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.
Further Reading on Auguste Rodin
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).