Auguste Rodin

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Auguste Rodin : biography

12 November 1840 – 1 November 1917

In 1889, The Burghers of Calais was first displayed to general acclaim. It is a bronze sculpture weighing two tons (1,814 kg), and its figures are 6.6 ft (2 m) tall. The six men portrayed do not display a united, heroic front; rather, each is isolated from his brothers, individually deliberating and struggling with his expected fate. Rodin soon proposed that the monument’s high pedestal be eliminated, wanting to move the sculpture to ground level so that viewers could "penetrate to the heart of the subject".Hale, 117. At ground level, the figures’ positions lead the viewer around the work, and subtly suggest their common movement forward.Hale, 115

The committee was incensed by the untraditional proposal, but Rodin would not yield. In 1895, Calais succeeded in having Burghers displayed in their preferred form: the work was placed in front of a public garden on a high platform, surrounded by a cast-iron railing. Rodin had wanted it located near the town hall, where it would engage the public. Only after damage during the First World War, subsequent storage, and Rodin’s death was the sculpture displayed as he had intended. It is one of Rodin’s best-known and most acclaimed works.

Commissions and controversy

Commissioned to create a monument to French writer Victor Hugo in 1889, Rodin dealt extensively with the subject of artist and muse. Like many of Rodin’s public commissions, Monument to Victor Hugo was met with resistance because it did not fit conventional expectations. Commenting on Rodin’s monument to Victor Hugo, The Times in 1909 expressed that "there is some show of reason in the complaint that [Rodin’s] conceptions are sometimes unsuited to his medium, and that in such cases they overstrain his vast technical powers". The 1897 plaster model was not cast in bronze until 1964.

The Société des Gens des Lettres, a Parisian organization of writers, planned a monument to French novelist Honoré de Balzac immediately after his death in 1850. The society commissioned Rodin to create the memorial in 1891, and Rodin spent years developing the concept for his sculpture. Challenged in finding an appropriate representation of Balzac given the author’s rotund physique, Rodin produced many studies: portraits, full-length figures in the nude, wearing a frock coat, or in a robe – a replica of which Rodin had requested. The realized sculpture displays Balzac cloaked in the drapery, looking forcefully into the distance with deeply gouged features. Rodin’s intent had been to show Balzac at the moment of conceiving a work – to express courage, labor, and struggle.Hale, 136.

When Balzac was exhibited in 1898, the negative reaction was not surprising. The Société rejected the work, and the press ran parodies. Criticizing the work, Morey (1918) reflected, "there may come a time, and doubtless will come a time, when it will not seem outre to represent a great novelist as a huge comic mask crowning a bathrobe, but even at the present day this statue impresses one as slang." A modern critic, indeed, indicates that Balzac is one of Rodin’s masterpieces.

The monument had its supporters in Rodin’s day; a manifesto defending him was signed by Monet, Debussy, and future Premier Georges Clemenceau, among many others.Hale, 122. In the BBC series Civilization, art historian Kenneth Clark praised the monument as "the greatest piece of sculpture of the 19th Century, perhaps, indeed, the greatest since Michelangelo."Civilization, BBC, Episode 12 Rather than try to convince skeptics of the merit of the monument, Rodin repaid the Société his commission and moved the figure to his garden. After this experience, Rodin did not complete another public commission. Only in 1939 was Monument to Balzac cast in bronze.

Other works

The popularity of Rodin’s most famous sculptures tends to obscure his total creative output. A prolific artist, he created thousands of busts, figures, and sculptural fragments over more than five decades. He painted in oils (especially in his thirties) and in watercolors. The Musée Rodin holds 7,000 of his drawings and prints, in chalk and charcoal, and thirteen vigorous drypoints.Hale, 12. He also produced a single lithograph.