Art from the Rodin Museum

The Rodin Museum

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The Formative Years

Born November 12th, 1840, into a family of modest means, August Rodin grew up in the rue Mouffetard neighbourhood of Paris. He was a mediocre student who nonetheless expressed a passion for drawing. At fourteen, he entered the Ecole special de dessin et d’architecture, called la Petite Ecole, as distinguished from the Ecole nationale des beaux-arts.

In his very first year, he won the bronze medal in drawing class and discovered the sensual pleasure of sculpting clay. Working relentlessly from then on, he sought admission to the prestigious heights of academic teaching, but his attempts at the entrance exam to the Ecole des beaux arts met with failure three times. At eighteen, it was time to earn a living. He began creating models for goldsmiths and cabinetmakers and spent his spare time drawing and sculpting. At twenty-two, in 1862, he was profoundly shaken by the death of his sister Maria.

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The Man with the Broken Nose

Back to a secular existence, Rodin was so poor that his first atelier was in a stable. He sculpted like a man possessed, in particular a man with the broken nose that expressed his refusal to idealize reality. The model of The Man with the Broken Nose is an old man, his features worn with age and poverty. The busy wears a wide headband reminiscent of the traditional headgear of philosophers of Antiquity. His clay model translated into marble was finally accepted at the Salon of 1875.

On to Italy

At the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Rodin joined the sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887) in Brussels. Several of the works he sculpted for Carrier-Belleuse still adorn various city monuments there.

1876 marks his first trip to Italy, where he discovered the works of two great Renaissance masters, Donatello and Michelangelo.

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The scandal of The Age of Bronze

The Age of Bronze occasioned the first controversy of an up till then uneventful career. It took Rodin eighteen months to complete this statue that fairly trembled with life, and that he hoped would receive official recognition.

The model Rodin chose for The Age of Bronze was a Belgian soldier of twenty-nine, Auguste Neyt. The figure was life size, standing, the eyes half-closed in suffering and reverie. Initially, Rodin armed him with a lance and titled the work The Vanquished, in reference to the defeat of the war of 1870. The lance removed, now the statue, free of any accessory allusion, told no story and was devoid of all allegory. A pure clay shadow and light with subtle contours analyzed in depth, muscle by muscle, the sculpture was Rodin’s own fervent homage to the masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In Brussels, where the work was exhibited in 1877, critics found the ‘realistic’ work disconcerting. But in Paris, a few months later, Rodin was flatly accused of casting it from nature. This was a current practice in sculpting ateliers that consisted of taking a mould of the body of a model to create a sculpture.

For Rodin, this was an immense blow. Discouraged, his reputation maligned despite abundant and irrefutable evidence of his good faith, at thirty-seven, he went back to working anonymously.

After three difficult years, a petition signed by several people prominent in the art world set this fruitless polemic to rest, and in 1880, The Age of Bronze was purchased by the State. At the age of forty, Rodin at last set out upon a career as a sculptor.

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The Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell, framed by Adam and Eve, is surmounted by a group of three identical figures pointing their arms towards their viewers (The Three Shades). Several convulsive figures, varying in size, are arranged around The Thinker, an allegory of the poet, the creator, or of Dante. At the right of the tympanum, Rodin placed The Meditations; on the left, haggard and tormented by hunger, Ugolino crawls over the cadavers of his children.

Above, a suffering Francesca contemplates the body of her lover Paolo. This group repeats the damned couple, running towards the abyss, a bit lower (Fugit Amor). The Falling Man and The Crouching Woman are depicted above the left ventail.

Many other figures originally created for the Gates, isolated or associated with others, in part or in their entirety, often enlarged and wrought in marble or bronze, would become separate sculptures or serve as the basis for new ones. For the first time, Rodin experimented with fragmentation, assemblage, multiple figures and enlargement, all aspects that would become an integral part of his working method.

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The Thinker

The Thinker is perhaps the best known of all Rodin’s sculptures. The first figure he worked on for the Gates of Hell, The Thinker was exhibited in its original size, just 71.5 cm high, in 1888, then enlarged to its monumental dimensions in 1902 and offered, by subscription, to the State. Its inauguration before the Pantheon on April 21st, 1906, in a climate of political and social crisis made it an emblematic figure of socialism. Later, in 1923, it was transported with its pedestal to the gardens of the Hotel Biron. The concentration and tension of this thinker, rendered universal in his nudity, constitutes a compelling symbol of hope and of faith in mankind.

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The Burghers of Calais

From the initial model, the sculptor was preoccupied with the problem of definition of the character of each of the figures in the group. His search for the physical identity suggesting an actual psychological personality in each, in order to give them individually original expressions in the face of martyrdom, led him to multiply his studies of nudes, of heads and of hands for the second model, and then for the definitive sculpture. As for the base of the monument, Rodin hesitated for some time between two distinct conceptions, each of which would convey a particular meaning depending upon the presence of, on the contrary, the absence of a base. The heroic one was expressed in a work with a pedestal. This was his ultimate choice and the one he finally insisted upon at Calais in 1895. The other conception, lacking a pedestal, gave the observer a closer, more familiar sense of the drama and sorrow expressed by the subject.

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The Gossips

The Gossips was inspired by Camille Claudel’s observation of four women chattering together in the compartment of a train. The artist has perfectly mastered its execution in marble-onyx, an extremely difficult task due to the density of the material; she succeeded in capturing the attitude of the nude figures as they listen and confide.

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The Kiss

Entwined in an embrace, this couple expresses the bliss of passionate love. Rodin had initially modelled it for the Gates of Hell, but since it did not blend harmoniously with the themes and the tormented figures of The Gates, he removed it and transformed it into separate work.

The book that is suggested in the hand of the young man remains an allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy. According to the story, Francesca da Rimini and her Brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta became aware of their mutual love as they were reading a book. Forbidden though it was, they exchanged a kiss that would condemn them to die, forever to wander in Hell.

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The Tower of Labour

As a republican symbol of the advance of social progress, the theme of labour had been a popular one since the 1870s. It predominated in the works of sculptors Jules Dalao (1838-1902) or Constantine Meunier (1831-1905), evoking the condition of workers and peasants; in literature, it was at the heart of Emile Zola’s opus, Germinal, whose protagonists were miners and metallurgists.

The monument was dedicated to the builders of the future. The base of a central column dominated by a group, the Benedictions. Mounting the column in a hierarchy, allegorical bas-relief represents every aspect of human labour, from the most manual, at the bottom, to the most intellectual, depicting artists, at the top.

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Balzac in a Monk’s robe

Ugolino

The Shade

The Little Water Fairy

Le Sommeil

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