“A woman’s form kneels crouching, as though bent by the burden, the weight of which sinks with a continuous pressure into all the figure’s limbs. Upon every smallest part of this body the whole stone lies like the insistence of a will that is greater, older and more powerful, a pressure, which it is the fate of this body to continue to endure. The figure bears its burden as we bear the impossible in dreams from which we can find no escape.”
or nearly 2,500 years, six female figures have protected the Erechtheion, an ancient Greek temple in Athens, from crumbling under the pressures of time, nature and gravity. In the place of columns, these figures, called caryatids, stand; the Athenians imagined caryatids as the embodiment of youth, piety and feminine strength, the counterpart to the male figure of Atlas. Together, the labors of the caryatids and Atlas evoked strength and struggle, with both figures often serving as functional architectural elements in the place of traditional columns.
It was not until Auguste Rodin created Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre that the caryatid was ever considered through an inward, symbolist lens.
Rodin first began working with the traditional caryatid motif in the late 1860s, when he sculpted the figures as columns in a number of commissioned projects; this included the three Caryatids of St. Gilles he carved for a house on the boulevard Anspach in Brussels.
But the figures, and the weight they're tasked to carry remained in the artist's mind for years to come. Instead of the typical caryatid that stands erect under her physical burden, though, Rodin imagined the figure contorted under the pressure of the moral traits – piety, feminine perfection, righteousness – she's tasked to embody.
Rodin's first iteration of the fallen caryatid first appeared as part of The Gates of Hell – his lifelong opus, which included many of his famed works. The fallen caryatid was the first work from The Gates of Hell to be reworked into a stand-alone sculpture and exhibited. The sculpture captivated all who had the opportunity to see it: the seated woman sits with her arms entwined, head cradled on a shoulder and body pressed between stone above and below. Rodin and his circle considered the work to be one of his most accomplished and important sculptures. As art historian Daniel Rosenfeld notes:
"The 'Fallen Caryatid' was conceived… as an independent psychologically expressive sculpture …. She is one among the damned whose inner torment is reflected by her twisted posture and by the burden that she bears, which suggest a moral more than a physical oppression. Rodin has achieved this effect through the torsion of the figure’s volumes which seem simultaneously energized and equilibrated."
In November of 1893, a collector named Berthe Dumon visited Rodin's studio and became entranced with the fallen caryatid, immediately commissioning the present work, Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre. She wanted a larger version of the sculpture in stone, and Rodin set to work – but the task took much longer than the artist had initially anticipated. Eager to receive her sculpture, Mme Dumon wrote to Rodin in February of 1894:
“I felt at first sight that between her and I there was a very strong bond; this valiant woman with great pain whom fate may bend but can never crush. I long to see her, to contemplate her here at any time. It will be a great comfort for me, like a confirmation of the necessity of the struggle. Will it be a long, long time before you give it to me? Please tell me, I beg you, roughly when the time will come so that I can limit my impatience.”
Six months later, the work was complete. Standing at 25 inches, Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre is materially rare within Rodin's oeuvre. Only two other examples of the work in stone are known to exist: the location of the first is unknown, and the second is in the collection of the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts-Brussels.
Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre remained in Mme Dumon's family until 1950. In 1969, the work was acquired by Walter R. Beardsley of Elkhart, Indiana; Mr. Beardsley subsequently donated the sculpture to Indiana's Ruthmere Museum in 1978. The work has remained in the museum's collection until now.
The work will be offered in Sotheby's upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 12 November at 7:00 PM EDT in New York. To see the work, stop by Sotheby's public exhibition, open from now until 12 November.