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 2010-3243B.
In July 1891 Rodin accepted a commission from the Société des Gens de Lettres to create a statue of Balzac. The sculptor told reporters that his subject "is a creator who brings to life all that he sees... and knows how to paint it with traits of striking reality. I consider The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine) as the greatest piece of true humanity ever thrown down on paper... Balzac is before everything a creator and this is the idea that I would wish to make understood in my statue" (quoted in A.E. Elsen, Rodin's Art, New York, 2003, p. 353). Rodin agreed to deliver the completed sculpture, which was to be erected in the square of the Palais Royal, within eighteen months for a fee of ten thousand francs, the amount left in the Société's fund from the previous attempt to create a Balzac monument, by the sculptor Henri Chapu, who died before completing it. Rodin quickly immersed himself in this project. Within a short time his initial conception had become clear in his mind's eye: "I see Balzac dressed in his monk's robe, arms crossed, a simple pose, looking down at the passersby, the real actors of The Human Comedy he depicted for us" (ibid.).
Today we envision Rodin undertaking the Balzac monument as a perfect meeting of creative geniuses, of two giants who worked in different forms of expression, but in the seemingly super-human character of their personalities and the range of their work had much in common. Here was France's greatest sculptor of the century paying tribute to his nation's greatest novelist. The Société, however, was largely a conservative body, even if Émile Zola, a social progressive, was its president when they turned to Rodin for their monument. The expectations of many of its members were often at odds with Rodin's ideas. The project did not go easily, and amid accusations and threats to withhold payment, it went on for seven years. Elsen has stated that "the commission challenged all of Rodin's considerable intellectual resources" (ibid.). Long after the protracted wrangling and accusations over L'affaire Balzac had subsided, Rodin recalled, "Never has a statue caused me more worry, put my patience more to the test" (quoted in ibid.).
The five Rodin sculpture studies of Balzac in the collection of Max Palevsky are each an important signpost that traces Rodin's long and arduous progress in pursuit of his subject, from the signing of the contract in 1891 to the Salon of 1898, in which the sculptor finally revealed to the public the full-size plaster version of his sculpture. The Palevsky Balzac, masque souriant (see Day Sale lot 220) is a cast of one of Rodin's earliest attempts to ascertain a likeness of the writer, who had died in 1850, when Rodin was ten years old. There were some old photographs and plenty of lifetime caricatures to work from, but Rodin additionally believed that Balzac must have shared typical physical traits with men in the writer's native Touraine. Rodin journeyed to the region and made studies from life; the present masque depicts a "driver from Tours" named Estager (fig. 1), who actually resembled the 1837 portrait of Balzac by the painter Louis Boulanger (fig. 2), and the daguerreotype made by Louis-Auguste Bisson in 1842 (fig. 3). Rodin declared, "I am making as many models as possible for the construction of the head, with types in the country; and with the abundant information I have secured, and am still procuring, I have good hope of the Balzac" (quoted in J.L. Tancock, The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin, Philadelphia, 1976, p. 432). He went so far as to order a suit of clothes from Balzac's tailor, made to the writer's measurements, which the tailor still retained in his books.
As Rodin attended to the details of Balzac's facial appearance, he also dealt with the overriding question of which pose would best characterize the writer, and serve as an impressive monument to be viewed in a large public space. The sculptor decided to depict Balzac as he was nearing the age of fifty, in his prime and having completed many of his finest books. He must be standing, not seated at his desk as some had suggested. He would be clad in the loose Dominican friar's robe that the writer preferred to wear while working late into the night. And Rodin's Balzac would have to possess a figure unlike any one would normally want to celebrate in a monument, for Balzac near the end of his life was a famously big eater, thickset and paunchy. It was Rodin's practice to model the figure of clothed subjects in the nude, in order to acquire a complete grasp of the body's muscularity and overall architecture before dressing it. "Rodin's next step," Elsen has written, "may well have been the inspired creation of the orator's pose, incorrectly referred to in the literature as that of a wrestler... The study celebrates Balzac's prowess as a public speaker, debater and playwright reading his unfinished dramas to an assembled company of actors in the Theatre Français, near where the final sculpture was to stand." The Palevsky Balzac, étude de nu A (see Day Sale lot 221) is one of these works. "No attempt was made to disguise the figure's impressive girth... in fact, the shape that resulted from Balzac's gastronomic indulgence and physical indolence is flaunted... This is one of Rodin's most inspired, daring and passionate conceptions for his Balzac" (op. cit., pp. 363 and 401).
The development of the orator pose led to the modeling of the first genuinely awe-inspiring and monumental pose, which retains the orator's widely spread legs and large belly. Instead of gesturing with his hands, however, Balzac has folded them across his massive chest, as if--his point in contention having been made--the writer now confidently awaits his audience's response. This is the Palevsky Balzac, étude de nu C, in the petit modèle (see Day Sale lot 222); there is also a larger version measuing 50 inches (127 cm) tall. Rodin declared, "I want him immense, a dominator, a creator of a world" (quoted in op. cit., p. 373). While visiting Rodin's studio in 1894, the social activist Séverine (Caroline Rémy) was struck by "the space between the legs, as if in the position of walking, with the conquering advance of the step, the feet as if attached to the mother earth by roots... There emanated such an imperious sovereignty, almost superhuman, that an austere shiver passed down my spine" (quoted in ibid., p. 367). Rodin left between Balzac's legs a large mound, the quarry of clay from which he drew material to model the bestriding figure. This would have been covered by the Dominican robe in the clothed version, but as seen here, it further emphasizes Balzac's rootedness to the earth as a source of his creative powers. Elsen has observed that "the fertility for inspiration of Rodin's posturing of Balzac stems from the monument's being both natural and symbolic. It summons to mind the writer's defiance of the past and feelings of equality with Rabelais, for example. It conveys his contempt for critics and competitors. The same pose may be read as Balzac's metaphorical victory over death and assurance of future glory" (ibid., p. 373).
The head mounted atop the full-length Balzac nude study with folded arms is closely related to the Palevsky Balzac, buste de l'étude de nu C (see Day Sale lot 219). "The head is the final act," Elsen stated, "and as a dramatist (and casting director) Rodin does not let us down" (ibid., p. 371). While this head does bear some resemblance to the Bisson daguerreotype, Elsen believed that Rodin modeled it from life, using a different sitter than the one who posed for the standing figure. "In actual life Balzac had an extremely expressive face, one that instantly responded to his thought and feeling... Balzac's mobility of being has been brought back to life under Rodin's hands. No sculptor was as successful as he in thawing out the frozen or suspended look of much nineteenth-century portrait sculpture... The head is like a miniature of the body in its blockishness and violent surface undulations. The richness and drama of the head are equal to Balzac's statement, 'I shall carry a world in my head'" (ibid., pp. 371-372).
Rodin created nearly fifty studies of Balzac's head and figure. It was not until early 1897, however, with the commission long overdue, that Rodin's conception of his subject finally emerged in the embodiment he felt was absolutely right, and satisfied with his latest nude study, he modeled--again from life--the figure known as Balzac, étude finale, the present sculpture, of which the late Mr. Palevsky owned a fine Georges Rudier cast. In contrast to the "wrestler" or "orator" pose of Étude de nu C, the novelist's legs are now positioned much closer together, and instead of holding his arms folded at the chest, his hands come together across his lower abdomen, as if he were holding his dressing gown closed. Having experimented with numerous ways in which the expansive enveloping robe fell into folds around the body, Rodin realized that excessive patterning and texture in the pleats would only distract the eye, and he opted for a more simple, rugged and planar treatment of the garment, which generates a grand upward sweep that directs the viewer's eye to the head, a thrustful movement reinforced by the pronounced backward tilt of the figure. Rodin moreover arrived at a point where he felt he must elaborate the features of Balzac's face and head to a degree that went well beyond any conventional notion of verisimilitude, to suit the monumental scale and monolithic stance of the figure. He emphasized the writer's cascading mane of hair, his bulging brow and abundant mustache, modeled around deeply recessed eyes. In every respect, it became Rodin's aim at this stage to retain only what was most essential and directly expressive in his rendering of Balzac's humanity.
It was the Balzac, étude finale that Rodin gave over to Henri Lebossé, his enlarger, who during the summer of 1897 began work on the monumental version, a plaster twice the size of the sculptor's original. Lebossé completed the enlarged sculpture in October. Henri Houssaye, then president of the commissioning society, had seen the final study in Rodin's studio in March 1897 and reported to the membership, "The work is beautifully conceived. The powerful novelist is represented standing, hands crossed, and looking at The Human Comedy whose main personages parade in front of him" (quoted in A.E. Elsen, op. cit., p. 412). Although Rodin would have preferred to keep the sculpture out of public view for a while longer, the Société voted to have him exhibit the Balzac monument at the Paris Salon of 1898.
A critical storm, pent up over the years in anticipation of this moment, broke loose immediately following the opening of the Salon on 30 April (fig. 4). Rodin's work was decried as a monstrous and disrespectful hoax. While touring the Salon with Rodin, Félix Faure, the French president, reportedly turned his back on the sculpture and walked away, saying nothing. While Rodin had ardent defenders among the most perceptive commentators, so many reviewers ridiculed the sculpture that the Société committee published a statement in the press on 11 May announcing they would not recognize the work. Rodin was refused his fee, and had to accept as an unrecoverable loss the considerable expenses he had incurred while working on the commission. Two weeks after the opening of the Salon, Rodin withdrew the sculpture and took it to his home in Meudon, where only he and his friends could contemplate it. He declared in defense of his work:
"My principle is to imitate not only form but life. I look for life in nature, but in amplifying it, exaggerating the holes and bumps so as to give them more light; then I look for a synthesis of the whole... I claim there was only one way of evoking my character; I had to show Balzac laboring in his study. His hair in disorder, his eyes lost in dream, a genius, who, in his small room reconstructs piece by piece a whole society to make it vibrate tumultuously in front of his contemporaries and of generations to come, a really heroic Balzac who does not take one moment of rest, who works day and night, who makes vain efforts to fill the hole hollowed out by his debts, who above all is set upon the building of an immortal monument, who boils over with passion, who frenetically maltreats his body and takes no notice of the warnings of the heart disease from which he was shortly to die" (quoted in J.L. Tancock, op. cit., p. 442).
The sculptor Alexandre Falguière unveiled his Balzac monument for the Sociéte des Gens de Lettres on 22 November 1902, an event which Rodin graciously attended. Following the opening in 1908 of the Maison de Balzac in Paris, requests for photographs of Rodin's Balzac became so numerous that the sculptor engaged several photographers to record the work on the grounds of his home in Meudon. Among those selected was Edward Steichen, who immortalized the figure in a famous series of night-time photographs (fig. 5). A full-size bronze cast of the Monument à Honoré de Balzac was finally erected in Paris on 1 July 1939, more than twenty years after the sculptor's death, at the intersection of the boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse, where it may be seen today (fig. 6). The pedestal is austerely inscribed "A BALZAC A RODIN," which may be read as "To Balzac, A Rodin" or "To Balzac To Rodin," for indeed this powerful sculpture has become an enduring monument to both men, a tribute to the fortitude and vision of the sculptor as well as the greatness of his subject, two titans among artists and creators who never knew one another, but whom history has united in art for all posterity.
(fig. 1) Anonymous photographer, Estager, the "Driver from Tours," Musée Rodin, Paris.
(fig. 2) Louis Boulanger, Honoré de Balzac in a Robe. 1836-1837. Musée des Beaux-Arts. Tours.
Barcode: BALZAC 2 - PALE *
(fig. 3) Louis-Auguste Bisson, Honoré de Balzac, daguerreotype, 1842. Maison de Balzac, Paris.
Barcode: BALZAC - PALE *
(fig. 4) Balzac at the Salon of 1898. Gelatin-silver print by Eugène Druet. Musée Rodin, Paris.
Barcode: BALZAC SALON
(fig. 5) Edward Steichen, Toward the Light--Midnight (Balzac on the Grounds of Meudon), gum platinotype, 1908. Musée Rodin, Paris.
Barcode: STEICHEN BALZAC
(fig. 6) The unveiling of the Monument to Balzac, 1 July 1939; from Le Progrès de Lyon, 3 July 1939.
Barcode: BALZAC DE RODIN 2