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Auguste Rodin: The Father of Modern Sculpture

By Edited May 5, 2015 1 0


Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin, born François Auguste René Rodin, was a preeminent French sculptor who lived from the 12th of November, 1840 to the 17th of November 1917. His ability to model incredibly detailed and evocative figures in clay set him apart from his contemporaries, but also earned him much criticism during his lifetime, as his works went against the highly dogmatic ones of the past. Rodin is now considered the founder of the modern sculpture style.

Rodin was born in 1840 into a working-class family in Paris. From 1854 to 1857, he attended the Petite École, where he would receive the entirety of his formal training in drawing and painting. Following rejections from the Grande École, Rodin left the Petite École in 1857, and, for the next eighteen years, would earn a living as a run of the mill ornamentor. 


The Age of Bronze
St John the Baptist Preaching

In 1864, Rodin submitted his first statue, the unconventional The Man with the Broken Nose, to the Paris Salon. In the same year he also entered the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful mass producer of art works, where he would work as the chief assistant until 1870. Carrier-Belleuse soon asked Rodin to join him in Belgium; he would spend the next six years abroad, a very formative time in his life. Having saved up some money, Rodin visited Italy in 1875, where he was highly influenced by the works of the style of Renaissance masters Donatello and Michelangelo. Upon returning from his trip Rodin began work on The Age of Bronze, a life-size male figure the realism of which brought Rodin public attention but also caused accusations of "surmoulage," a form of sculptural cheating that involves making statues by taking a cast of a live human subject. At this time in his career Rodin earned his living by collaborating with other sculptors on public commissions; he himself did not win competitions for commissions. However he persevered, working on his own time towards the creation of his next important work,  St. John the Baptist Preaching, a figure created larger than life so as to avoid the “surmoulage” charges still surrounding The Age of Bronze.

The Burghers of Calais

Rodin’s career only really took off in 1880, when his increased renown due to his work as a designer for Carrier-Belleuse brought him to the attention of Edmund Turquet, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Fine Arts. Through this relationship Rodin won the commission to create a portal for a planned museum. Rodin dedicated much of the next four decades to this portal, which would become The Gates of Hell. Though it was never finished, as the museum it was to adorn was never actually built, many of the portal's figures became individual pieces, including two of Rodin's most famous ones, The Thinker and The Kiss. With this commission came a free studio, at last granting Rodin artistic freedom. He now earned his living entirely from private commissions and stopped working for Carrier-Belleuse. While creating with The Gates of Hell, Rodin was also busy with other works, including another of his very famous statues, a historical monument for the town of Calais, that he would name The Burghers of Calais. In addition, in 1891 Rodin was chosen for the creation of a monument to the author Honoré de Balzac, who had just died. His execution of this sculpture, undoubtedly his most controversial, clashed with traditional expectations, and was met with various levels of disapproval. Nevertheless Rodin's career was ever more successful as he continued to gain the diverse support and followers necessary for everlasting fame. After the revitalization of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1890, Rodin served as the body's vice-president. In 1903, Rodin was elected president of the International Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. The later years of his career were very profitable as he produced sculpture portraits of prominent international figures.


The Kiss

Rodin was a naturalist, deeply concerned with the individual, seeing suffering and conflict as hallmarks of modern art. Departing from the tradition styles of the Greeks and of the Baroque and neo-Baroque movements, his sculptures emphasized the character of the subject; strong emotions are conveyed by the highy textured and detailed surfaces, which create a powerful relationship between light and shadow. Perhaps Rodin explained it best when he said, refering to The Thinker, that "what makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes". Every part of the body speaks for the whole, the physical features revealing nature of the character.


The Thinker

In keeping with his depature from the traditional, Rodin made his models move naturally about his studio, making quick sketches in clay that were later reworked. George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright, sat for a portrait by Rodin and described this technique: "while he worked, he achieved a number of miracles. At the end of the first fifteen minutes, after having given a simple idea of the human form to the block of clay, he produced by the action of his thumb a bust so living that I would have taken it away with me to relieve the sculptor of any further work." After Rodin completed his refinement of his preliminary work in clay, he employed assistants to recreate his work in a larger scale. Rodin would also create works by employing the singular method of breaking up his plaster casts and then recombining various peices to create new sculptures.

In conclusion, Rodin's pieces, departing from the traditional themes that had been holding the art world in their grip, depicted the human physique with a realism enhanced by their individual character and emotion. The movement Rodin started freed sculpture from its strictures, both returning it to its past role of capturing the essence of the human subject and opening the way for greater experimentation in the future. Recognised as the preeminent artist of his time, today Auguste Rodin is recognized as the foremost sculptor of the modern era and remains one of the few sculptors known outside the visual arts community.

Man with the Broken Nose
Monument to Balzac


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