This work will be included in the forthcoming Auguste Rodin catalogue critique de l'oeuvre sculpté currently being prepared by the Comité Rodin at Galerie Brame et Lorenceau under the direction of Jérôme Le Blay under the archive number 2007V1240B.
In 1885, the Société des Gens de Lettres, a leading literary society in France, commissioned a monument to their second president, the celebrated novelist Honoré Balzac (1799-1850). A budget of 36,000 francs was established, the site was chosen and the sculptor Henri Chapu was selected to undertake the task. Chapu died suddenly in 1891, leaving the commission incomplete, while having exhausted 6,000 francs from the allotted fund. Although Chapu had completed a terracotta study for the proposed monument, Emile Zola, the president of the Société de Gens de Lettres, decided that the commission should be transferred to another artist, who would start anew. Shortly thereafter, Auguste Rodin was chosen for the commission and awarded the remainder of the budget to complete the task.
Under the terms of the commission, Rodin was to complete a monument measuring three meters in height within eighteen months. Since Rodin was accustomed to working from live models, capturing the likeness of a man who had died roughly forty years earlier was a challenging assignment. To prepare for the work Rodin traveled to Tours, Balzac's birthplace, where he studied visual records of the author's appearance in the city museum and spoke with people who had known the writer. He even located a tailor who had made clothes for Balzac and ordered a suit from him using the author's measurements, which were fortunately still in the tailor's records. In order to garner a full understanding of Balzac's persona and not merely familiarize himself with the author's physical attributes, Rodin also read and reread many titles from Balzac's voluminous oeuvre.
Armed with these details, Rodin made nearly fifty studies for the monument, including the present work. Initially he planned to create a literal portrait of Balzac and clothed him in contemporary attire. However, after several attempts, Rodin found that this approach did not successfully capture the complexities of his subject. Moreover, he felt that these life-like images placed too much emphasis on the author's unusual physical proportions, which Alphonse de Lamartine, the Romantic poet, described:
It was the face of an element; a big head, hair disheveled over his collar and cheeks, like a mane which the scissors never clipped; very obtuse, eye of flame, and colossal body. He was big, stout, square at the base and shoulders--much of the ampleness of Mirabeau, but no heaviness. There was so much soul that it carried it all lightly; the weight seemed to give him force, not to take it away from him; his short arms gesticulated with ease. (quoted in L. Goldscheider, Rodin Sculptures, London, 1970, p. 122)
Rodin subsequently decided to portray a more spiritual interpretation of his subject. In the present study, he draped Balzac in a Dominican monk's robe, the author's favorite working attire, and depicted him clutching a manuscript at his side with his right hand and his left arm bent as if to rest on his hip. A pile of manuscripts were placed near the author's right leg, and his features were exaggerated to show a huge head set on a thick neck.
By now Rodin was overdue in meeting his contractual obligations to the Société des Gens de Lettres. A final sculpture had not yet been produced, and many members of the Société had become angrily impatient. In an attempt to defuse the increasingly tense situation, Rodin agreed to invite the members of the committee to his studio to inspect the progress of his work. Unfortunately, the committee's visit to his studio did not bring about the outcome he had hoped for. Still unable to commit to a firm delivery date, Rodin was only able to allay their fears when he agreed to place the monies awarded to him for the commission on deposit until the monument was completed. Rodin continued to work on his Balzac until May of 1898, when at last the final plaster version was exhibited at the Salon de la Société Nationale. The unveiling of the sculpture resulted in scandal and public outrage. The Société de Gens de Lettres refused to accept the statue of Balzac, which was widely viewed as misshapen and obscene, a gross insult to the French literary tradition it was meant to commemorate. Shortly thereafter, Rodin withdrew his sculpture from the Salon and installed it at his home in Meudon. In a show of support, several patrons, including Auguste Pellerin, the famous Paul Cézanne collector, wrote to Rodin offering to purchase the statue. Rodin chose to keep it. It was not until 1939 that the final version of Balzac was cast in bronze and installed in Paris near the intersection of the boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail, where it can be seen today.