Auguste Rodin : biography
Despite the title, St. John the Baptist Preaching did not have an obviously religious theme. The model, an Italian peasant who presented himself at Rodin’s studio, possessed an idiosyncratic sense of movement that Rodin felt compelled to capture. Rodin thought of John the Baptist, and carried that association into the title of the work. In 1880, Rodin submitted the sculpture to the Paris Salon. Critics were still mostly dismissive of his work, but the piece finished third in the Salon’s sculpture category.
Regardless of the immediate receptions of St. John and The Age of Bronze, Rodin had achieved a new degree of fame. Students sought him at his studio, praising his work and scorning the charges of surmoulage. The artistic community knew his name.
The Gates of Hell
A commission to create a portal for Paris’ planned Museum of Decorative Arts was awarded to Rodin in 1880. Although the museum was never built, Rodin worked throughout his life on The Gates of Hell, a monumental sculptural group depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno in high relief. Often lacking a clear conception of his major works, Rodin compensated with hard work and a striving for perfection.Elsen, 35.
He conceived The Gates with the surmoulage controversy still in mind: "…I had made the St. John to refute [the charges of casting from a model], but it only partially succeeded. To prove completely that I could model from life as well as other sculptors, I determined…to make the sculpture on the door of figures smaller than life." Laws of composition gave way to the Gates’ disordered and untamed depiction of Hell. The figures and groups in this, Rodin’s meditation on the condition of man, are physically and morally isolated in their torment.Jianou & Goldscheider, 41.
The Gates of Hell comprised 186 figures in its final form. Many of Rodin’s best-known sculptures started as designs of figures for this composition, such as The Thinker, The Three Shades, and The Kiss, and were only later presented as separate and independent works. Other well-known works derived from The Gates are Ugolino, Fugit Amor, The Falling Man, and The Prodigal Son.
The Thinker (originally titled The Poet, after Dante) was to become one of the most well-known sculptures in the world. The original was a -high bronze piece created between 1879 and 1889, designed for the Gates‘ lintel, from which the figure would gaze down upon Hell. While The Thinker most obviously characterizes Dante, aspects of the Biblical Adam, the mythological Prometheus, and Rodin himself have been ascribed to him. Other observers de-emphasize the apparent intellectual theme of The Thinker, stressing the figure’s rough physicality and the emotional tension emanating from it.Taillandier, 42, 46, 48.
The Burghers of Calais
The town of Calais had contemplated a historical monument for decades when Rodin learned of the project. He pursued the commission, interested in the medieval motif and patriotic theme. The mayor of Calais was tempted to hire Rodin on the spot upon visiting his studio, and soon the memorial was approved, with Rodin as its architect. It would commemorate the six townspeople of Calais who offered their lives to save their fellow citizens.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the army of King Edward III besieged Calais, and Edward ordered that the town’s population be killed en masse. He agreed to spare them if six of the principal citizens would come to him prepared to die, bareheaded and barefooted and with ropes around their necks. When they came, he ordered that they be executed, but pardoned them when his queen, Philippa of Hainault, begged him to spare their lives. The Burghers of Calais depicts the men as they are leaving for the king’s camp, carrying keys to the town’s gates and citadel.
Rodin began the project in 1884, inspired by the chronicles of the siege by Jean Froissart. Though the town envisioned an allegorical, heroic piece centered on Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the eldest of the six men, Rodin conceived the sculpture as a study in the varied and complex emotions under which all six men were laboring. One year into the commission, the Calais committee was not impressed with Rodin’s progress. Rodin indicated his willingness to end the project rather than change his design to meet the committee’s conservative expectations, but Calais said to continue.