The 19th century’s most prominent French sculptor was Auguste Rodin, who was known for his traditional sculptural works such as The Thinker (1889) and The Age of Bronze (1877). During that period, decorative and thematic art movements were thriving and little was known about the status of sculpture. Thus, it is then safe to assume that he is one of the main forerunners of the modern French sculpture.
Rodin grew up learning classical sculpture and utilized a craftsman approach to his art. He was one of the few artists of his generation who did not feel the need to rebel against the rigid traditional art. Instead, he dedicated himself to it even though he was criticized for it during his career stint. In fact, he was never schooled by the Royal Academy in Paris, nonetheless, his works are some of the most treasured works of art of the 19th-20th century.
Rodin is recognized as the last artist in line with the tradition started by the likes of Donatello, Michelangelo, and through Giovanni Bernini. He basically re-introduced sculpture to the modern Western art. He was a versatile artist known for working on a variety of media such as plaster, wood, stone and bronze. He particularly possessed the skill and talent to model a clay into a complex and elaborate sculpture.
The criticisms on Rodin’s works were mainly caused by his inclination towards producing traditional works in an era where thematic and decorative paintings were dominant. His works told mythological narratives and allegories, and his human figure was structured based on the most realistic representations. Thus, his works celebrated the individual and unique physicality and personality of the subject.
Rodin’s prominence began to grow after he visited Italy in 1875, where he must have gained sources of inspiration for his later works. His major figures are defined by their unconventionality which appealed to the taste of some wealth art patrons. This helped him establish a reputable career as a sculptor in France. He even became a world-famous artist by the advent of 20th century.
Some of his masterpieces include The Walking Man (1877), St. John the Baptist Preaching (1889), The Burghers of Calais (1895), The Gates of Hell (1917), The Kiss (1889), and the Monument to Balzac (1898). His Gates of Hell was his response to the Last Judgment by Michelangelo and Dante’s Inferno. Without doubt, Rodin ranked among the best of the best of his generation and so his works have been displayed at various notable museums throughout Europe and the US.
The French sculptor was born with the given name Francois Auguste Rene Rodin on November 12, 1840. He was raised by a working-class family, with Jean-Baptiste a police inspector and Marie Cheffer a seamstress as the parents. He practically lived in Mouffetard, a well-known working-class enclave of Paris.
At a young age, he was schooled by the Ecole Imperiale Speciale de Dessin et de Mathematiques. He was particularly trained to be a decorative artist but he decided to focus on learning the rudiments of 18th century French art. There he took lessons on anatomy under Antoine-Louis Barye, a well-known sculptor of French Romanticism. He was also under the tutelage of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran for his drawing lessons. With the said drawing teacher, he developed his own artistic personality that presumably helped him come up with a decision to turn away from neoclassicism.
It is said that Rodin’s decision to refuse to enroll at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was partly because he never liked the firm neoclassical teaching and training there. This has been proven to be true by his own experience; when he submitted a clay sculpture a companion to the Ecole, the judges rejected his work. This was a major setback for him that he decided to leave the Petite Ecole in 1857. He traded the opportunity to having a secured future after graduating from Ecole des Beaux-Arts for a life-long apprenticeship to several masters and art patrons.
For decades, he worked as a modeler in the studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a talented sculptor. Even during the Franco-Prussian War he followed the said master to Belgium in order to work for him continuously. In Belgium, he met Antoine Van Rasbourgh who would become his partner in finishing a number of large-scale stone sculptures. These works are now part of the allegorical groups of the Brussels Bourse.
However, prior to 1870’s, there was a life-altering event that raged Rodin. His older sister named Maria died of peritonitis in 1862 while she was staying at a convent. The brother felt guilty because he was responsible for introducing his sister to a treacherous suitor. As a result, he joined the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament for a short while.
However, the head of the Congregation Peter Julian Eymard thought that Rodin’s artistic talent was not meant for rendering the Catholic order. Eymard then encouraged the artist to pursue his sculpture career by working as a building decorator while taking his arts training under Antoine-Louis Barye. In 1864 he moved in with Rose Beuret, a seamstress, with whom he would commit himself for all eternity.
Going to his work in Brussels, he found another employment opportunity with private clients. He saved up for his trip to Italy in 1875, which was well-spent. For two months he became quickly drawn to the life and works of Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Donatello. These Old Masters undoubtedly had a profound influence on Rodin’s works, and he even said that “It is Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture.” Right after he returned to Belgium, he started casting The Age of Bronze, a monumental male figure sculpted with realistic features and characteristics.
In 1877, Rodin settled in Paris together with his life partner. The couple stayed in a small apartment on Left Bank, and the two never had it easy. Rodin found himself lamenting over a series of tragic events in his family, in which both of his parents had died already as well as Rose’s sister, Aunt Therese. The said aunt cared for Rodin’s son, Auguste who was suffering from developmental delay. And by the time that Therese died, he was reunited with his son and the three of them lived together.
During this period, Rodin would have been working as a collaborator for esteemed sculptors and architects. He began working on public commissions in order to provide for his family. Also, he participated in leading competitions to which he submitted models of Lazare Carnot, Denis Diderot, and Rousseau but none of it had won the judges’ vote. But this didn’t stop him from pushing through his career as he began working on St. John the Baptist Preaching toward the latter end of 1870’s.
In 1880 Rodin was employed by Carrier-Belleuse to be his porcelain designer at the Sevres National Porcelain Factory. He accepted the part-time offer and he embraced his new work environment as though it was his own studio. He designed vases and tables that brought Sevres success and fame throughout the continent. This success served him well in appealing to the taste of the public audience and the community, as his contemporaries began to appreciate his work. At one point, the Paris Salon invited him to appear at an event.
According to writer Leon Cladel, Rodin was timid and shy but as he became popular in the circle, he seemed to change his personality. His temperamental side was shown and he became known for it. Nonetheless, Leon Gambetta befriended Rodin and they met at the salon. His association with Gambetta helped him expand his client circles as the statesman would often talk about Rodin to his colleagues in the government.
Through Gambetta, Rodin became friends with Edmund Turquet who later awarded him the 1880 commission. He was to manufacture a portal for a museum meant to showcase decorative arts. As a result, the Gates of Hell was conceived and executed though it remained unfinished. Other figures he created for this commission were The Kiss and The Thinker, both of which are now considered a modern masterpiece. One of the best things about this commission was the free studio that came along with the offer. The studio gave Rodin some room for creative expression and freedom, which also allowed him to work as a full-time independent artist.
Auguste Rodin did some teaching during the early 1880’s. He was a substitute art teacher for Alfred Boucher indefinitely. There he met the young Camille Claudel, and the two shared a romantic student-teacher relationship yet the bond was inclined towards having the same artistic influences. Claudel served as his inspiration for many of his figures during that period.
In 1891, Rodin received a commission to create a sculpture of Honore de Balzac and another for the town of Calais. The two sculptural works displayed different traditional styles that it received various negative criticism from the sponsors. However, his fame was already at its peak that he moved on with the setback easily.
One of the last milestones that Rodin had achieved was his judging stint at the Paris salon in 1889. As for his personal life, his two lovers Beuret and Claude grew impatient for his double life setup but in the end he chose to be with Beuret. He did so because he thought deeply of their long-term companionship and how loyal she was to him and his son despite his caprices.
After Claudel and Rodin went their separate ways, Claudel experienced a nervous breakdown. She was then admitted to a mental health institution by her family where she would remain until her last days. In 1917, Rodin and Beuret got married. However, the newly-wed couple died some weeks later presumably due to old age. The French sculptor died on November 17, 1917 at the age of 77 and the state held a lavish funeral for him in Paris.