Dictionary of Art and Artists



History of

Architecture and Sculpture


















SCULPTURE - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
ARCHITECTURE - Part 1, 2, 3



Impressionism, it is often said, revitalized sculpture no less than painting. The statement is at once true and misleading. Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), the first sculptor of genius since Bernini, redefined sculpture during the same years that Manet and Monet redefined painting. In so doing, however, he did not follow these artists' lead. How indeed could the effect of such pictures as The Fifer or The River be reproduced in three dimensions and without color?


What Rodin did accomplish is already visible in the first piece he tried to exhibit at the Salon, The Man with the Broken Nose of
1864 (fig. 969). (It was rejected, as we might expect, on the grounds that it conformed to no established category of sculpture.) Earlier, he had worked briefly under Carrier-Belleuse and Barye, whose influence may help to explain the vigorously creased surface (compare fig. 920). These welts and wrinkles produce, in polished bronze, an ever-changing pattern of reflections. But is this effect borrowed from Impressionist painting? Does Rodin actually dissolve three-dimensional form into flickering patches of light and dark? These fiercely exaggerated shapes pulsate with sculptural energy, and they retain this quality under whatever conditions the piece is viewed. Rodin did not work directly in bronze; he modeled in wax or clay. How, then, could he calculate in advance the reflections on the bronze surfaces of the casts that would ultimately be made from these models?

969. Auguste Rodin. The Man with the Broken Nose.
Bronze, height 24 cm.
Rodin Museum, The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Auguste Rodin.
The Man with the Broken Nose.


He worked as he did, we must assume, for an altogether different reason: not to capture elusive optical effects, but to emphasize the process of "growth"the miracle of dead matter coming to life in the artist's hands. As the color patch for Manet and Monet is the primary reality, so are the malleable lumps from which Rodin builds his forms. Conservative critics rejected The Man with the Broken Nose and Impressionist painting on the same grounds: it was "unfinished," a mere sketch.

The Man with the Broken Nose was Rodin's confession of aesthetic faith. Later on, he said of it: "That mask determined all my future work." The head, on which he had worked for about a year, represented a revolutionary insight. What matters in sculpture is not whether it is "finished" or "complete" but whether it conveys to the beholder the way it grew. The Man with the Broken Nose certainly does, and that is why Rodin thought of it as the cornerstone of his entire future oeuvre. He was the first to make of unfinishedness an aesthetic principle that governed both his handling of surfaces and the whole shape of the work. (The Man with the Broken Nose is not a bust, but a head "broken off" at the neck.) By discovering what might be called the autonomy of the fragment, he rescued sculpture from mechanical verisimilitude just as Manet rescued painting from photographic realism.

Despite the sculptural revolution proclaimed with such daring by Rodin at 24, he still believed that the sculptor's noblest task is to show the nude human form, although it could now be done in fragmentary form, and he persisted in the claim that the sculptor's vocation is to create "new classics"that is, works free from the dictates of the patron and demanding to be judged in their own terms. When in 1880 he was at last entrusted with a major task, the entrance of the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, Rodin elaborated the commission into an ambitious ensemble called The Gates of Hell, which, characteristically, he never finished. The symbolic program was inspired by Dante's Inferno, but it was equally indebted to Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil. Its common denominator is a tragic view of the human conditionguilty passions, desire forever unfulfilled here and in the beyond, the vain hope of happiness. The perceptive critic Gustave Geffroy, writing of The Gates of Hell in 1889, defined their subject as the endless reenactment of the sufferings of Adam and Eve. Indeed, Rodin had tried in 1881 to persuade the government to let him flank The Gates with statues of the two.

The Gates served as a matrix for countless smaller pieces that he eventually made into independent works. The most famous of these autonomous fragments is The Thinker (fig. 970), intended for the lintel of the Gates, whence the figure was to contemplate the panorama of despair below him. It descends partly from a statue by Carpeaux of another subject from The Inferno, Ugolino and his sons. The ancestry of The Thinker can be traced back much further, however. It goes back, indirectly, to the first phase of Christian art. (The pensive man seated at the left in the Byzantine ivory in figure 344 reflects an Early Christian source.) It also includes the action-in-repose of Michelangelo's superhuman bodies (see figs. 648, 651, and 654), the tension in Puget's Milo of Crotona (see fig. 823, especially the feet), and the expressive dynamism of The Man with the Broken Nose.

Who is The Thinker? In the context of The Gates of Hell, he was originally conceived as a generalized image of Dante, the poet who in his mind's eye sees what goes on all around him. Once Rodin decided to detach him from The Gates, he became The Poet-Thinker, and finally just The Thinker. But what kind of thinker? Partly Adam, no doubt (though there is also a different Adam by Rodin, another "outgrowth" of The Gates), partly Prometheus, and partly the brute imprisoned by the passions of the flesh. Rodin wisely refrained from giving him a specific name, for the statue fits no preconceived identity. In this new image of a man, form and meaning are one, instead of cleaving apart as in Carpeaux's The Dance (see fig. 922). Carpeaux's naked figures pretend to be nude, while The Thinker, like the nudes of Michelangelo, is free from subservience to the undressed model.

970. Auguste Rodin. The Thinker. 1879-89.
Bronze, height 69.8 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Auguste Rodin
. The Thinker. Bronze

Auguste Rodin
. The Thinker. Bronze

The Kiss (fig. 971), an over-lifesize group in marble, also derives from The Gates. It was meant to be Dante's Paolo and Francesca, but Rodin rejected it as unsuitable. Evidently he realized that The Kiss shows the ill-fated pair succumbing to their illicit desire tor each other here on earth, not as tortured souls in Hell. Knowing its original title helps us to understand a salient aspect of the group: passion reigned in by hesitancy, for the embrace is not yet complete. Less powerful than The Thinker it exploits another kind of artful unfinishedness. Rodin had been impressed by the struggle of Michelangelo's

"Slaves" against the remnants of the blocks that imprison them. The Kiss was planned from the start to include the mass of roughhewn marble to which the lovers are attached, and which thus becomes symbolic of their earthbound passion. The contrast of textures emphasizes the veiled, sensuous softness of the bodies.

971. Auguste Rodin. The Kiss. 1886-98. Marble, over-lifesize. Rodin Museum, Paris

Auguste Rodin. The Kiss. Bronze

Auguste Rodin. The Kiss. 1886-98. Marble

But Rodin was by instinct a modeler, not a carver like Michelangelo. His greatest works were intended to be cast in bronze. Even these, however, reveal their full strength only when we see them in plaster casts made directly from Rodin's clay originals. The Monument to Balzac, his last, as well as most daring and controversial creation (fig. 972), remained in plaster for many years, rejected by the writers' association that had commissioned it. He had been asked at the insistence of the author Emile Zola to take over the project when the first sculptor died after producing only a sketch. He declared it to be "the sum of my whole life. . . . From the day of its conception, I was a changed man." Outward appearance did not pose a problem (Balzac's feature's were well known). But Rodin desired far more than that. He was searching for a way to cast Balzac's whole personality into visible form, without the addition of allegorical figures, the habitual props or monuments to genius. The final version gives no hint of the many alternative solutions he tried. (More than 40 have survived.) The element common to them all is that Balzac is standing, in order to express the virile energy Rodin saw in his subject.

The final sculpture shows the writer clothed in a long dressing gowndescribed by his contemporaries as a "monk's robe"which he liked to wear while working at night. Here was a "timeless" costume that permitted Rodin to conceal and simplify the contours of the body. Balzac awakens in the middle of the night, seized by a sudden creative impulse, and hastily throws the robe over his shoulders without putting his arms through the sleeves, before he settles down to put his thoughts on paper. But, of course, Balzac is not about to write. He looms before us with the frightening insistence of a specter, utterly unaware of his surroundingsthe entire figure leans backward to stress its isolation from the beholder.

The statue is larger than life, physically and spiritually: it has an overpowering presence. Like a huge monolith, the man of genius towers above the crowd. He shares "the sublime egotism of the gods" (as the Romantics put it). From a distance we see only the great bulk of the figure. From the mass formed by the shroudlike cloak, the head thrusts upwardone is tempted to say, eruptswith elemental force. When we are close enough to make out the features clearly, we sense beneath the disdain an inner agony that stamps Balzac as the kin of The Man with the Broken Nose.

To this day, the Balzac remains a startling sight. Rodin had indeed reached the outer limits of his art, as he himself realized. The question remains, Why did he never have it cast in bronze, even though a wealthy private collector offered to pay for it? Its compact shape certainly lent itself to a marble statue, and it may be that he visualized the monument as one all along.

972. Auguste Rodin. Monument to Balzac. 1897-98. Bronze


Auguste Rodin. Monument to Balzac. 1897-98. Bronze

Auguste Rodin. Monument to Balzac. 1897-98. Bronze

Auguste Rodin. Nude Study of Balzac. c. 1892

Auguste Rodin. Nude Study of Balzac

Auguste Rodin. Head of Balzac


Auguste Rodin

In full Francois-Auguste-Rene Rodin French sculptor of sumptuous bronze and marble figures, consideredby some critics to be the greatest portraitist in the history of sculpture. His La Porte de l'Enfer (The Gates of Hell), commissioned in 1880 for the future Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, remained unfinished at his death but nonetheless resulted in two of Rodin's most famous images: Le Penseur (1880; The Thinker) and Le Baiser (1886; The Kiss). His portraits include monumental figures of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.

Early life and work

Rodin was born into a poor family. At age 13 he entered a drawing school, where he learned drawing and modelling, and at 17 he attempted to enter the École des Beaux-Arts, but he failed the competitive examinations three times. The following year (1858), he decided to earn his living by doing decorative stonework. Traumatized by the death of his sisterMarie in 1862, he considered entering the church; but in 1864 the young sculptor met Rose Beuret, a seamstress, whobecame his life companion, although he did not marry her until a few weeks before her death in February 1917.

Rodin had begun to work with the sculptor A.-E. Carrier-Belleuse when, in 1864, his first submission to the official Salon exhibition, L'Homme au nez cassé (The Man with the Broken Nose), was rejected. His early independent work included also several portrait studies of Beuret. In 1871he went with Carrier-Belleuse to work on decorations for public monuments in Brussels. Dismissed by Carrier-Belleuse, he collaborated on the execution of decorative bronzes, and Beuret joined him in Brussels.

In 1875, at age 35, Rodin had yet to develop a personally expressive style because of the pressures of the decorative work. Italy gave him the shock that stimulated his genius. He visited Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice before returning to Brussels. The inspiration of Michelangelo and Donatello rescued him from the academicism of his working experience. Under those influences, he molded the bronze LeVaincu (The Vanquished), his first original work, the painful expression of a vanquished energy aspiring to rebirth. It provoked scandals in the artistic circles of Brussels and again at the Paris Salon, where it was exhibited in 1877 as L'Âge d'Airain (The Age of Bronze ). The realism of the work contrasted so greatly with the statues of Rodin's contemporaries that he was accused of having formed its mold upon a living person.

In 1877 Rodin returned to Paris, and in 1879 his former master Carrier-Belleuse, now director of the Sèvres porcelain factory, asked him for designs. He was rejected in various competitions for monuments to be erected in Londonand Paris, but finally he received a commission to execute a statue for the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris. Meanwhile, he explored his personal style in St. Jean-Baptiste prêchant (1878; St. John the Baptist Preaching). Its success and that ofThe Age of Bronze at the salons of Paris and Brussels in 1880established his reputation as a sculptor at age 40.

Toward the achievement of his art

At an age when most artists already had completed a large body of work, Rodin was just beginning to affirm his personal art. He received a state commission to create a bronze door for the future Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a grant that provided him with two workshops and whose advance payments made him financially secure.

That bronze door was to be the great effort of Rodin's life. Although it was commissioned for delivery in 1884, it was left unfinished at his death in 1917. The theme of its scenes was borrowed from Dante's Divine Comedy, and eventually itcame to be called La Porte de l'Enfer . His original conceptionwas similar to that of the 15th-century Italian sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti in his Gates of Paradise doors for the Baptistery in Florence. His plans were profoundly altered, however, by his visit to London in 1881 at the invitation of the painter Alphonse Legros. There Rodin saw the many Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings inspired by Dante, above all the hallucinatory works of William Blake. He transformed his plans for The Gates to ones that would reveal a universe of convulsed forms tormented by love, pain, and death. This unachieved monument was the framework out of which he created independent sculptural figures and groups, among them his famous Le Penseur, originally conceived as a seated portait of Dante for the upper part of the door.

In 1884, Rodin was commissioned to create a monument for the town of Calais to commemorate the sacrifice of the burghers who gave themselves as hostages to King Edward III of England in 1347 to raise the year-long siege of the famine-ravaged city. Rodin completed work on Les Bourgeois de Calais (The Burghers of Calais) within two years, but the monument was not dedicated until 1895. In 1913 a bronze casting of the Calais group was installed in the gardens of Parliament in London to commemorate the intervention of the English queen who had compelled her husband, King Edward, to show clemency to the heroes.

While the artist's glory continued to increase, his private life was troubled by the numerous liaisons into which his unbridled sensuality plunged him. In about 1885 he became the lover of one of his students, Camille Claudel, the gifted sister of the poet Paul Claudel. It proved a stormy romance beset by numerous quarrels, but it persisted until Camille's madness brought it to a finish in 1898. Their attachment was deep and was pursued throughout the country. During the years of passion Rodin executed sculptures of numerous couples in the throes of desire. The most sensuous of these groups was Le Baiser , sometimes considered his masterpiece. Originally conceived as the figures of Paolo and Francesca for The Gates of Hell, it exposed him to numerous scandals.

Discords and triumphs

In spite of his success, Rodin was often in conflict with L'Institut de France, the national art academy, with the public, and even with the Parliament. He devoted a decade toexecuting four monuments honouring the landscape painter Claude Lorrain, President Domingo Sarmiento of Argentina, and the writers Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, and each of the four monuments was challenged. In Nancy, France, theClaude statue and, in Buenos Aires, the President Sarmiento caused riots. The conflicts over the Victor Hugo and the Balzac were even more serious.

In 1886 he received the order for the monument to Hugo for the Panthéon, France's hall of its great men. The nudity depicted in the work caused such shock that he had to abandon the project. It was 1909 before another Victor Hugo,also nude but seated, was installed at the gallery of the Palais-Royal, although it had been intended for the Luxembourg Gardens. In 1891, Rodin was commissioned to portray Balzac for the Société des Gens de Lettres (Society of Men of Letters). He gave himself over completely to massive research designed to translate the several Balzac portraits into sculpture. He obtained the exact measurements of the novelist's body by finding his former tailor. After much conjecture and experimentation to find an appropriate posture for the statue, he finally conceived of the writer as partly draped. The concisely designed model resembled a menhir, or upright prehistoric altar stone, foreshadowing the simplicity of modern art. The artist's delays and his design for the statue brought on a legal dispute with the Société, and, when the model was shown at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1898, it generated a violent debate in which the sculptor was defended by Georges Clemenceau, the future premier of France. Finally Rodin reimbursed the Société and took back the model. The statue, cast in bronze, was not erected until 1939, in the crossroads of the Montmartre section of Paris.

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris featured a pavilion in which 150 of Rodin's sculptures and numerous drawings were displayed, testifying to the international scope of his fame. After it closed, he had his works transported to a property that he had bought at Meudon in 1896. His residence there became a vast workshop where he employed a legion of assistants amid an endless stream of “favourites” who passed as his students. He was by then less a sculptor than an entrepreneur of sculpture. He himself executed only models, of which he made many, while searching for the form that suited him. Casting in bronze wasthe domain of specialists, but he also delegated the hewing of marble to others, to be executed under his direction but not by him. He was assisted in this “industrial” enterprise by a series of secretaries, including for a brief period the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

After 1900 Rodin's worldwide success attracted abundant orders for portrait busts from the United States, Germany, Austria, England, and France. He enjoyed great renown in England, where he had numerous friends and which he often visited. In 1902 he was carried in triumph by students at a banquet in his honour in London. In 1907 he went to London for the inauguration of his monument to the poet William Henley at Westminster Abbey, and he—along with the Frenchcomposer Camille Saint-Saëns and the U.S. writer Mark Twain—was made a doctor honoris causa at Oxford University. In May 1908, King Edward VII of England visited him at his workshop in Meudon.

In the same month Rodin also rented a floor in one of the most beautiful 18th-century Parisian hotels, the Hôtel Biron, which was surrounded by an immense garden. Eventually he occupied the entire premises under an agreement by which the French state agreed to acquire and preserve the hotel as a Rodin museum in return for his donation to the state of all his works. These negotiations were endangered, however, bythe self-serving intrigues of the last of his great favourites, an American who became duchess of Choiseul. They were furthered by Judith Cladel, who became his chronicler and who worked to see that the negotiations were successful, and by his last secretary, Marcelle Tirel, who defended him from the covetousness of women who tried to coax away his legacy. The purchase of the hotel and the donation of Rodin's goods was finally completed in 1916. The museum is constituted as an autonomous organization maintained bysales of castings from plaster casts that he left. On the day of Rodin's burial a solemn service was celebrated in his honour at Westminster Abbey in London.

To his sculpture, Rodin added, during his lifetime, book illustrations, dry-point etchings, and innumerable drawings of nudes, principally female. He also had literary pretensionsand produced several writings with the help of friends. He was enamoured of the art of the Middle Ages, and among his major efforts was the book Les Cathédrales de France (1914;Cathedrals of France, 1965).


At the beginning of the 20th century Rodin was famous throughout the world and long had been revered as a modern-day Michelangelo, a titan of sculpture, an incarnation of the power of inspired genius. Even his prodigious sensuality was excused as a symbol of his Olympian stature. Three-quarters of a century later, however, criticism had become less uniform, pointing to the elements in his work that belie his early life as a decorative sculptor and the concomitant lack of formal discipline. Nonetheless, he exerted an immense influence on sculpture,and his numerous students from many countries helped to spread his style. His example was particularly fruitful for later French sculptors such as Charles Despiau, Aristide Maillol, and Antoine Bourdelle.

Most major museums own copies of his works, and museums in Paris, Philadelphia, and Tokyo are dedicated to him. Rodin's prime contribution was in bringing Western sculpture back to what always had been its essential strength, a knowledge and sumptuous rendering of the human body. His evocations of great men, such as his George Bernard Shaw and Nijinsky, are uniformly brilliant.

Germain Rene
Michel Bazin

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Auguste Rodin. The Bronze Age. 1875-76

Auguste Rodin. The Bronze Age. 1875-76

Auguste Rodin. Striding Man. 1877-1900

Auguste Rodin. Striding Man. 1877-1900


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