Six months later, after delays and continued correspondence between Rodin and Mme Dumon, the sculpture was at last ready for her collection. While an official name seemed elusive in 1894—tentatively called “Destiny” by Mme Dumon in her letters—three years later, Rodin gave the present work an official title, presenting it as La Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre (The Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone) in an 1897 exhibition.
This was not the first time Rodin had taken the classical caryatid as his subject. From the late 1860s through the 1870s, Rodin created a variety of traditional caryatids that integrated into architectural settings in lieu of columns or other supporting structures, including the three Caryatids of St. Gilles he carved for a house on the boulevard Anspach in Brussels (see fig. 1). Executed in 1874 these figures share more in common with their Ancient predecessors found in the Erechtheion (a temple to Athena and Poseidon which crowns the Athenian Acropolis) than with Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre (see fig. 2).
An ancient symbol of a young, pious woman, the caryatid first emerged in Ancient Greece, with the six graceful columns atop the Acropolis being the best known examples. Inspired by women who led religious processions with baskets of live reeds balanced atop their heads, the image migrated to functional architectural elements in religious structures and later a more decorative interpretation in painted motifs and curvilinear Baroque and Rococo usage (see fig. 3). In all applications Caryatids had a male counterpart in the figure of Atlas, derived from the Greek Titan who bore the sky on his shoulders. The associated labors of these collective figures evoked strength or struggle; they could be austere, playful, resolved or fierce in expression. It was not until Rodin created Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre, that an inward, Symbolist interpretation of this figure came to the fore.
The figure of the fallen caryatid was first created as a part of Rodin’s masterpiece, torment and lifelong opus The Gates of Hell, a visual symphony of Dante’s The Inferno (see fig. 4). The Gates started as a commission for a door in the planned Musée des Arts Decoratifs, though neither the door nor the museum were ever completed. Measuring over twenty feet in height, The Gates incorporate hundreds of figures, including many of the artist’s most famed works: The Thinker, The Kiss, Adam, Eve (see fig. 5). Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre was placed at the upper left of this portal, partially shrouded by scrolling decoration. Her form was created within the first year or so of The Gates commission and was exhibited as an independent sculpture as early as 1883.
“The first example of this work, now lost,” writes Daniel Rosenfeld, “was shown in marble in the exhibition of the Cercle de la rue Vivienne in the winter of 1882-83, and thus it is the first subject from The Gates of Hell to have been reworked into a freestanding marble and exhibited…. 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. The figure is composed in opposing planes that move from side to side and front to back, as in the counterbalance of the knees, hips and shoulders, or of the head and stony mass that the figure supports. This torsion conveys the Caryatid’s physical oppression, and at the same time evokes her struggle against it; the sculpture’s drama and vitality emerge from this conflict. There is a dramatic effect also in the surface treatment of the various carved versions in which smooth yet tautly modeled flesh is set against the rough, pitted stone. This textural contrast further emphasizes the figure’s muscular tension” (D. Rosenfeld, “Rodin’s Carved Sculpture” in Rodin Rediscovered, op. cit. pp. 88-89).
Rodin was the artist who almost single-handedly realized the impact of Modern sculpture. With his deep understanding of emotion and its manifestations in the human body, he became the founding father of a new and free form of plastic expression that soon conquered all of Europe. Yet in spite of his innovative approach, Rodin sought to root his art in the achievements of the Old Masters, particularly Michelangelo, whom he admired above all. Indeed, the physical pose and combination of highly finished and unfinished carving in the present work recalls Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy, plaster casts of which were found in museums and art schools throughout Europe in the nineteenth century (see fig. 6).
Rodin would prove influential not only for fellow visual artists, but also for writers and poets. Rainer Marie Rilke, the noted German poet, moved to Paris at the turn of the twentieth century to write a biography of the sculptor. He became so close to Rodin that he worked for a period as his secretary, philosophizing over their daily encounters. His descriptions of Rodin’s sculptures remain some of the most eloquent and evocative ever written. Of the Caryatid he opined: “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” (reproduced in A.E. Elsen & R. Frankel Jamison, op. cit., p. 233).
Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre was viewed by Rodin and his circle as one his most accomplished and important sculptures. Commissions for the form were received in a variety of media including stone, bronze and marble. In the bronze the stone was, at one point, replaced with an urn, and in Rodin’s later years an enlargement was made.
Examples of Rodin's Caryatids in all media can today be found in preeminent museum collections around the globe, though the rarity of carved stone is notable. It is thought there may have been a first stone version, whose location is unknown. Two other examples were carved in stone, the present work of 1894 and another carved before 1897 which entered the collection of the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels in 1918 (see fig. 7). Setting apart these carved stone works is the variance in finish in the surfaces between the woman’s figure and the other elements of the sculpture. This incongruity was part of the artist’s intent and is documented in his letters to Mme Dumon which detail, among other things, the delay in his completion of this piece.
Illuminating this unpublished correspondence, John Tancock writes: “On January 24, 1894, Rodin informed Mme Dumon that the execution of the stone had just commenced and that it ought to be finished in two months. Six months later, however, work was still in progress, as was indicated in a letter of June 14: ‘I ought to have written to you to tell you that the work on your caryatid is still going on and that I was very much mistaken in the lapse of time that I asked for its execution. However, I hope to send it to you from here in six weeks. The sculpture ought to have been done much more quickly, but it is like all sculpture, it is the modeling and not that material that prevents one form going quickly. Please excuse me and believe me when I say that I will be happy it if meets with your approval when it is finished…. The caryatid has not been left one day. Work on it has not ceased.’ On July 22 he was able to tell Mme Dumon that the stone was finished…. He indicated that he had made a number of deliberate changes in the course of execution: ‘I have left the figure more unfinished for the effect of the stone, and it has become much more expressive.’ He also gave her instructions as to the best way of displaying the sculpture—‘keep the group in plenty of shadow, against the light’ (J.L. Tancock, op. cit., pp. 40-41). Rodin’s careful consideration of surface finish and the detail regarding display shows the high degree of pride he took in this particular sculpture. The documentation of this work’s creation combined with its inherent emotion and tragic, eternal beauty single it out as a masterpiece of the artist’s oeuvre.
Cariatide tombée portant sa pierre remained with Mme Dumon and her descendants from its creation until 1950. In 1969 the stone was acquired by Walter R. Beardsley of Elkhart, Indiana and subsequently donated by him to the Ruthmere Museum where his son, the Founding Director Robert B. Beardsley, curated its display. The work has formed a part of the museum's collection until today.
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