There are many historical events that have happened in November, on the 12th November 1944, 32 British Lancaster bombers finally sank the German battleship, the Tirpitz after 2 years of trying. On the same day in 1946 the first drive through bank was opened in the USA. Also, on this day in 1840 Auguste Rodin was born and would change the face of sculpture for those who would be set to follow.
The founder of modern sculpture was born in Paris and was largely self-educated until he attended the Petite Ecole at the 14. He had started to teach himself to draw at the age of 10, which held him in good stead in this school, which specialised in art and mathematics. His teacher, Horace Lecoq de Boisaudran, was a great believer in allowing his students to develop their personality and draw from recollection which Rodin would show his appreciation for in later life.
In 1857, Rodin put forward a clay sculpture in an effort to gain entry to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and a further 2 submissions were also declined. Entry requirements were not particularly high to this school, so these were considered as setbacks to Rodin, but what he failed to appreciate was that the judges were perhaps not ready for his style, preferring neoclassical sculpture to what he had submitted.
From here, Rodin made a living as a craftsman and ornamentor, producing decorative objects and embellishments for most of the next twenty years. There was an interlude where, after his sister Maria died of peritonitis in 1862, Rodin blamed himself as he had introduced her to an unfaithful suitor, so he joined a catholic order. Saint Peter Julian Eymard recognised that Rodin was not cut out for this lifestyle and encouraged him to return to art, so Rodin left the order and returned to working as a decorator while also taking a class in animal sculpture.
In1864, Rodin began to live with Rose Beuret, and he had an ongoing relationship with her throughout his life, although this was to varying levels of commitment. The couple had a son who was born in 1866 called Auguste-Eugene Beuret, but Rodin’s relationship with him would be distant. Rodin had several relationships alongside that with Rose, notoriously with Camille Claudel who was a student of his, but became his muse and lover. The relationship was turbulent and ended when Rodin didn’t leave Rose and Claudel had to have an abortion. Despite the breakup in 1892, Rodin and Claudel continued to see each other until 1898.
Rodin and Rose spent time living between Brussels and Paris with Rodin visiting Italy for some months, but they finally settled in Paris in 1877. While living in Brussels, Rodin had started “The Age of Bronze” which is a sculpture of a life size man. This gained him some recognition, but also bought about charges of a fake, as people felt it was too good and had been cast from a real human.
The accusations of being a fake would stick with Rodin, and his works would either be much larger or much smaller than real life moving forwards. “The Age of Bronze”, Rodin had used a solider to model for the piece and many of the photos used for the sculpture can be seen in the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. The stance had been modelled on Michelangelo’s “The Dying Slave”.
In Paris, Rodin initially earned his living collaborating with more well-known sculptors, primarily on public commissions and neo-baroque architectural pieces. In 1880 he was offered a part time design position at the national porcelain factory and he immersed himself in designing vases and table decorations which bought the factory notoriety throughout Europe.
In 1880, Rodin won a commission for a portal which would be used in the museum of decorative arts. Rodin dedicated nearly 40 years to the design and creation of the portal called “The Gates of Hell” and while the museum was never actually built, many of the sculptures became stand alone pieces in their own right such as “The Kiss” and “The Thinker”. The Gates remain in the Musee Rodin and replicas have been made and places across the world, including sites in Tokyo, Mexico City and Zurich.
While Rodin worked on “The Gates of Hell”, he did take on other commissioned work, such as “The Burghers of Calais”, which commemorated the sacrifice of six men during the hundred year war, were Calais was under siege by Britain for around eleven months. The sculpture took Rodin around five years to complete, and was met with criticism from the people of Calais as it had depicted all six men, and lacked the heroism that they expected from the statue, as rather than showing valour and glory, it instead depicted pain and anguish of the situation of sacrifice. Rodin saw their act of self-sacrifice as heroic in itself and therefore didn’t need to be glorified. The sculpture was made to go at ground level, but it was eventually placed on a plinth in front of a public park, which was against Rodin’s wishes as he wanted people to almost bump into the figures and feel solidarity with them. Replicas of the figures have since been made and displayed across the globe, in differing levels so that viewers can enjoy the statues at many different angles.
Controversy did not end there for Rodin, who also suffered criticism of his monument to Balzac. Rodin was commissioned to create this sometime after the authors death, and it was a fairly challenging piece due to the rotund physique of the author. Rodin created many studies for this piece, in many different formats, but eventually chose to display the author in a draped cloak, staring off into the distance. Criticizing the work, Morey (1918) reflected, “there may come a time, and doubtless will come a time, when it will not seem outre to represent a great novelist as a huge comic mask crowning a bathrobe, but even at the present day this statue impresses one as slang.” Modern critics mark this as one of Rodin’s masterpieces.
Rodin’s work naturally ran into criticism, as the way that he worked, turned his back on years of classical composition which came from the Greek depictions of people, who all looked figuratively perfect; he was more concerned with character and expression coming through his work. This was a drastic change for his audiences of the day, who mostly expected the refined and well turned out work that they had seen of the past. What they were failing to appreciate was the emotion and physical attributes that Rodin really focused in on.
“The Thinker”, as an example, really concentrates on the forward leaning stance of the man. The rigidness of his back, the curled toes, the clenched muscles of his arms and legs as well as the expression of concentration and perplexity across the mans face. Rodin favoured allowing his models to wonder around his study naked, and he would take notes and sketches of them in natural poses, which all fed into the final result.
By the late 1800s, Rodin had started to make a name for himself, as audiences accepted his natural fluidity in his statues, but he was yet to break America. This would come when he came to know Sarah Tyson Hallowell. Hallowell was not only a curator, but also an advisor to many influential Americans. She would regularly travel to Paris to arrange exhibitions where Rodins work crept in.
His next opportunity in America was the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Hallowell wanted to help promote Rodin, and suggested that he have a solo exhibition, although this was impossible, but she worked out a way to display some of his work. Some of the pieces that Rodin chose to display where nudes, which caused more controversy for the artist, and they had to be displayed behind a curtain and those who wanted to view would have to get permission to do so. Despite the “hidden pieces”, his non-nudes were displayed, and his name started to spread through America.
While nothing sold from this display, very soon after, Charles Yerkes bought two large marble pieces from Rodin. Other art collectors then quickly followed suit.
In Rodin’s last few years, he concentrated on smaller studies and erotic drawing, over defining the male and female form.
In January 1917, Rodin finally married Rose, who sadly died two weeks later. In the November of the same year Rodin died of Influenza, although his secretary would later publish a book which said he died from the cold as he had no heating where he was staying. Rodin was 77.
A cast of “The Thinker” was used as his head stone and epitaph as per his wishes. Rodin left the plaster casts of his sculptures to France, encouraging them to make iterations of his work which is why so many pieces can be found in private and public collections.
Rodin has been noted as the most important modern sculptor, due to the way in which he changed the norm, and the almost unfinished look lends itself to his style leaning into the abstract.
Rodin’s work carries his influence and has pushed his sculptures to be timeless classics, transcending era as he was interested in the human condition over fashion and perfection.