French sculptor Auguste Rodin was born in November 1840 and died in November 1917, making this month the centenary of his death. His best-known works are probably The Thinker and The Kiss, examples of which exist in museums worldwide, but over and above creating two of the world’s best-loved artworks, he is credited with transforming the sculpting craft, which is why his work remains so relevant.
Catherine Chevillot, the director of the Rodin museum in Paris says that in many ways he was the founder of modern sculpture. “He experimented all the time, discovered new techniques and approaches to working. His use of fragments was ground-breaking at the time.” Rodin would make casts of fragments of bodies and then assemble castings in different ways. He also evolved a method of working in which he would make a clay casting and then alter it before firing, changing the hair, or adding a cupid, or a veil, to make it unique.
“His assemblies, taking things which existed and then adding something of his own to make a new work of art, are commonplace now, but it was provocative at the time. So he was a discoverer, and his vocabulary was very expressive. He was an expressionist sculptor, meaning he openly, deliberately expressed interior emotions, which until then had been very codified. But he aimed for a strong emotional content.”
Born into a working class family in Paris, Auguste Rodin was largely self-educated. He began to draw at 10 and went on to study drawing and painting at the Petite Ecole, where he had the luck to be taught by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who believed that his students should develop their own personalities in order to develop their own eye for art. Later in life, Rodin said how much he liked this approach, but at the time his efforts weren’t appreciated and when he left the art school in 1857, he earned his living producing decorative objects and architectural embellishments.
His creative impulse wasn’t satisfied, however, and he studied with Antoine-Louis Barye, an animal sculptor who specialised in the type of detailed musculature that later on became such a feature of Rodin’s work. In 1864, when he was just 24 years old, he began living with Rose Beuret, a seamstress who was only 20 herself. Their relationship survived multiple infidelities and absences, ending only when she died in February 1917. The couple had a son in 1866, but Rodin was never really attached to Auguste Beuret, and seems to have been a neglectful father.
Employed by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse to mass produce objets d’art, Rodin ended up being invited to follow his employer to Belgium in order to produce ornamentation for the Brussels Stock Exchange but the pair fell out and Rodin found other work. Leaving their son behind, Rose joined him in Belgium, where he began exhibiting.
Rodin worked in clay, which unless kept wet deteriorates very quickly. In order to preserve his work, he made plaster casts of his clay models. These could then be stored until someone commissioned a casting, or until he had could pay for one himself. In Belgium, he managed to save enough to travel to Italy, where he fell under the spell of Michelangelo’s work. Inspired, he returned to Belgium and began work on a life size male nude, The Age of Bronze.
The work wasn’t an illustration of a classical story, wasn’t a classical hero, wasn’t really about anything. Shockingly for the time, it was just a male figure. The title was settled on months after the completion, so explanations about the meaning of it were rendered slightly pointless. It was art for art’s sake. It did, however, attract attention, the technical brilliance of the execution leading critics to accuse him of having cheated, and making the figure from a mould taken directly from a living human figure.
Stung, Rodin refuted these claims and demanded that experts inspect the work and give evidence that it was indeed a sculpture and not merely a plaster cast made from a living human. It was the last life-sized sculpture he ever made. From then onwards, he either made his figures smaller, or larger than life.
In 1877, Rodin and Rose moved back to Paris, and collaborated with other sculptors on public commissions while still producing models that he hoped would lead to commissions. Undeterred by lack of interest, he began working on St John the Baptist Preaching; a male nude appearing to be walking towards the viewer. Meantime, in order to keep the money coming in he accepted a job with Carrier-Belleuse who had become the art director of the Sèvres porcelain factory.
Finally in 1880 he won the commission to create a massive portal for a planned museum of decorative arts and he plunged into creating The Gates of Hell, a massive project which he continued to work on for practically the rest of his life. The museum itself was never built, but in the process of designing it, Rodin produced both The Thinker and The Kiss.
The commission freed him from his day job and finally Rodin was a full-time sculptor and on the way to achieving enormous fame. From then on he travelled and used his celebrity to promote his work. In 1883 he met a young sculptress called Camille Claudel. She was 18, he was 43 and still in a relationship with Rose Beuret, but that didn’t stop them embarking on a turbulent affair that lasted more than 15 years.
“This relationship with Camille Claudel was really scandalous for the time,” says Catherine Chevillot. “But she was the love of his life, and also immensely influential artistically. In fact in some works, it’s hard to tell where his hand stops and hers starts. That’s why we have a lot of her work at the Rodin museum, donated by her brother Paul Claudel.”
Rodin even signed some of Camille Claudet’s work, falsely claiming it as his own. She was also his muse, sitting for various sculptures and drawings.
Rodin embarked on The Burghers of Calais, memorialising six community leaders who volunteered to be killed by British King Edward III in order to save the population from slaughter, and who were subsequently spared for their courage, using the work to explore the humanity of the situation. Rodin depicts the men as conflicted, confused – each one reacting differently to the situation.
It wasn’t quite what the town council was expecting. They had anticipated something more classically heroic, more brave-townsmen-saving-Calais, and less human. But today the piece is one of Rodin’s best known, and the pride of Calais.
His career established, his income ensured, Rodin continued working. In total he left many thousands of artworks; busts, figures, sculptural fragments, paintings in oil and watercolour, drawings in chalk and charcoal, portraits, prints, and a lithograph. He left monuments to Hugo and Balzac, busts of Bernard Shaw, Mahler and Georges Clemenceau amongst others.
By 1900 he was famous, receiving requests for commissions from all over the world. He was a regular visitor to Great Britain, and both Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Browning were in his circle. As a token of his fondness for the British, he donated a large part of his work to the country in 1914. By this time Rodin had bought a villa just outside Paris, in Meudon, and in 1917 on January 29 he finally married Rose Beuret, who had remained faithful throughout everything, just a fortnight before her death. He died from influenza, at the age of 77 on November 17, 1917.