Rodin was born in a poor area of Paris’s fifth arrondissement to Jean-Baptiste Rodin, an office clerk in the local police station, and Marie Cheffer, his second wife. Despite Jean-Baptiste’s modest earnings, he and Marie attempted to provide a bourgeois upbringing by sending Rodin to a boarding school in Beauvais. He was not a successful student, perhaps in part because of his shortsightedness. In 1854, aged 13, he decided to pursue a career in the arts, attending the École Spéciale de Dessin et de Mathematiques (or “Petite École,” to distinguish it from the Grande École des Beaux-Arts), which trained boys in the decorative arts.
After three years of studying drawing and sculpture, Rodin applied to the Grand École. While he passed the drawing competition, he failed three times in the sculpture competition. Most likely, his pursuit of naturalism did not suit the school’s academic style. After the third rejection, Rodin resigned himself, at the age of 19, to taking jobs in plaster workshops to create architectural ornaments. Although he disliked working for others, these workshops provided him with a meager living for the next 20 years. In his own time, he continued to make sculptures, including a portrait bust called The Man with the Broken Nose (1863-64). He considered this the best of his work and submitted it to the Paris Salon in 1864, but it was rejected.
In 1866, Rodin met Rose Beuret, who remained his lifetime companion despite his numerous affairs. The same year, they had a son, Auguste-Eugene Beuret, whom Rodin never recognized legally. Professionally, around this time, Rodin found better fortune-filling commissions in the workshop of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful commercial sculptor, but the steady work and increased income was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Rodin served as an officer until the French surrendered in 1871, and then followed Carrier-Belleuse to Brussels.
In 1875, Rodin returned to Brussels after a trip to Florence to see the work of Michelangelo. He created a life-size sculpture of a young officer, which he called The Age of Bronze (1876), and this proved to be the turning point in his career. The Salon accepted the work in 1877, but doubts were raised about its authenticity, and many accused him of casting directly from the model’s body. Though Rodin’s protests were not acknowledged by most critics, the work was validated when it was purchased by Edmond Turquet, Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts. Turquet would then commission Rodin to create a monumental bronze doorway for a planned museum of the decorative arts. This project went on to be perhaps Rodin’s greatest work, though the planned museum was cancelled, and The Gates of Hell, as the doors came to be titled, were not even cast until after the artist’s death.
The years during which Rodin worked on The Gates of Hell coincided with his relationship with Camille Claudel. A young sculptor who joined his studio as an assistant in 1884, Claudel had a tumultuous affair with Rodin that lasted until 1892, though they continued to see each other until 1898. During their time together, Rodin made several erotic sculptures of loving couples. Claudel separated from Rodin when it became clear that he would not leave Rose to marry her.
Paris held a centennial celebration of the French Revolution in 1889, called the Exposition Universelle. For the occasion, Rodin showed 36 works together with Claude Monet at the Gallery of Georges Petit. Almost all of these were figures from, or influenced by, The Gates of Hell. Rodin’s style changed after this major exhibit, becoming more spontaneous and loose. His drawings of the female form were simplified and abstracted, while sculptures were often left “unfinished,” a smooth face or figure emerging from rough stone.
Late Years and Death
By 1899, Rodin had a large studio with several assistants. His work, however, continued to elicit trouble and scandal. The Burghers of Calais (1889) was nearly refused for its depiction of the city’s heroes as dejected victims. Similarly, in 1891, Rodin was commissioned by the Society of Men of Letters to create a memorial for the poet Honore Balzac . Instead of taking 18 month to complete the work, Rodin became infatuated with the topic, and completed the commision in 7 years. The commision was ultimately rejected, and after much controversy, Rodin decided to keep the sculpture for himself.
Rodin’s pace slowed down after the sculpture of Balzac, but he had achieved financial success. Several exhibitions around the turn of the century brought him worldwide renown. He exhibited in Belgium and Holland in 1899, and was given his first retrospective in Paris in 1900. Subsequent shows took place in Prague, New York, and Germany. In 1908, Rodin moved to the now-famous Hotel Biron, where he rented rooms alongside other famous tenants such as Isadora Duncan, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Henri Matisse. The Hotel became his new studio and the home of his affair with the Marquise (and later, Duchess) Claire de Choiseul. She exercised great control over his life and the sale of his work for seven years, until she was accused of stealing a box of drawings. Because of her scheming and that of other women around Rodin, friends encouraged him to marry Rose Beuret in January 1917. Rose died two weeks after the wedding, and Rodin passed away in November of that same year.
The Legacy of Auguste Rodin
Before Rodin’s death, he bequeathed all of his drawings, sculptures, and archives to the state of France to create a museum in the Hotel Biron at Meudon. Yet even without a national museum, his sculptures and drawings would still have had a huge impact on younger artists. Henri Matisse was influenced by the spontaneity of his drawings, while Cubists and Futurists were fascinated by his sense of motion and the fragmentation of his human forms. While Rodin’s reputation declined in the decades immediately following his death, his rebellion against academic standards and his vivid expression of the human form planted the seed for a new French sculpture. Today, nearly every large encyclopedic museum owns a casting of one of his sculptures, and exhibitions of his work are held regularly, making Rodin one of the few artists recognizable to the general public.
The human figure
In 1875 Rodin went to Italy, where he was deeply inspired by the work of Donatello (c. 1386–1466) and of Michelangelo (1475–1564), whose sculpture he characterized as being marked by both "violence and constraint." Back in Paris in 1876, Rodin made a bronze statue of a standing man raising his arms toward his head in such a way as to project an air of uncertainty. Rodin originally entitled the piece the Vanquished, then called it the Age of Bronze. When he submitted it to the Salon, it caused an immediate controversy, for it was so lifelike that it was believed to have been cast from the living
In 1878 Rodin began work on the St. John the Baptist Preaching and various related works, including the Walking Man. Influenced partially by some of Donatello's late works, it was based on numerous poses of the model in constant motion. Rodin raised the very act of walking into a subject worthy of concentrated study.
By 1880 Rodin's fame had become international, and that year the French government hired him to design a doorway for the proposed Museum of Decorative Arts. The project, called the Gates of Hell after Dante's (1265–1321) Inferno, occupied Rodin for the rest of his life, and particularly in the next decade, but it was never finished. The gates were cast in their incomplete state in the late 1920s.
The Gates of Hell was conceived in the tradition of the great portals (gateways) of Western art, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti's (1378–1455) Gates of Paradise in Florence, Italy. Rodin was unable to plan the gates as a complete organized design and they remained a loose collection of groups. Yet certain of the isolated figures or groups of figures, when enlarged and executed separately, became some of Rodin's finest pieces: Three Shades (1880), Crouching Woman (1885), the Old Courtesan (1885), the Kiss (1886), and the Thinker (1888).
Auguste's realism and his penchant for ordinary subject matter meant that he opened the door for artists to explore new techniques, themes and materials that had hitherto been considered inappropriate. Rodin lived well into his seventies, but he did not really begin his artistic career until he was in his thirties; all the more remarkable then that he left a body of work which numbers in the thousands. After his death he was hailed as the new Michelangelo; an impressive epitaph for a man who was considered, in his day, a scandalous rebel. Today his work is admired and sought after with many pieces considered priceless.
Early Training and Influences
Rodin was not an academic child, but he showed early signs of artistic flair, subsequently he left his traditional schooling at the age of thirteen and enrolled in a drawing school where he was trained in the basics of sketching, modelling, painting and drawing. Encouraged by his small successes and certain that he wanted to pursue a career as an artist, Auguste then applied to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was not accepted. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts had very traditional and classical standards which meant that any young hopeful with different ideas or manner of expression would find themselves rejected and "unacceptable". Auguste took it very badly.
Rodin found himself with no choice but to use the skills he had been taught and turned to decorative work to make his living. True artistic inspiration did not come until almost twenty years later when he left France and travelled to Italy. It is there that he discovered the creative mastery of Michelangelo and Donatello. It was a revelation. The realism and emotion he saw so clearly expressed in Michelangelo's work was a complete departure from the stilted, classical works expected in sculptures of the time. In Donatello's sculptures he witnessed irreverence and individuality that had long been stifled in his own work. Auguste, at last, had found his "voice" and he realised that the reason he was not accepted to the Ecole all those years before was that he could not conform to classicism. Suddenly he knew what he wanted to create, and he wasted no time. His own genius had finally been ignited.
Rodin the Realist
Universal acclaim did not come easily to Rodin. Critics found his work to be too realistic and too far removed from the classical subjects and poses of the traditional sculptors. However, after his epiphany in Italy it would have been impossible for him to create anything that did not express the honesty that he had encountered. From the very moment Auguste began to craft his original works he somehow managed to depict, almost brutally at times, raw, human feelings from joy to grief and everything in between. In 1876, at the age of thirty-six, he created the first example of his "truth", The Age of Bronze – a truly seminal work. It depicts a naked man who appears to be in an attitude of anguish.
The life-sized figure is roughly hewn and is so real one can almost feel the angst. The critics were horrified; traditionally sculptures were of classical characters depicting some Greek or Roman story and only Gods and Goddesses were ever portrayed in the nude. Suddenly, here was Rodin, offering a naked man expressing human emotion. It was a scandal. The figure was so incredibly realistic that some critics accused Auguste of actually taking a cast of the model's body. Auguste was naturally highly offended by the suggestion, but it was in fact a great compliment to his craft. Regardless of the short-sightedness of the art world, Rodin had found his style and would continue to produce realistic, emotional sculptures for the rest of his working life. Indeed, it is Auguste's skilful expression of all of life's experiences through his work that places him at the pinnacle of his craft even today.
Most Famous Works
There really are so many of Rodin's works that are instantly recognisable it is hard to decide which are "the most famous". If longevity of work is a mark of a master piece, then perhaps his greatest labour must have been, The Gates of Hell, 1899. This enormous task took Rodin almost twenty years to complete and even then, he is said to have been dissatisfied with the result. Originally commissioned as the decorative doors for the Decorative Arts Museum, Rodin based his design on Dante's "Inferno". He took further inspiration from Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise which were such seminal work that they are thought to have inspired the renaissance. The doors contain one hundred and eighty separate figures, many of which inspired other individual works by Auguste.
Sadly, the doors were never hung as the Museum was never established. However, after Rodin's death, many casts were created and they are displayed all over the world today, from Tokyo to Paris. Another very famous and prolific bronze work by Rodin is The Burghers of Calais, 1889 (cast in bronze 1893). Commissioned by the town of Calais to depict the honour of its people during the hundred years war, "the Burghers of Calais" was controversial almost from its inception. The original notion was to express the heroic actions of six towns people who sacrificed themselves for the greater good during the siege of 1347. However, Rodin's vision was much more human. The sculpture shows the men almost broken yet sure and determined, all lost in their own thoughts as they face the prospect of death.
The mayor was disappointed with the results, but when he finally agreed to display it, it met with great critical acclaim. Today, over twenty castings of the statues, singly and together exist, displayed around the world. It is considered a universal symbol of human sacrifice. Finally, it would be impossible to compile a list of famous works that did not include, The Thinker, 1880 (Bronze cast in 1902). This is undoubtably the most recognisable and most copied of Rodin's sculptures. Like many of Auguste's works, The Thinker was inspired by a figure on the Doors of Hell. It depicts a man sitting in a moment of deep thought; however, the posture and realism of the figure makes us believe that he would rise and walk away at any moment. A true masterpiece, The Thinker encapsulates the genius of Rodin; he is made of bronze, and yet he is a living, feeling being.
The Legacy of Auguste Rodin
During his lifetime Rodin taught countless students to embrace their inner genius through sculpture. It was his great love to share his understanding of artistic expression and to continue to break down barriers for new and exciting artists. Many great sculptors and artists have claimed Rodin as a great influence for their work including Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. Before his death Rodin had reached great heights of fame and honour. Considered the Michelangelo of his time, he had been commissioned to create works all over the world. However, the legacy of Rodin's work was made real when he left all his works to the French State and therein the rights to make casts of everything he had created. As a result, there are copies of Auguste's work in most major museums around the world and there are whole facilities dedicated to him in Paris, Philadelphia and Tokyo. Ultimately, Rodin's legacy is his strength of will to push sculpture as an art form through the limitations of the day and move it into a new era where true and honest expression can be achieved and appreciated for the genius that it is.
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