Impressionist & Modern Art

21 Facts About Auguste Rodin

By Eva Sarah Molcard

1. François Auguste René Rodin was born to a working class family in Paris. He was rejected from the École des Beaux-Arts, but enrolled in the School of Decorative Arts, referred to as the “Petit École”, because of its status as the lesser version of the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts.

2. Rodin is considered an Impressionist sculptor. Although color does not factor greatly in his work, his interest in the effect of light on sculpted surfaces, and the experimental nature of his methods reveal the extent to which Impressionism influenced his sculpture.

3. He worked primarily with his hands, molding pliable clay or plaster into casts, rather than carving wood or stone. One of his major innovations presents the physical mark of the artist, in that traces of his fingertips are often visible on the surface of his sculptures.

"The sculptor must learn to reproduce the surface, which means all that vibrates on the surface, soul, love, passion life… sculpture is thus the art of hollows and mounds, not of smoothness, or even polished planes."
Auguste Rodin

4. Rodin made major innovations in capturing the moving body in sculpted form. He famously had his models move around him while working with preliminary clay studies.

5. He reconciled his vast knowledge of human anatomy with his careful eye for the exterior of objects and bodies: “the sculptor must learn to reproduce the surface, which means all that vibrates on the surface, soul, love, passion life… sculpture is thus the art of hollows and mounds, not of smoothness, or even polished planes.”

6. After Rodin’s older sister Maria died of peritonitis in 1862, he became racked with guilt because a suitor whom Rodin had introduced to Maria was unfaithful to her. As a result of his anguish, Rodin joined a Catholic order and ceased producing works of art. The head of the congregation pushed Rodin to return to sculpture after recognizing his artistic talent.

7. The prolific artist worked on the Gates of Hell doors for 20 years, producing a nearly 21-foot-high structure covered in writhing, tormented bodies condemned to Hell. The varied level of relief, the mingling of bodies, and the areas of exposed ground produce a dizzying and overwhelming effect on the viewer. The top of the doors includes a miniature version of his famous Thinker, peering over the tortured scene below.

8. Rodin exhibited the Gates of Hell at the Exposition Universelle in 1900, seventeen years before their official “completion.” The inclusion of the work sparked debate surrounding the academic “finish” of a work of art, which Rodin abhorred as an outdated imposition.

Auguste Rodin, 1891, photographed by Nadar, with a long beard and small spectacles.
Auguste Rodin, 1891, photographed by Nadar.

9. Rodin’s assistant, model, and partner, Camille Claudel was a daring and innovative artist, whose work arguably surpassed that of Rodin. Because of how difficult it was for women artists to be taken seriously, Claudel struggled to obtain commissions, and had to rely on Rodin’s stature to garner attention. Her bold work sought to reach the sacred and to explore the internal existence of human beings.

10. Claudel later accused Rodin of stealing her ideas; her family and possibly Rodin conspired to institutionalize her, despite her very real woes regarding her work not being recognized. She died after 30 years of confinement to an asylum, but her work and life have begun to be recognized in recent years.

A black and white photograph of Camille Claudel.
Camille Claudel in 1884

11. In 1884, Rodin won the City of Calais’ competition for the commission for a public monument in memory of a group of hostages who sacrificed themselves during the Hundred Years’ War, for the sake of their fellow countrymen. His Burghers of Calais is a psychologically complex work in which each of the six figures presents various responses to collective sacrifice, including courage, pain, and acceptance. The monumental size and the intertwining formation of the figures encourage the viewer to experience the emotional range of the work as a complete whole.

12. Rodin’s work famously straddles Realism and Symbolism. The imperfect surface of his works, and the ways in which his bodies emerge from the ground provide a clear break from realistic representation. He explored emotion and virtue in his human characterizations, while simultaneously attempting to capture the moving form in sculpture, an endeavor not distantly related to his Impressionist contemporaries.

13. Rodin had a lifelong relationship with seamstress Rose Beuret, which lasted nearly 53 years. They remained unmarried throughout their tumultuous affair, which ended and restarted periodically, until they married in 1917, two weeks before Beuret’s death, and eleven months before Rodin’s. They had one son, Auguste-Eugène Beuret whose poor health was a sustained problem for the family. Rodin carried on multiple affairs outside of his relationship with Beuret.

14. In his later career, Rodin began to approach his sculptures of the female form through an increasingly erotic perspective. In 1900 he attempted to seduce famous dancer Isadora Duncan, and produced many sketches of Duncan and her dance students.

15. The Age of Bronze, Rodin’s full-scale sculpture modeled after a Belgian soldier, presents an unnaturally posed nude figure. He studied his model from all angles, in candlelight and sunlight, in motion and standing still, and mounted a ladder to see his model from above. At the work’s initial exhibition in Brussels and later in Paris, critics accused Rodin of surmoulage, a scandalous technique in which a cast in clay is taken from a living model. Rodin demanded an inquiry and ardently denied the charge. He was eventually exonerated by committee.

16. The Age of Bronze was generally criticized for lacking mythical or historical basis; Rodin then titled the work The Age of Bronze, and explained that the work is “man arising from nature.” Thus Rodin had contributed to the rise in medium specific approaches to artistic production.

17. Rodin’s works continued to receive initial resistance from critics and patrons because of his unconventional approach to artistic production, which would later secure him the status of master and leading sculptor of the 20th century. His monument to Honoré de Balzac presents a caped figure shrouded in drapery; Rodin sought to present the novelist in a moment of labor and struggle in conceiving a work. The initial critical response disparaged Rodin’s representation of “a great novelist as a huge comic mask crowning a bathrobe.” The commission was rejected, so Rodin repaid his patron and displayed the work in his own garden. Eventually, art historians would hail the work as “the greatest piece of sculpture of the 19th century, perhaps, indeed, the greatest since Michelangelo.”

18. Rodin sought to reveal internal character through physical characteristics. The artist explained his own aesthetic in discussing The Thinker, “he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”

19. He experienced fame in addition to major artistic and financial success during his lifetime. He was widely collected in the United States and across Europe for years before his death. He was elected president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers in 1903.

20. Rodin’s The Kiss was debuted at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. After it was displayed publicly at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux Arts the following year, its widespread popularity grew exponentially. As a result, Barbedienne provided Rodin with a contract to produce smaller copies in bronze.

21. On November 12, 2012, Rodin’s 172nd birthday, Google displayed an image of The Thinker in its Google Doodle. According to the graphic designers of the doodle, “The essence of the project lay in the way Rodin approached his work. Amongst many of his attributes he was able to work rapidly and instinctively, using his immense anatomical knowledge as a platform for expressiveness…We did not want to simply study a photograph, so we set out to draw his sculptures and dissect the results.”

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