Auguste Rodin: the father of modern sculpture
A guide to the life and career of the 19th- and early 20th-century French sculptor who revolutionised the medium, creating some of the best-known — and best-loved — sculptures of our time
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is renowned for breathing life into clay, creating naturalistic, often vigorously modelled sculptures which convey intense human emotions: love, ecstasy, agony or grief. Breaking the rules of academic convention and classical idealism, Rodin ushered in a new form of highly expressive sculpture that went on to influence generations of artists that followed.
Born in Paris on 12 November 1840, just two days before Claude Monet, Rodin displayed a precocious artistic talent from an early age. Aged 14, he was enrolled in the École Impériale Spéciale de Dessin et Mathématiques in Paris, known as the ‘Petite École’, though later he failed three times to enter the hallowed École des Beaux-Arts, instead forging his career as a largely self-taught artist.
In 1862 the failure of repeated artistic rejection, as well as the grief he felt over the death of his sister, led Rodin to leave art and join the Catholic church, adopting the name Brother Augustin in the Order of the Blessed Sacrament.
While there, the Order’s founder quickly recognised the young artist’s calling and encouraged Rodin to return to his true passion: sculpture.
Rodin travelled to Italy in 1875, a trip described by the late art historian Kirk Varnedoe as, ‘one of the seminal events in modern art’.
Here, in his mid-thirties, he fell under the spell of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo. His monumental, exaggerated nude figures would have a deep and lasting influence on the artist. ‘My liberation from academicism was via Michelangelo,’ Rodin later recalled. ‘He is the bridge by which I passed from one circle to another.’
In 1877 Rodin exhibited his first major work, The Age of Bronze, at the Paris Salon. Critics immediately declared that the life-size male nude was too life-like, accusing Rodin of casting the work from a live model, a technique known as surmoulage.
Rodin strenuously denied these accusations, publishing statements of defence, as well as photographs of his model (a young Belgian soldier) to demonstrate the differences between his work and the original inspiration.
Despite the uproar, the controversy put Rodin on the map, and just three years later, The Age of Bronze was purchased by the French state.
In 1880, Rodin was commissioned by the French government to create a set of bronze doors for a new building that was to be a museum of decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno from his Divine Comedy, the doors depict a mass of writhing figures, pictured in the throes of hell. Many of Rodin’s greatest works, The Kiss, The Thinker, Eve and many others, all originated from the Gates.
Rodin could never bring himself to finish this magnum opus. The museum was never built and so the Gates became an autonomous artwork, ‘the source of almost everything that met with success’, he later reminisced.
Arguably Rodin’s most famous work, The Kiss presents two lovers locked in a blissful embrace. Yet, these figures are in fact Dante’s doomed medieval characters, Francesca da Rimini and her lover, Paolo Malatesta.
Francesca’s husband found the pair (Paolo was his brother), and, enraged by their adulterous liaison, stabbed them both to death, condemning them to an eternity spent in Hell.
Picturing the couple in the moment they give in to their desires, Rodin ultimately decided that the work was too love-filled, tender and joyous for the fearful vision of hell he envisioned for the Gates. He removed it and it soon became an independent sculpture, transcending both the origins of its subject matter and the time of its creation to become one of the greatest depictions of all-consuming romantic love.
In 1882 Rodin met a young sculptor, Camille Claudel. The two began a passionate and turbulent affair that lasted almost two decades.
Rodin’s sometime student, muse, model, confidante and collaborator, Claudel also had a successful career. La valse (The Waltz) dates from the peak of these years of passion and shared creation. ‘I showed her where she would find gold,’ Rodin once said of Claudel’s talent, ‘but the gold she found is all hers.’
Innovators of sculpture and painting respectively, these two titans of French art remained close friends over the course of their careers. They frequently exchanged works, and even exhibited together in a landmark show held at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1889.
Rodin and Monet often wrote to one another. In 1897 the sculptor expressed his admiration for the painter: ‘I still have the same admiration for the artist who helped me understand light, clouds, the sea, the cathedrals that I already loved so much, but whose beauty awakened at dawn by your interpretation moved me so deeply.’
Later in his career, Rodin increasingly drew inspiration from dance. Unlike Edgar Degas however, who was fascinated by ballet and classical dance, Rodin’s passion lay in more modern forms.
Rodin drew, painted and sculpted numerous depictions of the human form in movement, from Cambodian dancers to the music-hall stars of turn-of-the-century Paris —such as Loïe Fuller and Isadora Duncan — inspired by the impulsive, liberated and often extreme poses that these individuals held.
In 1916, the year before his death, Rodin bequeathed his entire oeuvre to the French state. This not only included his sculptures, drawings, and his collection of antiquities and other works, but also, crucially, the right to continue to cast his works posthumously.
Throughout his career Rodin had entrusted the casting process to a small number of foundries. Today, the home of Rodin’s estate, the Musée Rodin, continues the artist’s legacy. It is the only institution permitted to create bronzes — either from Rodin’s plaster moulds or with new moulds taken from his plasters.
Due to variations in size, medium and casting date (lifetime casts are more rare than posthumous and late casts, as are pieces in marble or plaster), Rodin’s work is more accessible than some might imagine. What is key when looking to acquire a piece by Rodin is that the work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the Comité Rodin: there are fakes on the market, so it is essential a work has this document.
Rodin’s work attracted a host of notable collectors both in his lifetime and after his death. The author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, owned a plaster of Eternal Springtime (now in Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum), while decades later Lucian Freud kept a cast of Iris, Messenger of the Gods in his home.
His work remains a mainstay of any modern art collection. Just as Rodin’s influence was felt on the generation of sculptors that followed — his most famous student, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, remarked upon leaving his studio after just two months that ‘nothing grows under big trees’ — so his legacy continues to inform and inspire in the present day.
Today, pieces in marble, plaster and bronze can be found all over the world: from outside London’s Houses of Parliament, to the National Museum of Western Art, Japan, as well as the artist’s birthplace and home, Paris, where the greatest collection of his work is housed in the Musée Rodin.