Thinking, Thinking…

He’s still thinking!

I know! Cupcakes are the best!

Only a handful of sculptures are sufficiently famous to achieve the dubious honour of reproduction on T-shirts and fridge magnets. Michelangelo’s David probably leads this pack but close behind must be Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Much parodied – the pose seems to invite mocking emulation – the work features in the exhibition in Paris’ Grand Palais which marks the 100th anniversary of the sculptor’s death.

Rodin was the pre-eminent sculptor of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era, and The Thinker and The Kiss are among the most instantly recognizable sculptures in the world.

Yet Rodin did not win recognition easily: he was already 36 when his life-size figure The Age of Bronze was accepted by the Paris Salon. Even then accusations were made that it had not been sculpted but cast from a living figure. The charge was a foretaste of the hostile criticism that was to greet most of his work, and which at first caused him much distress.

Auguste Rodin was born in 1840, the second child and only son of Jean-Baptiste Rodin and Marie Cheffer, first-generation Parisians of modest means. Nothing in his family background or situation suggested that he might become an artist. At age thirteen, however, Rodin decided to enrol in the Ecole Spèciale de Dessin et de Mathématique, a school with the mission to educate the designers and the artisans of the French nation. In the course of his studies, young Rodin articulated larger goals for himself, specifically to become a sculptor. He entered the competition for admission to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts three times, but each time met with failure.

Rodin escaped the rigid Neoclassical training that still dominated its curriculum in the mid 1850s, but forfeited the early success that École graduates were ordinarily assured. Having failed to enter the elite track, a solitary Rodin plied two paths, one to pay his bills, the other to bring him to the attention of the great world of art in Paris. Neither worked well. Although he was engaged in the studio of Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), one of the most visible and productive sculptors in Paris during the Second Empire, Rodin remained quite poor; and though he produced a work in 1863-1864, The Man with the Broken Nose, that he considered an excellent work of sculpture, surely worthy of entry to the Salon, twice it was refused. During this period of ill-starred beginnings, when Rodin was in his twenties, he also assumed family responsibilities. In 1864 he began living with Rose Beuret, who became his lifelong companion. In the same year she gave birth to their only son, Auguste Beuret. It was a period marked by struggle, discontent, and poverty, only brought to an end by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

The war created a situation in which sculptors could hardly hope to find work in Paris. Fortunately for Rodin, Carrier-Belleuse had a major commission in Brussels, where the city was building a new Bourse. Rodin’s Brussels residency began in March 1871. Although his employ with Carrier-Belleuse soon ended, he found a Belgian partner, Joseph Van Rasbourgh (1831-1902), with whom he was able to continue working at the Bourse. The work with Van Rasbourgh developed into a real partnership, with Rodin as the primary administrator responsible for the day-to-day operations of a studio from which some fine public commissions were brought to completion between 1872 and 1874.

Brussels Stock Exchange
Sculpture detail on Brussels Stock Exchange

Rodin’s most notable single figure of his Brussels period, however, was the one he undertook on his own in 1875. His desire to understand the male body combined with his ambition to create an outstanding work that would establish his reputation led Rodin to embark on a month-long trip to Italy between February and March 1876. There he would study the figures of antiquity, of Donatello, and especially those of Michelangelo. The following winter Rodin exhibited this figure in plaster in the rooms of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire in Brussels, calling it Le Vainçu (The Vanquished One). It became his ticket back to Paris, where it was accepted for the Salon of 1877 under the title The Age of Bronze. It is Rodin’s first recognized masterpiece.

The Age of Bronze

The Age of Bronze was a controversial figure, mostly because it looked so close to life that critics raised the question if it might not be a cast from life. One man who admired it unreservedly, however, was Edmund Turquet, a liberal politician serving in the Chambre des Députés, who, in 1879 became Undersecretary of State for fine arts. Turquet was ambitious and hoped to be the commissioner for many public works of art. One of his most unusual ideas was to commission a bronze door for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs – unusual because no such museum existed, although there was much talk about creating one. Turquet offered his strange commission to Rodin. The museum was never built and the door was never cast in Rodin’s lifetime, but The Gates of Hell – as we now call it – was Rodin most important work. It was the canvas across which would pass the totality of his imagination; it was the surface from which he would draw the creations of an entire career.

The Gates of Hell

The decade of the 1880s, when Rodin was in his forties, was the most intense and productive of his entire life. It was the time when he modelled the majority of the figures for his “doors”, as he called them. The title, The Gates of Hell, was one that began to appear in the writing of several critics around 1886-1889.

The Gates of Hell detail

The Gates of Hell feature hundreds of figures modelled in low- to high-relief and even nearly in-the-round. The imagery in Rodin’s Gates was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. With Dante as his inspiration, Rodin created a mash pit of tormented souls; it presented not only the underworld but also the suffering of humankind in general.

The composition of The Gates was inspired by the long tradition of compartmentalized church doors, specifically the doors to the Baptistery in Florence. These, called The Gates of Paradise, were designed between 1425 and 1452 by the Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. In his Gates of Hell, however, Rodin abandoned the stacked-box-like, linear narration seen in Ghiberti’s traditionally-composed doors and instead created a free-form environment in which tormented souls float and weave in a surging arrangement.

When the commission for The Gates was cancelled (the government built a train station — the Gare d’Orsay, now the Musée d’Orsay — on the site instead of the decorative arts museum), Rodin began to exhibit the figures that populated The Gates as independent sculptures, sometimes reduced and/or enlarged in size. These pieces, separated from the original Gates, took on new meaning. Among the most well-known of these independent pieces are The Thinker, The Kiss and The Three Shades. This practice of re-using pieces from one project in another and of producing casts in various sizes, was part of Rodin’s studio practice from 1880 onward.

The Thinker

Resting on the tympanum (the horizontal panel above the double doors), The Thinker is the focal point of The Gates and subsequently has become perhaps the most well-known sculpture of all time. The athletic-looking figure is a man in sombre meditation yet also one whose muscles strain with effort – possibly to signify a powerful internal struggle. Rodin initially referred to the figure as Dante, but it has evolved into a more symbolic representation of creativity, intellect, and perhaps above all, the act of thinking.

The Thinker
The Kiss, bronze

The Kiss is one of Rodin’s most widely admired works. Originally conceived as part of The Gates of Hell, it did not appear as such in the final version. The lovers in The Kiss are Paolo and Francesca, who Dante placed in the Second Circle of Hell in his Inferno. Their story was a popular subject of painting and sculpture during the 19th century: While reading the tale of Camelot’s Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca exchange glances and realize their mutual lust. Just like Camelot’s lovers, Paolo and Francesca succumb to desire and passionately embrace. Immediately discovered, the couple is slain by Francesca’s husband, who was also Paolo’s brother.

Rodin captured the moment when the doomed pair realized their passion. His sculpture defied tradition by showing them unclothed instead of in Florentine dress. First exhibited in 1887, initially this hungry depiction of erotic love shocked viewers, primarily because of Francesca’s shameless awareness of her sexuality. Within a year, however, the sculpture was accepted and admired by the French. Indeed, the piece was in great demand in all of its four sizes, and as there was no tradition then of limiting the number of casts that could be made, between 1898 and 1918 one foundry alone produced 319 casts. The government of France even commissioned a marble version for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 (now in the Musée Rodin).

The Kiss, marble
The Three Shades

Standing at the very top of The Gates of Hell, The Three Shades (a shade is a ghost or phantom) gesture downward, with heads lowered and arms extended, appearing despondent and weary. Rodin’s contemporaries believed The Three Shades spoke Dante’s warning, inscribed above the gate to Hell in the Inferno: “Abandon every hope, ye who enters here.”

After an 1875 visit to Michelangelo’s work in Italy, Rodin began a piece of sculpture that was greatly influenced by Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rodin altered the pose of Michelangelo’s reclining figure, making his own Adam upright with his hand gesturing downward instead of outward. Eventually Rodin’s Shade emerged as a variation of his Adam. Here are three identical casts of the same figure, each positioned at a slightly different angle. In using three figures together, Rodin knew they would each lose their identity as Adam and would instead become Shades – shadows of the living dead. Perhaps to symbolize their powerlessness, Rodin also deprived the shades of their right hands and represented their left hands as simply modeled fists. (The enlarged version of The Three Shades, however, does have the right hands intact and the left hands modeled in greater detail.)

The figures for the doors were far from being the extent of Rodin’s activity in the eighties. He created a series of brilliant realistic portraits which he showed in the Salons of the 1880s. It was in connection with these portraits that critics began to describe him as a great artist, perhaps even the best young sculptor in modern France. The eighties was also the decade of The Burghers of Calais, probably Rodin’s most satisfactory and successful public monument.

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais, commemorating an episode during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, is probably the best and the most successful of Rodin’s public monuments. Rodin followed the recounting of Jean Froissart, a 14th century French chronicler, who wrote of the war. According to Froissart, King Edward III made a deal with the citizens of Calais: if they wished to save their lives and their beloved city, then not only must they surrender the keys to the city, but six prominent members of the city council must volunteer to give up their lives. The leader of the group was Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who Rodin depicted with a bowed head and bearded face towards the middle of the gathering. To Saint-Pierre’s left, with his mouth closed in a tight line and carrying a giant set of keys, is Jean d’Aire. The remaining men are identified as Andrieu d’Andres, Jean de Fiennes, and Pierre and Jacques de Wissant.

The Burghers of Calais

Unbeknownst to the six burghers, at the time of their departure, their lives would eventually be spared. However, here Rodin made the decision to capture these men not when they were finally released, but in the moment that they gathered to leave the city to go to their deaths. Instead of depicting the elation of victory, the threat of death is very real. Furthermore, Rodin stretched his composition into a circle causing no one man to be the focal point which allows the sculpture to be viewed in-the-round from multiple perspectives with no clear leader.

By the end of the decade, when the sculptor joined Claude Monet (1840-1926) in a large exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, Rodin was clearly a major presence in the world of modern art, a man from whom much could be expected. In the coming decade he would spend much of his time on two of the most coveted commissions a French sculptor could hope to achieve: the Monument to Victor Hugo for the Panthéon and the Monument to Balzac for the Société des Gens de Lettres. They went badly, however. Neither work was accepted as originally commissioned.

Monument to Balzac

In 1891, Rodin was commissioned by the Societé des Gens de Lettres (Society of Men of Letters) to create a monument to Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), one of France’s most influential and beloved writers. For the next seven years Rodin struggled to find a way to portray Balzac that would be accurate physically and would also symbolize the writer’s creative genius. Balzac had been dead for forty years, so Rodin also faced the challenge of creating a likeness of a man he had never seen. He consulted photographs, a medium in its infancy in Balzac’s time, and did other research. For instance, he ordered a suit from Balzac’s tailor in the writer’s measurements in order to visualize his considerable size and girth.

During Rodin’s struggle to devise a compelling likeness of Balzac, he completed at least fifty studies; some convey Balzac’s actual appearance and others are more subjective and abstract.

In 1898 Rodin presented the final model for the Balzac monument to the Society of Men of Letters. The nine-foot plaster, modern in its abstraction, was met with outrage, disbelief, and ridicule, and as a result the Society rejected it. Deeply hurt by the criticism, Rodin refused to allow the sculpture to be cast in bronze during his lifetime.

Monument to Victor Hugo

After Victor Hugo’s death in 1885, it was decided to erect a monument in his honour in the Panthéon as a pendant to Injalbert’s statue of Mirabeau. Rodin was awarded the commission in 1889. The sculptor chose to depict Victor Hugo in exile, seated amongst the rocks of Guernsey, his arm outstretched as if to calm the waves. It was an image both of the poet lost in contemplation and of the champion of the Republican cause. This first project, “which lacked clarity and whose silhouette was muddled”, was unanimously rejected. In 1891, the Ministry of Fine Arts found another site for it. It would eventually be erected in the gardens of Palais-Royal. From 1890 onwards, Rodin therefore worked simultaneously on two projects: the first, representing a seated Victor Hugo; the second, for the Panthéon, showing the poet standing. It was also a nude portrait of Victor Hugo, with none of the artifice or idealization usually seen in statues of great men. The body Rodin modelled attested to the writer’s advancing years, which did not fail to shock his contemporaries. The plaster of Seated Victor Hugo was shown at the Salon in Paris in 1897, alongside two of the inspirational muses, The Tragic Muse and Meditation or The Inner Voice, which had already accompanied the poet in the early sketches, but which were excluded from the final marble version.

Claude Lorrain (from The Monument to Claude Lorrain)

Claude Gellée, known as Claude Lorrain, was perhaps the most important 17th century French-born painter. He was a landscape painter when painting landscapes was not considered to be of great importance. Accordingly, he disguised his landscapes by inserting figures, and he gave his finished paintings historical or narrative titles – thus providing his work with the “moral weight” required at the time. Two hundred years after Claude’s death, his native city of Nancy invited Rodin to participate in a competition for a monument to the painter. For inspiration Rodin went to what he perceived to be Claude’s greatest interest, the landscape of light.

The figure was meant to be set high atop a pedestal that was unconventionally enlivened at its base by the figure of Apollo, the sun god, driving his chariot across the sky each day, creating the passage from dawn to sunset. Accordingly the figure of Claude is caught in mid-step, rotating his body to glimpse the rising sun, the source of his delight in nature. A viewer standing below would see Claude twisting and turning, his face in awe at the sight. In this illusion of movement, the painter’s serpentine figure itself would capture light and thus emulate the intentions of the painter.

Rodin had other preoccupations in the 20th century as well, especially collecting and writing. He acquired an impressive collection of ancient sculpture, also purchasing medieval, Indian and Far Eastern work in a way that was adventurous. He enjoyed making his views on these works known both through his own writing and through interviews. Rodin came to be seen as the culmination of all that was great in Western sculpture, or as Camille Mauclair put it: “his reference points are Puget, Goujon, the sculptors of the Middle Ages, of Greece, and the rules for decoration established on the Lion Gate of Mycenae as well as the Serapeum of Memphis.” His reputation and influence extended beyond Europe – to the Far East and to North and South America, and it is safe to say no artist was more famous than Rodin at the beginning of the 20th century.

By the time Rodin’s will was executed, the movements of Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, as well as the new “truth to materials” movement in sculpture, had been established. The attention of the art world moved on and Rodin’s work went into eclipse until after the end of World War II. Then, slowly, in the 1950s and 1960s, with artists and their audience giving a fresh look at fragmentation, assemblage, the figure, and the expressive gesture, Rodin’s sculpture came back into fashion. By the end of the twentieth century, with new Rodin museums in Japan, Korea, and Mexico City, and Rodin shows opening in great profusion, he became once again, perhaps, the most exhibited and collected sculptor in world.

It’s ten years since we visited Musée Rodin. We’ll have to go again. It’s been renovated! And there are newly restored, previously unseen sculptures by Rodin on display.

Musée Rodin reopened on November 12, 2015 following a three-year, €16 million renovation, on what would have been Auguste Rodin’s 175th birthday.

Musée Rodin

The 18th century Parisian mansion which Rodin used as his studio was already in a bad state of disrepair when the artist bequeathed the building – along with his entire estate – to the French state after his death in 1917.

I give the State all my works in marble, bronze and stone, together with my drawings and the collection of antiquities that I had such pleasure in assembling […] And I ask the state to keep all these collections in the Hôtel Biron, which will become the Musée Rodin, preserving the right to reside there for the rest of my life.

Musée Rodin

Built in 1732, the mansion housed a wealthy wig maker and financial speculator, then waves of aristocrats until 1820 when it was turned into a Catholic boarding school before the French state took possession. After it was put up for sale in 1905, the building was ultimately rented out to artists and became a refuge for tenants like Rodin; his lover, Camille Claudel; Henri Matisse; and the dancer Isadora Duncan, among others.

Rodin in His Studio

Rodin began renting studio space there in 1908 and worked there until the end of his life. Before he died in 1917, he negotiated the agreement with the French state, which still owned the building, to turn it into a museum.

In August 1919, 10 years after Auguste Rodin had this document drafted by his lawyer – and just two years after his death – the Hôtel Biron opened its doors as the Musée Rodin. Few changes needed to be made, as it was already a museum of sorts. In the last years of his life the sculptor had used the elegant 18th century property as a showroom and sculpture garden, as well as a studio; it was the public face of an essentially private man who retired every evening to the Villa des Brillants in suburban Meudon, home to his casting studios, his collection of antiquities, and his reclusive lifelong companion Rose Beuret.

By the time it closed in 2012 for its first ever refurbishment, the 700,000 annual visitors had damaged the museum such that it was on the verge of destruction.

Musée Rodin

The severely damaged original parquet flooring – parts of which had been patched up with plywood – was copied, replaced, and reinforced. Half of the doors and window frames were beyond repair and had to be completely reconstructed. The lighting fixtures were swapped for a state-of-the-art system that reacts automatically to natural light levels and can be programmed individually. The new layout and different lighting on some displays allows visitors to get very close to the sculptures.

Musée Rodin

Over 100 antiquities and several plasters have been transferred from Meudon to the Hôtel Biron. In other ways the three-year refurbishment has been so sensitive that its former tenant would have no trouble recognising the place. True, he might be surprised to see the rotundas redecorated with the original 18th century ornamental woodcarvings stripped out and sold by his predecessors as tenants, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to pay for the chapel that now houses temporary exhibitions. He would almost certainly welcome the repainting of the whitewashed walls in a range of mid-toned greys pitched to set off white marble, plaster and bronze to equal effect, and be impressed by the colour temperature-controlled LED lighting system that tops up natural light falling through the windows. And he would appreciate the lift and cleverly concealed toilets, though perhaps not the modernist look of the new oak sculpture stands introduced to unify the displays.

The mark the centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin, the Musée Rodin and the cultural umbrella organization Réunion des Musées Nationaux have combined to mount a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris that opened March 22. It includes more than 200 of Rodin’s works, as well as sculptures and drawings by later artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Georg Baselitz, Antony Gormley, Antoine Bourdelle, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti and Joseph Beuys, giving a wider context for his legacy.

Grand Palais Rodin Exhibition
Grand Palais Rodin Exhibition

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