Auguste Rodin: founder of impressionism in sculpture
The French sculptor Auguste Rodin was not a rebel and did not want to break traditions or revolutionise art. He was interested in showing character and emotions rather than decorative beauty and historical events. He emphasised the individual through his features, stubbornly disregarding his clients’ requests. He influenced the development of 20th Century sculpture more than any other artist of his time, paving the way for the modern era.
Rodin discarded Greek mythology and decorative work, and went deep to convey suffering, joy, pensiveness, anxiety or unfulfilled passion. He focused on the individual through the physical texture and the interplay of shadow and light. As expected, his work was met with resistance and he was criticised for the informal poses of his models and for treating heroes and common people similarly. Rodin was born in 1840 to middle class parents, and this year marks the centennial of his death in 1917. He started drawing at ten, and at 15 began serious art classes. In 1964, his sister’s death affected him so much that he decided to give up worldly life and join the Catholic order. Fortunately, the head of the congregation detected his artistic talent and convinced him to leave the order and go back to his sculpture.
For a long time the French artist’s work was not appreciated, and needing a job, he accepted work in Brussels to decorate the ceiling of the stock exchange building. He was away from France for six years and saved enough money to visit Italy, where the masterpieces of Michelangelo completely transformed him. He later said:” It is Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture.”
In 1864, Rodin met Rose Beuret, his lifetime companion whom he married in 1917, a month before she passed away and a few months before he joined her. Rodin had many affairs, but his relationship with his student Camille Claudel was the most intense and turbulent. He met her in 1883 when she was 18; she was a good sculptor and helped him in his commissions and posed for him. Several films have been made on the two famous artists’ perturbed affair. She left him in 1898, and later had a nervous breakdown and was confined by her family to a mental institution until her death in 1943.
In 1864 Rodin submitted to the Salon de Paris his sculpture The Man with the Broken Nose. It was a bust of the street porter of the neighbourhood who had a flat, crooked nose. Also, the back of the head of the sculpture was missing from a fall. Typical of what Rodin did with many of his works, it was unfinished. Predictably, the judges refused it.
Not until 1880 did the French get interested in Rodin’s work, and the ministry of Fine Arts commissioned him a monumental
portal for a future museum of decorative art. He worked on The Gate of Hell for four decades, and it was never finished and the museum was never built. It depicted scenes from Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic poem Divine comedy. He made 186 figures, many of which became famous as independent works, like The Thinker, The Kiss, The Three Shades, The Falling Man or The Prodigal Son. This was the start of his renown, and of overcoming poverty. The state also gave him a free studio to work in.
The city of Calais in Northern France wanted to commemorate a subject whose patriotic theme kindled Rodin’s interest. Historically, during the Hundred Years’ War, King Edward III besieged Calais and decreed he would spare the people if six notables came forward barefooted, bareheaded and with ropes round their necks. When they arrived, the queen begged her husband to spare their lives. Rodin portrayed fear and distress on the men’s faces, which the commissioners did not appreciate, as they expected a heroic theme. Rodin was ready to give up the project rather than make the changes they wanted. They finally accepted it. He made several slightly different copies, and in 1889 the first one was displayed at a square in Calais. It is one of the best known and loved of his work.
Another internationally admired sculpture is The Thinker. Created originally for The Gate of Hell, its greatness lies in its rough physicality and its emotional tension. Rodin said of his Thinker: “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, …but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”
For a monument of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, commissioned after his death, Rodin had trouble deciding what to do with Balzac’s well-rounded body. After many studies, he made a full-length nude wearing a robe (getting a replica from Balzac’s tailor). It was so badly received, that he decided to pay back the money and place it in his garden. In 1939, long after his death, the monument was cast in bronze and exposed publicly.
Busts were important for the sculptor and gave him recognition and financial independence. He made more than 56 busts between 1877 and his death. Among the famous people who posed for him were George Bernard Shaw, Gustav Mahler and George Clemenceau. He would make his subject in clay and cast it in plaster, bronze or marble, a reason there are many copies of his work. He also painted around 7.000 drawings as well as oils and watercolours, chalk and charcoal.
Rodin’s incomplete works influenced the abstract movement of the 20th Century. He became a beacon to later generations; he was especially loved and appreciated in England, and on the day of his burial, a mass was given in his honour at Westminster Abbey in London.
Rodin in his studio
“The Thinker” Plaster (1880)
Balzac Plaster (1897)
The Burghers of Calais (1889)
“The Cathedral” (1908)
Mask of the Man with the broken nose (1864)
Mask of Camille Claudel (1898)