5 Auguste Rodin Sculptures You Should Be Familiar With

August 17, 2019

A celebrated French artist, Auguste Rodin was born in obscurity and rejected by the official academies for years. However, by the time of his death, the sculptor was likened to Michelangelo.

Born in 1840 into a working-class family in Paris, France, Auguste Rodin was largely self-educated and began to draw at age 10. After failing to enroll École des Beaux - Arts, he earned a living as a craftsman and ornamenter for most of the next two decades, honing his craft.

Stripping away many of the narrative references to the classical myth that were still attached to academic sculpture in the late 19th century, Rodin focused on capturing the dignity of simple human moments. His lifelike figures embodied modern attitudes of love, thought, and proud physicality. Aiming to express the fleeting mobility of the modern individual, Rodin created rougher, more unfinished surfaces, which better expressed restlessness, corporeality, and movement. Auguste Rodin works produce strange and jarring effects, reflecting the sculptor's non-classical approach to composition.

Auguste Rodin is today regarded as the central figure at the beginning of modern sculpture and his artistic heritage is marked by the rise of a complex and experimental avant-garde. His mature pieces inspired sculptors to re-create sculpture out of the elemental form of the material, but also to start handling space analytically. The early influence of sorrowed surfaces created by Rodin could be seen in Picasso’s Head of a Woman and Matisse’s series of Jeannette busts.

Most of Rodin's major works are housed in the Rodin Museum, which is located on the Left Bank of Paris within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower.

Here are five Auguste Rodin sculptures that you definitely should know about.

Featured image: Auguste Rodin - Burghers of Calais, 1884-1895. All images via Wikimedia Commons.

Monument to Balzac

Among the most renown bronze works by Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac celebrated the French novelist Honoré Balzac. First commissioned by the Société des Gens de Lettre in 1898, the work was rejected under criticism. It was cast in bronze 22 years after the sculptor's death and placed in Paris. There are various casts and studies of the sculpture in a range of worldwide collections.

As Rodin explained, he wanted to capture the writer's persona rather than a physical likeness. The head of the sculpture evolved from a portrait resembling the writer into a concentration of expressive features, while the body had moved in the opposite direction. In this way, the artist created a powerful evocation of the visionary genius draped in the monk’s habit he used to wear when writing. Today, the artwork is sometimes considered the first truly modern sculpture.

Featured image: Auguste Rodin - Monument to Balzac, 1892-1897.

The Burghers of Calais

One of the best known Rodin's sculptures, Les Bourgeois de Calais commemorates an event during the Hundred Years' War, when Calais, a French port on the English Channel, was under siege by Edward III for about eleven months. It was commissioned by the city of Calais in 1884 and completed in 1889.

During the siege, Calais was struck by starvation which forced it to parley surrender. Edward offered to spare the people of the city if six of its leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first, and five other burghers joined with him. Their lives were however spared by the intervention of England's queen, Philippa of Hainault, who persuaded her husband to show mercy.

Roding created a sculpture which depicts the burghers going towards the city gate to meet their fate, capturing a poignant mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death. As city officials commissioned a piece to celebrate the heroism of de Saint Pierre, Rodin's design which included all six figures depicted in "pain, anguish and fatalism" was initially controversial. The work was placed on a large pedestal, despite Rodin wanting it on ground level so that people could feel the solidarity with these figures. The wish of the artist was realized only later after the sculpture was moved in front of the newly completed town hall of Calais. Today, there are twelve original castings of the sculpture, including the ones in Rodin Museum in Paris, France, Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, Kunstmuseum in Basel, and the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, among others.

Featured image: Auguste Rodin - Burghers of Calais, 1884-1895.

The Gates of Hell

A monumental sculptural work standing 6 meters high, 4 meters wide and 1 meter deep, The Gates of Hell is composed of 180 figures depicting a scene from Dante Alighieri's Inferno. A truly unique piece in the artist's oeuvre, these figures and groups formed a breeding ground for ideas which Rodin drew on for the rest of his working life. In an article in Le Martin, Auguste Rodin recalled:

For a whole year, I lived with Dante, with him alone, drawing the eight circles of his inferno. [...] At the end of this year, I realized that while my drawing rendered my vision of Dante, they had become too remote from reality. So I started all over again, working from nature, with my models.

The piece was initially supposed to be exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, France, but was still unfinished. It was finally unveiled at his first solo exhibition in Paris, but in a fragmentary state as Rodin gave up the idea of mounting the figures that stood out the most. In 1917, Léonce Bénédite, the Musée Rodin’s first curator, persuaded the artist to allow him to reconstruct his masterpiece in order to have it cast in bronze. Rodin died at the age of 77 before seeing the result of all these long years of effort.

Featured image: Auguste Rodin - The Gates of Hell, 1880 - circa 1890.

The Thinker

Created in 1880 and cast in 1904, The Thinker is probably Auguste Rodin's most famous sculpture. Depicting a nude male figure sitting on a rock as though deep in thought, it is often as a representation of philosophy.

Initially named The Poet, the piece was part of the large 1980 commission for a doorway surround The Gates of Hell, which was based on Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. Auguste Rodin conceived the bronze sculpture to be the crowning element of the composition, seated on the tympanum. Its nudity evokes heroic figures in the tradition of Michelangelo, while the pose, which Rodin wanted to embody intellect and poetry, owes much to Carpeaux’s Ugolino from 1861 and to Michelangelo's seated portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici from 1526-31.

In 1988, the smaller version of the sculpture was exhibited individually, when it became an independent work. The colossal bronze version we all know today was first cast in 1904. Today, several versions of the sculpture exist worldwide, including one in the gardens of the Rodin Museum in Paris and another in the gardens of Rodin’s house in Meudon, on the tomb of the sculptor and his wife.

Featured image: Auguste Rodin - The Thinker, 1880, cast 1904.

The Kiss

A 1882 marble sculpture by Rodin, The Kiss depicts the embracing nude couple. This is another piece which appeared originally as part of a group of reliefs decorating The Gates of Hell.

Originally titled Francesca da Rimini, it depicts the 13th-century Italian noblewoman immortalized in Dante's Inferno who falls in love with her husband Giovanni Malatesta's younger brother Paolo. The couple was discovered and killed by Giovanni as they exchanged their first kiss, condemned to wander eternally through Hell. The less specific title, The Kiss, was later suggested by the critics.

Rodin's dynamic composition embodies happiness and sensuality. The inherent eroticism in the sculpture also made it controversial. The enlarged version in marble was commissioned by the French state in 1888, which Rodin took nearly ten years to deliver. There are several copies of the work in bronze and marble which exist today.

Featured image: Auguste Rodin - The Kiss, 1882.

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