5 minutes with... Auguste Rodin’s The Age of Bronze

Tudor Davies, Head of Impressionist & Modern Art in Paris, reveals why Rodin’s Salon ‘scandal’ marked a turning point in the artist’s career

On 20 October 1903, the Parisian collector Maurice Masson commissioned sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) to cast a version of The Age of Bronze. He paid the artist 10,000 francs and over the next six months would closely supervise the production of his purchase. 

‘We know of Masson’s keen involvement in the production process from surviving correspondence between patron and artist,’ explains Tudor Davies, Senior Specialist in Impressionist & Modern Art at Christie’s in Paris.

The correspondence in question, which comprises more than 30 letters, now resides in the library of the Musée Rodin in Paris. ‘Masson was very much driving the conversation in terms of how he wanted his sculpture to look,’ says the specialist. ‘He made specific requests about the presentation and patina of his sculpture.’

Correspondance Maurice Masson, Paris, Archives of the Musée Rodin. © Agence photographique du musée Rodin – Jérome Manoukian

Correspondance Maurice Masson, Paris, Archives of the Musée Rodin. © Agence photographique du musée Rodin – Jérome Manoukian

‘I would prefer a patina which was slightly more matt and of a lighter green than the one which you showed me,’ wrote Masson to Rodin in September 1903. ‘There exists one which is less bottle green and which I find more pleasing.’

The finished sculpture was delivered to Masson in 1904. The following year, the collector asked Rodin to confirm in writing that he had completed the chasing himself. ‘Their correspondence, together with the inscription “IEE” on the base of the sculpture, also certifies that this example was the very first cast of this model,’ adds Davies. ‘Only three life-time casts of this size are thought to have been made.’

Masson’s bespoke commission, the result of this remarkable ‘symbiosis’ between collector and artist, was offered in the Exceptional Sale  on the 27 November in Paris, where it sold for €3,577,500.

The Age of Bronze  was originally conceived in 1877, and is widely considered Rodin’s first great work, ranking alongside his later masterpieces, including La Porte de l’Enfer, Le Penseur  and Le Baiser. Its conception marked a decisive turning point in the sculptor’s career.

In late 1875, Rodin travelled from Brussels, where he had been living since 1871, to Italy. He visited Turin, Genoa, Rome, Naples and Florence, where he spent a week studying the sculpture of Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. Upon his return to Brussels, he resumed work on his plaster model for The Age of Bronze, which he had begun the previous June.

Rodin based the figure’s features on those of the young Belgian soldier Auguste Neyt, who modelled for the 18 months it took Rodin to complete the plaster. As if awakening from a terrible nightmare, the man touches his head which appears to have grown almost too heavy to support.

‘Rodin was interested in the idea of the evolutionary jump, from stone age man to bronze age man; this is when man leaves the physical realm for the intellectual realm,’ explains the specialist. The subject of this sculpture represents the ‘tormented awakening’ of mankind's individual conscience.

Auguste Neyt, model for the Age of Bronze, April 1877. Photograph by Gaudenzio Macroni. Paris, Musée Rodin. © Musée Rodin

Auguste Neyt, model for the Age of Bronze, April 1877. Photograph by Gaudenzio Macroni. Paris, Musée Rodin. © Musée Rodin

Rodin first exhibited a bronze and a plaster version of The Age of Bronze  at the Cercle Artistique in Brussels in January 1877. A few months later, he exhibited the plaster at the Paris Salon, where it caused a scandal. ‘The vitality and naturalism of the sculpture was so extreme, the sense of modelling so observed, that he was accused of having cast the sculpture from the model himself,’ says the specialist.

‘Only four or five life-time casts of this size are thought to have been made’ – Tudor Davies

The sculptor feared these accusations would not only tarnish his reputation but also jeopardise his future livelihood. In a bid to defend his integrity, Rodin sent the directors of the Salon a dossier comprising a photograph of the model, as well as testimonials by official artists, who confirmed that they had witnessed Rodin sculpt the work with his own hands.

In January 1880, all suspicions surrounding the plaster were finally quashed. By way of compensation, the plaster was purchased by the French State and, in 1884, a bronze cast was placed in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

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The Age of Bronze  would earn Rodin a reputation as the leading sculptor of his generation,’ says Davies. Many notable museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and the Musée Rodin in Paris, now hold casts of this iconic subject. 

‘This extremely rare example, with an attractive estimate and life-time casting date, comes to market for the very first time,’ Davies adds. ‘Age of Bronzes don’t appear often at auction, so we expect wide interest from private collectors, specialised sculpture dealers and public institutions.’