Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Rodin, Auguste
(1840-1917)
Collection: European Collection
Specialty: Sculpture
View Artwork
There are some reputations in the art world that are beyond dispute. These
artists' influence is so seminal, their accomplishments so signal, that,
even in the act of rejecting them, their critics reiterate their
importance. Among these titans is the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. While
still attracting controversy a century later, Rodin's work is so central
to Western art that only Michelangelo is better known as a sculptor, and
every sculptor since has had to struggle to escape from being eclipsed
beneath his formidable shadow. Amazingly, he seemed to appear out of
nowhere, with nothing in his background or birth to indicate that a genius
had arrived in the streets of Paris.

Auguste Rodin was born on November 12, 1840, the only son of a minor
police official and his wife. As a young boy, he performed poorly in
school, possibly because of his near-sightedness, but quickly developed an
interest in art. This led his father to enroll him at the
government-supported Ecole Speciale de Dessin et de Mathematiques, a
training institution for artisans and industrial designers. Though like
other aspiring artists, Auguste longed to attend the prestigious Ecole des
Beaux-Arts, he failed its entrance examination three times. Oddly enough,
while he passed the drawing part of the exam, he consistently failed the
sculpting portion. However, this may well have been a blessing in
disguise; his friend and fellow sculptor Jules Dalou later said, "That
Rodin, he was the lucky one, he never attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts!"

Rodin was able to obtain lessons with the great master, Antoine-Louis
Barye, but later admitted that Barye was so unassuming that Rodin failed
to realize what a great privilege it was to study with him and squandered
his opportunity. Auguste's artistic future was further compromised when,
in an apparent emotional response to his older sister Marie's sudden death
shortly after joining a convent, he abruptly entered a monastery. The bust
he modeled of the order's founder convinced them both that his vocation
was artistic rather than religious, however, and he left after only a few
months.

He worked as an artisan for various ornament makers and decorative
sculptors doing architectural ornamentation for years while he struggled
to sculpt on his own time and money. His first significant piece, Man
with a Broken Nose
, presented initially as a plaster mask, was
rejected by the Paris Salon in 1864. Deciding his luck might be better
with a full-sized sculpture, Rodin hired a young model, Rose Beuret, who
would be his companion for the remainder of her life and bear his only
child. Unfortunately, this first statue was damaged in a move and later
destroyed.

In 1870, in response to the Franco-Prussian War, Rodin moved to Belgium
where he worked in the atelier of the prominent sculptor Albert-Ernest
Carrier-Belleuse. Rodin said later that the 6 years he spent in Brussels
were a time of immense growth for him as a sculptor. He began making money
with his own sculpture while continuing to support himself with
architectural decoration. Near the end of that time, he took a trip to
Italy where his discovery of the works of Michelangelo also became a major
influence on his future work. Returning to Paris in 1876, he began work on
a life-size sculpture of a nude male eventually called Age of
Bronze
. While he had already exhibited in the Salon in 1875, Age of
Bronze
, exhibited in 1877, was his first piece to attract notice -
unfortunately, the wrong kind. The piece was so realistic that critics
accused him of casting from life. Fortunately, a number of his fellow
sculptors came to his defense and convinced M. Turquet, the head of the
Ministry of Art, to purchase the piece for the state. Rodin went on to
sculpt another full figure, St. John the Baptist, which would
become enormously influential on modern art after he removed the head and
arms and titled it The Walking Man.

Still unable to support himself as a sculptor, Rodin continued to do
decorative work, at one point designing vases for the national porcelain
factory at Sevres. Then, through his acquaintance with Turquet, Rodin
received the commission to create a pair of bronze doors for a planned
museum of decorative arts. Though the museum was never built, the doors
became Rodin's famous The Gates of Hell, a massive piece of
sculpture based on Dante's Inferno and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs
du Mal
. At that time, Rodin was embarking on a tempestuous
relationship with sculptor Camille Claudel, at one time a student of his,
and this provided the impetus for much of the great work that came out of
his atelier over the following decade. Many of his most famous sculptures
derived from work done on The Gates, including Eternal
Springtime
, Eve, The Fallen Caryatid Beneath Her Stone,
The Kiss, and The Thinker. During that exceptionally
fruitful period, Rodin would also work on the commissions for The
Burghers of Calais
, two monuments to Victor Hugo, and his monumental
and most innovative work, Balzac. The Balzac was a
revelation, but sparked so much controversy that it ended Rodin's desire
to take on public monuments. A visiting Oscar Wilde wrote about the piece:
"The leonine head of a fallen angel, with a dressing gown. The head is
gorgeous, the dressing gown an entirely unshaped cone of white plaster.
People howl with rage over it."

For most of the rest of his life, Rodin would focus on running his
ateliers and modeling commissioned portrait busts, including those of such
well-known figures as George Bernard Shaw, Joseph Pulitzer, Lady
Sackville-West, Isadora Duncan, and Gustav Mahler. In 1917, with World War
I raging, a stroke-ridden Rodin finally married his faithful Rose Beuret,
who died of pneumonia only 3 weeks later. In November of the same year,
Rodin himself succumbed to illness. The couple were buried together in a
vault in the garden of their villa at Meudon beneath a copy of The
Thinker
.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections