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 2005-774B.
The model for the present sculpture was Samuel Stockton White III (1876-1952), an American gymnast and bodybuilder. He began his athletic training at the Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania and then became a prominent member of the gymnastics team at Princeton. He went on to study at Cambridge and continued his physical training in London with Eugene Sandow, who was particularly interested in bodybuilding. In 1899, White won the Sandow Medal, which was awarded each year to the man in the United Kingdom with the strongest and most perfectly developed physique. During a trip to Paris in 1901, White visited Rodin and offered to pose for him. Rodin, who had used a fairground strongman as the model for Adam thirty years earlier, was struck by the impressive musculature of White's arms and torso and eagerly accepted the athlete's proposal. White left the following account of his sittings, which took place in September 1901 and again in 1904: "It was a long time before Rodin was satisfied with the pose. He had me walk around his studio and studied me from all angles. Finally, he asked me to assume a natural pose. I remember sitting on a bench, with my arm resting on my leg as Rodin worked and worked with his infinite sense of detail" (quoted in J.L. Tancock, op. cit., p. 318).
The pose that White assumed for L'Athlète américain is noteworthy for its similarity to Le Penseur (The Thinker), arguably Rodin's best-known composition, as well as to such celebrated statues from antiquity as the Terme Boxer (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome) and the Ludovisi Ares (Palazzo Altemps, Rome). The inner tension that characterizes Le Penseur, however, has been transformed here into a sense of energetic repose. John L. Tancock has written, "A comparison of The Athlete with The Thinker reveals how profound a change had occurred in Rodin's aesthetic by the early years of the twentieth century. The taut, constricted pose of the earlier work has been replaced by a much more relaxed position. Unlike The Thinker, The Athlete is not brooding on questions of vital importance but is simply in repose between feats of athletic prowess. It was not until after 1900 that the uneasy relationship between the physical and the spiritual which characterizes so much of Rodin's art was transformed into one of equilibrium" (op. cit., p. 322). Likewise, Albert E. Elsen has declared, "What Rodin achieved was an image of strength in repose, a relaxed figure evincing the potential of great physical power. Rodin does not square away the figure by planting both feet solidly on the ground, but he accepted the subject's more casual and natural penchant to position his left foot on its side. This position destabilizes the base but sets in motion a more active balancing of the form, which contributes to the subject's air of easy self-confidence and dominance of the space he occupies. Seen from the profiles, there are big thrusting movements in and out, such as the forward curve of the torso, the backward thrust of the man's left elbow, and forward direction of his right forearm. What may have had the greatest appeal to Rodin was White's broad, muscular back, which provided the sculptor with an ample fluid field of mounds and depressions to engage the light. It is the effect of light passing across this rugged terrain that further suggest the incongruity of energy in repose" (op. cit., p. 475).
The present sculpture is an example of the first of two versions of L'Athlète américain that Rodin modeled. The head faces forward in this version, whereas it is turned to the viewer's left in the second. The anatomy also differs in the two versions, with the bulging muscles of the present sculpture not given the same prominence in the later composition. In 1904 Alexis Rudier made a single bronze cast of the present verion, version A, which Rodin gave to White as a gift. The athlete later donated it, along with the rest of his collection, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A series of ten bronzes, including the present example, was cast by Alexis Rudier between 1927 and 1950, followed by an additional seven bronzes by Georges Rudier in 1959-1965.