L'Éternel Printemps was one of Rodin's most popular sculptures of the 1880s. The theme of embracing lovers preoccupied Rodin and calls to mind the story of Paolo and Francesca, Dante's mythical paramours who were condemned to spend eternity locked in a maelstrom of passion. For the figure of the woman Rodin used the highly sensual Torse d'Adèle, 1882, which was named after the model who posed for the sculptor. This form was first used to the left of the tympanum of the Porte de l'Enfer and again later in La Chute d'un Ange, but it gained its greatest fame when it was united with the figure of the youthful male in the present work. When Rodin received a commission for the first of the marble versions, it became apparent that the outstretched left arm and right leg of the male figure, extending freely into space in the first state, would have to be modified. Consequently the base was enlarged to provide support for the leg and arm. In addition to six examples in marble, a bronze edition, incorporating the changes, was cast by the Leblanc Barbedienne foundry between 1898 and 1918.
Animated by the dazzling play of light on the surface and the sweeping upward movement of the man, the figures seem ready to take flight. As Ionel Jianou and Cécile Goldscheider have noted: 'Rodin is an artist who can see and dares to express in all sincerity what he has seen. He discovers the enchantment of light and its resources, the vibration and intimate movement of surfaces and planes, the throb of passion that animates form. He uses 'highlights, heavy shadows, paleness, quivering, vaporous half-tones, and transitions so finely shaded that they seem to dissolve into air', giving his sculpture 'the radiance of living flesh'' (I. Jianou & C. Goldscheider, op. cit., p. 19).
From dealing with love in an allegorical way, Rodin began treating it in more human terms. As evident in the present work, there is a marked increase in the eroticism of his art and a corresponding growth in the daring movement of the poses which could be a reflection of the artist's studio practise allowing the models to move freely and independently. Rodin himself proclaimed: 'Sculpture does not need to be original, what it needs is life. [...] I used to think that movement was the chief thing in sculpture and in all I did it was what I tried to attain. [...] Grief, joy, thoughts – in our art all becomes action' (quoted in I. Jianou & C. Goldscheider, ibid., pp. 19-20).
An early owner of this work was the prominent Berlin-based banker and collector, Dr Carl Steinbart (1852-1923). Steinbart built up a large art collection which, aside from another bronze by Rodin, comprised of paintings by the German Impressionists Max Slevogt and Lovis Corinth, and the Expressionist Max Pechstein. He donated two paintings by Claude Monet to the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1906 and commissioned a portrait of his daughter Irmgard by Edvard Munch in 1913. The present bronze, probably bought in Paris in 1905 or shortly thereafter, has remained with Steinbart's descendants until the present day.
FIG. 1, The plaster version of L'Éternel Printemps in Rodin's studio, circa 1880. Photograph by Charles Bodmer, Musée Rodin, Paris
Fig. 2, The present work in the residence of Dr. Carl Steinbart, Berlin
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