November 12, 2012
“Rodin was solitary before he became famous. And Fame, when it came, made him if anything still more solitary. For Fame, after all, is but the sum of all the misunderstandings which gather about a new name.” Rainier Maria Rilke, “Auguste Rodin.” 1919.
On Nov. 12, 1840, François-Auguste-René Rodin was born in Paris to working class parents. His father was a clerk in the police department. But Rodin showed early interest and aptitude for art, and he was enrolled at the Petit Ecole, a school that focused on art and mathematics, and was taught by Lecoq de Boisbaudran. In 1857, he applied to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but the quality of his portfolio was insufficient. Rodin found work at a commercial studio making ornaments, where he also had time to develop his early sculpting style in clay.
In 1863, he exhibited his first piece at the Paris Salon, “Man with the Broken Nose,” which reflected Rodin’s unique style, and lack of formal art training. Rodin began working in the objet d’art studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse as the artist’s chief assistant designing ornamental embellishments for roofs, staircases and other household uses.
Carrier-Belleuse moved the studio to Brussels, and Rodin saved enough money to afford a several month trip to Italy in 1875. There he saw the sculptures of Donatello and Michelangelo and his artistic ambitions were awakened. When he returned he finished his first full-scale work, “The Vanquished,” a male nude inspired by Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave.” His model was a 22-year-old Belgian soldier. Critics panned the sculpture’s naturalistic style, and accused Rodin of using plaster molds taken from the model. “The work of M. Rodin is a study, rather than a statue …” wrote one critic.
In 1877, left Belgium for Paris, and submitted his piece, retitled “The Age of Bronze,” to the Salon. He received a similar welcome.
"As you can imagine, I am extremely upset being so near to my goal! My figure was considered to be so fine by everyone, and now they insist on saying it was modeled from life... I am demoralized, I am exhausted, I am short of money, I must look for a studio ..." Rodin wrote to his lifelong companion, Rose Beuret.
Carrier-Belleuse returned to Paris in 1880 and Rodin, needing income, returned to his studio as a designer of vases and table ornaments.
In 1880, Rodin received a commission to design a door for the planned Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. The museum was never built, but Rodin worked on “The Gates of Hell,” which rendered scenes from Dante’s “Inferno,” for the rest of his life. When finished, the Gates had 186 figures many of which became his most famous stand-alone pieces: “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Three Shades” among those.
His first commission to receive acclaim was “The Burghers of Calais,” celebrating the six men who submitted their lives to King Edward III in 1347 to save the city from mass execution. Edward’s Queen, inspired by their courage, begged their pardon. Rodin’s sculpture depicts the six as they were leaving for their sentence, lonely, haunted, but courageously moving forward. He began the sculpture in 1884, and, in 1889, unveiled it. He proposed that the monument not be exhibited on a high pedestal, but on ground level, where citizens could see into the hearts of the condemned. The proposal angered the commissioning committee, and it was not until after Rodin’s death that the piece was exhibited as he envisioned.
Rodin was an extremely prolific artist, and, after his initial challenges, became the most famous sculptor in the world. He willed his studio and the rights to make casts from his plasters to the state of France when he died on Nov. 17, 1917. The Musee de Rodin opened in 1919 at the Hotel Biron; it has more than 6,000 sculptures.