gift of Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, 1984 (1984.364.15)

This study differs little from the finished Monument to Balzac except that it is less than half the size. It was preceded by studies of the dressing gown alone, a simulation of one that Balzac preferred to wear when writing. A study of the full figure wrapped in the dressing gown followed. The final study, simplified and more a symbol than a portrait, attempted to convey a strength of character analogous to the power of Balzac's prose. It has been said that in the attempt, Rodin created the first truly modern sculpture.

 Edward Steichen (1879-1973)

Rodin, the "Monument to Victor Hugo" and "The Thinker"

Bichromated-gelatin print
H. 26 cm ; W. 32.2 cm
Signed : STEICHEN / MDCCCCII (1902)

In 1901, Steichen’s dream came true when he was allowed to make several portraits of Rodin in his studio. He would have liked to photograph the sculptor posing beside two of his major works, Monument to Victor Hugo and The Thinker , all on the same plate. But lack of space made this impossible. The following year, he therefore showed Rodin a photomontage composed of two different images.The sculptor was very impressed by the result: a profile view of him opposite The Thinker  and Victor Hugo .

He laughed at his biographer Judith Clavel’s turn of phrase, “Rodin, between God and the devil”. The photograph was published twice in 1905-06, in the periodical Camera Work, mouthpiece of the American Pictorialist photography movement.The concept behind the picture was highly innovative for the period in which it was taken, since it defied the idea of “realistic illusion”, based on the veracity and accuracy of the content, the underlying canon of 19th-century photography. The Pictorialist image here no longer resembled a conventional photograph and this appealed to Rodin, for montages and assemblages were part of his own working method: “I sketch an arm, a leg, the head. And I stop there… Little by little, the body to which that leg, that arm, that head could be adapted outlines itself in my mind.” (Rodin, 1910).

Marcel Hutin photograph, Unveiling of The Thinker outside the Panthéon, 1906.
The Thinker is erected outside the Panthéon.

My photograph of Rodin's The Burghers of Calais, (French, 1840–1917), Bronze, housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

The Burghers of Calais, commemorating an episode during the Hundred Years' War between England and France, is probably the best and certainly the most successful of Rodin's public monuments. Rodin closely followed the account of the French chronicler Jean Froissart (1333 or 1337–after 1400) stating that six of the principal citizens of Calais were ordered to come out of their besieged city with head and feet bare, ropes around their necks, and the keys of the town and the caste in their hands. They were brought before the English king Edward III (1312–1377), who ordered their beheading. Rodin has portrayed them at the moment of departure from their city led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the bearded man in the middle of the group. At his side, Jean d'Aire carries a giant-sized key. Their oversized feet are bare, many have ropes around their necks, and all are in various states of despair, expecting imminent death and unaware that their lives will ultimately be saved by the intercession of the English queen Philippa. The arrangement of the group, with its unorthodox massing and subtle internal rhythms, was not easily settled, and the completed monument, cast in bronze by the Le Blanc-Barbedienne foundry, was not unveiled in Calais until 1895. The Metropolitan Museum's bronze is a lost-wax casting made from the plaster model in the Musée Rodin in Paris.

My photograph of Eternal Spring by Auguste Rodin. (French, 1840–1917), Marbl. Housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

The torso of the woman in this group is recognizable as that of a model named Adèle Abruzzezzi. Rodin used it repeatedly, and it appears, for example, in a very different context in The Gates of Hell. Eternal Spring is in a lighter vein, however, full of awakening sensuality and implying neither guilt nor punishment to come. The sculpture was extremely popular, and Rodin repeated it often both in marble and in bronze. In 1898, he sold his plaster foundry models with the reproduction rights for this sculpture and its spiritual twin, The Kiss, to the firm of Ferdinand Barbedienne, the commercial foundry. This marble, commissioned from Rodin in 1906 and finished in March 1907, displays the sensuous, veiled quality of carving that creates an impressionistic play of light and shade on the surface of the medium characteristic of the marbles of Rodin's later career.

Please feel free to leave any comments,


Hermes said…
Thank you, not a life I knew much about.
Kevin Marsh said…
Great to learn a bit about Rodin. I saw 'The Kiss' earlier this year at the Turner Centre in Margate.
A fantastic piece of work. It was good to see Rodin working on the piece in the photo. Intersting stuff!
Kimberly Eve said…
You're welcome, Hermes. Thank you for commenting.

Hi Kevin, yes The Kiss is fantastic! I love adding 19th century photographs when I can find them. Thanks for commenting.