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5 minutes with... Auguste Rodin’s Eternal Spring

Valérie Hess, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art sale at Christie’s in Paris, admires this erotic — and semi-autobiographical — sculpture that is considered a masterpiece of the French artist’s mature career

‘Even if you’ve looked at Eternal Spring  in photographs, it’s impossible to appreciate how visually powerful it is until you actually see it in person,’ says Valérie Hess, Impressionist and Modern Art specialist at Christie’s in Paris, of the iconic sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917).

‘When I saw it for the first time, I was struck by the genius of the pose of the intertwined figures. Whatever angle you take around the sculpture, even looking from the back, Rodin manages to convey a sensuality and feeling of passionate love. I can certainly see how daring it was to create such an erotic sculpture in the late 19th century,’ says Hess. ‘For the time, this was almost pornographic.’ On 23 March, Eternal Spring  will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art  sale at Christie’s in Paris.

Conceived in 1884, Eternal Spring  is one of the French sculptor’s best-loved subjects, and is regarded as one of the masterpieces of his mature career. Rodin originally intended for the work to feature in the Gates of Hell, the monumental sculptural group depicting a scene from Dante’s Inferno, commissioned in 1880. He would work on Gates of Hell  for nearly 40 years, until his death in 1917. Eventually, though, the artist decided to execute Eternal Spring  as a stand-alone piece — deeming it too upbeat for the dark vision he intended for Gates of Hell — and added the rocks in the background.

Rodin began work on Eternal Spring  not long after he met Camille Claudel, the sculptor with whom he would embark on a tumultuous relationship. Rodin was married to Rose Beuret at the time, but fell in love with Claudel almost as soon as she joined his studio in 1882.

‘To some extent, there’s an autobiographical dimension to Eternal Spring — this passionate, forbidden love. In the sculpture, two figures are ardently embracing, while at the same time a kind of tension holds them back. But the figures are actually fused together, almost melting into each other. That's the beauty of the sculpture,’ says the specialist. The eroticism of the piece is heightened by both the medium itself — bronze — and the ‘shiny, glossy patina that highlights the curves and position of the figures’, Hess says.

The sculpture bears an inscription from 1907 from the Barbedienne foundry, which in 1898 was awarded exclusive rights by Rodin to cast the artist’s bronzes. The foundry was granted permission to release versions of Eternal Spring  in four sizes over a period of 20 years, between 1898 and 1918.

Versions of ‘Eternal Spring’ of this size and state are extremely rare on the secondary market — only four examples have been offered at auction in the past 25 years

‘It's nice to be able to trace the provenance directly back to 1907,’ Hess says. ‘That date is also significant because it means it was a lifetime cast — meaning it was executed by the foundry while Rodin was still alive. Not only were all lifetime casts recorded, but you know with a lifetime cast that the artist had control over the final product; that he approved of it. This makes all the difference, particularly as Rodin paid extremely close attention to the coating applied to his bronzes.’

Versions of Eternal Spring  of this size (at approximately 66 cm high, the largest of all the iterations) and state — the second, which includes the rock background — are extremely rare on the secondary market, with only four examples having been offered at auction in the past 25 years.

Also of note is the fact that this Eternal Spring  is a sand-cast bronze, rather than a lost-wax cast. Although lost wax was Rodin’s preferred technique, very few foundries in mid-19th century Paris were capable of executing it. Instead they opted for sand-casting, in which technique models are pressed into sand, leaving a negative imprint from which casts are made.

Often considered vulgar at the time of their execution, Rodin’s extraordinary sculptures pushed the boundaries of the medium. ‘He invented a new and very modern visual language, creating figures that seemed almost real,’ says Hess. ‘That's what he was so often criticised for when his works were exhibited, and what was almost disturbing for a contemporary viewer. He’s not hiding anything.’