A portrait of Auguste Rodin in his studio, taken by the photographer Dornac, aka Paul Marsan. Archives Larousse, Paris. Photo Bridgeman Images

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

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  • The father of modern sculpture was largely self-taught

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Méditation, petit modèle, version type I, conceived by 1887; this bronze cast in 1943 in an edition of 13. Bronze with green patina. Height 74  cm. Estimate €400,000-600,000. Offered in Art Impressionniste et Moderne on 4 June 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Méditation, petit modèle, version type I, conceived by 1887; this bronze cast in 1943 in an edition of 13. Bronze with green patina. Height 74 cm. Estimate: €400,000-600,000. Offered in Art Impressionniste et Moderne on 4 June 2020 at Christie’s in Paris

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  • Before becoming a sculptor, Auguste Rodin briefly became a monk

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.

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  • On a trip to Italy, Rodin fell under the spell of Michelangelo

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’.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Main crispée gauche, grand modèle, conceived before 1898; this bronze version cast in 1967. Bronze with dark brown and green patina. Height 18½ in (46.8 cm). Estimate $90,000-120,000. Offered in Form and Fantasy, 29 May-11 June, Online

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Main crispée gauche, grand modèle, conceived before 1898; this bronze version cast in 1967. Bronze with dark brown and green patina. Height: 18½ in (46.8 cm). Estimate: $90,000-120,000. Offered in Form and Fantasy, 29 May-11 June, Online

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.’

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  • Rodin’s first major sculpture was thought too life-like to be authentic

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Le Penseur, conceived in 1880 and cast in December 1924. Bronze with black and brown patina. Height 27⅞ in (70.9 cm). Sold for $8,187,500 on 15 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Le Penseur, conceived in 1880 and cast in December 1924. Bronze with black and brown patina. Height: 27⅞ in (70.9 cm). Sold for $8,187,500 on 15 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York
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  • A commission from the French government — The Gates of Hell — changed Rodin’s life forever

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Eve, conceived in 1881 and cast in 1897 by François Rudier. Bronze with brown patina. Height 68⅛ in (173 cm). Sold for $18,969,000 on 6 May 2008 at Christie’s in New York
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Eve, conceived in 1881 and cast in 1897 by François Rudier. Bronze with brown patina. Height: 68⅛ in (173 cm). Sold for $18,969,000 on 6 May 2008 at Christie’s in New York

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.

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  • An icon of romantic love, The Kiss in fact shows a couple condemned to hell

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Baiser, 3ème réduction, conceived in 1886; this example cast between 1901 and 1918. Bronze with brown patina. Height 15½ in (39.4 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View Impressionist and Modern art currently available for private sale at Christie’s

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Baiser, 3ème réduction, conceived in 1886; this example cast between 1901 and 1918. Bronze with brown patina. Height: 15½ in (39.4 cm). Offered for private sale at Christie’s. View Impressionist and Modern art currently available for private sale at Christie’s

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.

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  • Rodin had a passionate love affair with fellow sculptor, Camille Claudel

In 1882 Rodin met a young sculptor, Camille Claudel. The two began a passionate and turbulent affair that lasted almost two decades.

Camille Claudel (1864-1943), La valse or Les valseurs, conceived circa 1895, this bronze version cast by Eugène Blot in 1905, is number 12 of 25 recorded casts. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height 18⅜ in (46.5 cm). Sold for £1,112,750 on 20 June 2018 at Christie’s in London
Camille Claudel (1864-1943), La valse or Les valseurs, conceived circa 1895, this bronze version cast by Eugène Blot in 1905, is number 12 of 25 recorded casts. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height: 18⅜ in (46.5 cm). Sold for £1,112,750 on 20 June 2018 at Christie’s in London

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.’

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  • Rodin remained lifelong friends with Claude Monet

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), LInnocence tourmentée par lAmour, conceived in 1871; this terracotta version executed circa 1900. Terracotta. Height 24¾ in (62.9 cm). Estimate $12,000-18,000. Offered in La Vie en Rose, 12-28 May, Online

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), L'Innocence tourmentée par l'Amour, conceived in 1871; this terracotta version executed circa 1900. Terracotta. Height: 24¾ in (62.9 cm). Estimate: $12,000-18,000. Offered in La Vie en Rose, 12-28 May, Online

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.’

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  • Dance became a central part of Rodin’s late work

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Danseuse cambodgienne, executed in 1906-1907. 11⅞ x 7⅞ in (30 x 20 cm). Sold for £110,500 on 5 February 2015 at Christie’s in London
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Danseuse cambodgienne, executed in 1906-1907. 11⅞ x 7⅞ in (30 x 20 cm). Sold for £110,500 on 5 February 2015 at Christie’s in London
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Mouvement de danse E, conceived circa 1911; this bronze version cast by the Georges Rudier foundry, 1956. Bronze with green and brown patina. Height 14⅝ in (37.2 cm). Sold for $33,460 on 5 May 2004 at Christie’s in New York
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Mouvement de danse E, conceived circa 1911; this bronze version cast by the Georges Rudier foundry, 1956. Bronze with green and brown patina. Height: 14⅝ in (37.2 cm). Sold for $33,460 on 5 May 2004 at Christie’s in New York

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.

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  • Lifetime casts, late casts and certificates of authenticity

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.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Eternel Printemps, conceived circa 1884; this bronze version cast in 1946. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height 25 in (63.4 cm). Estimate $300,000-500,000. Offered in La Vie en Rose, 12-28 May, Online

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Eternel Printemps, conceived circa 1884; this bronze version cast in 1946. Bronze with dark brown patina. Height: 25 in (63.4 cm). Estimate: $300,000-500,000. Offered in La Vie en Rose, 12-28 May, Online

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.