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A Frenchman whose modernist style redefined sculpture in the 19th
century, Auguste Rodin moved it from Academic and Neo-Classical to
Impressionism and Realism. In fact, he did work that was so
life-like, he was accused of making casts from live bodies. He
also dealt with erotic and political themes that spoke of contemporary
issues eschewed as inapprpriate by fine art academics of his era.
Rodin was raised in a hard working, religious family in Mouffetard, an
historic section of Paris. He was born in 1840, shortly after his
parents, Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin, had moved from the
countryside to the city, where his father had a job as a clerk in the
police department. Rodin had difficulty with school subjects, but
from childhood was prolific at drawing. At age 14, his life
became focused on his art talent and began a training regime. He
enrolled in morning classes in the Petite Ecole, which was a
government-sponsored art school; in the afternoons, he went to the
Louvre to do drawings; and in the evening, he took a life-drawing class
at the Gobelin tapestry works. By age 17, he was winning prizes
in clay, and determined to be a sculptor.
However, because his work was not traditional enough, he was rejected
three times in his attempts to become a student at the Ecole des Beaux
Arts. This school was the official French institution for
maintaining high fine-art standards, which at that time were based on
Classicism and the ‘antique’. Instead he attended the School of
Decorative Arts between 1854 and 1857, and was a student of sculptor
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875). As a result, he spent the
next 20 years doing decorative sculpture for building contractors,
decorators and sculptors. This period included six years in
Brussels beginning as an assistant to Albert Carrier De Belleuse, his
future major rival in France, who had a commission for the “Caryatides”
on the opulent new Bourse (stock exchange) in Brussels.
During these years, Rodin read widely, trying to make up for his lack
of education. He also had personal trauma in 1862, when his older
sister, Maria, died, having suffered much from an unfaithful lover,
whom she had met through Rodin. Feeling guilty, he joined a
Christian order for a couple of years and turned away from his
art. However, encouraged by a priest who saw his talent, he
returned to sculpting and took classes from animalist Antoine-Louis
In 1864, Rodin began a life-long relationship with Rose Beuret, a
seamstress, and in 1866, they had a son, Auguste-Eugene Beuret, which
meant he had a family to support but did not have remunerative sales of
his work nor high-paying employment. He continued with his own
projects, and in 1875 had his first entry accepted in the Paris Salon, The Man with the Broken Nose.
Shortly after that success, he went to Italy, where he studied the work
of Michelangelo. Then he returned to Belgium, determined to
become a full-time sculptor. The influence of Michelangelo
apparently was strong as indicated by the comments of a scholar who in
1981 wrote that Rodin’s contemporaries eventually came to regard him as
“a mythic, titanic creator, a Michelangelo reincarnated on French soil
. . . a sort of living monument, almost universally recognized as the
greatest artist of this era” (Hunisak, 370).
In Belgium, his working relationship with De Belleuse had fallen apart,
and he, joined by Rose, turned exclusively to his own work. He
began working on a piece, The Age of Bronze, which was a life-size male
figure whose model was a Belgian soldier. It took him eighteen
months, but it was so life-life that when it was exhibited at the Paris
Salon, he was accused of exact copying by casting it from life.
These kinds of accusations persisted throughout the remainder of his
In 1877, he and Rose returned to Paris and settled on the Left Bank.
Exhibition organizers continually rejected his work, and he was 50
years old before he began to earn public acclaim. This
recognition occurred after he had exhibited with Monet and other
Impressionist painters, who were the avant-garde of their era.
Among Rodin’s works are the Gates of Hell, The Burghers of Calais, Balzac and The Kiss---all
controversial because for political and/or sexual connotations.
When The Kiss, whose theme was the withholding of sexual love, was
brought to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, it was rejected
for being too erotic for public display.
Although his work was revolutionary, Rodin personally was a normal
appearing man, courteous, gentlemanly, reserved and
modest-seeming. He was only 5 feet 4 inches in height but gave
the appearance of being larger because he was stocky, had prominent
facial features, full red beard and “undeniable animal magnetism”.
(Strickland) Although he lived simply, he spent generously
on studios, maintaining several locations, and on models, assistants
and art supplies. During the prime of his creativity, he had
several models around the studio full time, who posed randomly, and
when he saw a pose he liked, he had them retain that position while he
made a clay study, usually working very fast and dexterously.
Once his maquette was completed, usually one-third the size of the
finished piece, a studio assistant enlarged it in exact detail.
Inspecting the enlarged piece, Rodin would do retouching, and then turn
it over to the stone carvers or bronze casters. He was very
selective about patinas on the bronzes.
Of working with the human form, he said: "In front of a model, I
work with as great a wish to reproduce that truth as if I were making a
portrait. I do not correct nature but incorporate myself in
it. It guides me. I can only work with a model. The sight
of the human form sustains and stimulates me. I have a boundless
admiration for the naked body---I worship it. I tell you flatly,
I am totally devoid of ideas when I have nothing to copy, but as soon
as I see nature showing me shapes, I find something worth saying.
In Rodin’s later years, he received numerous honors including from
Oxford University and from the French government such as the Grand
Officer of the Legion of Merit. Many books were written about him
and he became an internationally renowned figure. He worked
regularly during most of his life, and died in 1917 at age 77, having
been weakened a year earlier by a stroke.
Marion Strickland, The Kiss, Docent Research Paper Archives of the Phoenix Art Museum. Her Bibliography includes:
Bernard Champigneulle, Rodin; Harry N. Abrams, 1967
Albert Elsen, Rodin, Museum of Modern Art, 1963
William Harlan Hale, Time-Life Books, The World of Rodin
John Hunisak, "Rodin Rediscovered", Art Journal, Winter, 1981
John L. Tancock, The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976
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