Biography of Auguste Rodin, Father of Modern Sculpture

Rodin's "The Thinker" is one of the best-known sculptures of all time

Photograph of Auguste Rodin, pictured with some of his sculptures
Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Auguste Rodin (born Francois Auguste Rene Rodin; November 12, 1840–November 17, 1917) was a French artist and sculptor whose broke away from academic tradition in order to infuse emotion and character into his work. His most famous sculpture, "The Thinker," is one of the best-known sculptures of all time.

Fast Facts: Auguste Rodin

  • Occupation: Sculptor
  • Born: November 12, 1840 in Paris, France
  • Died: November 17, 1917 in Meudon, France
  • Selected Works: "The Thinker" (1880), "The Kiss" (1884), "The Burghers of Calais" (1889)
  • Notable Quote: "I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don't need."

Early Life and Career

Born into a working-class family in Paris, Auguste Rodin began drawing at age 10. Between the ages of 14 and 17, he attended the Petite École, a school that specialized in art and mathematics. There, Rodin studied drawing and painting. In 1857, he submitted a sculpture to the École des Beaux-Arts in an effort to gain admission, but he was rejected three times.

After leaving the Petite École, Rodin worked for the next twenty years as a craftsman creating architectural details. Service in the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 briefly interrupted this work. An 1875 trip to Italy and the opportunity to see the sculptures to see the sculptures of Donatello and Michelangelo up close heavily impacted Rodin's work. In 1876, he produced his first life-size sculpture entitled "The Age of Bronze."

Artistic Success

"The Age of Bronze" drew attention, but much of it was negative. Auguste Rodin endured accusations of sculptural "cheating." The realistic nature of the work and the life-size scale led to accusations that he created the piece by casting directly from the body of a live model.

Detail from
Detail from "The Age of Bronze" (1876). Waring Abbott / Getty Images

The controversy over "The Age of Bronze" quieted somewhat when Edmond Turquet, Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Fine Arts, purchased the work. In 1880, Turquet commissioned a sculpture for a portal known as "Gates of Hell" intended for the entrance to a planned Museum of Decorative Arts that was never built. Although never publicly completed, many critics recognize "Gates of Hell" as possibly Rodin's greatest work. One portion of the sculpture later became "The Thinker."

In 1889, Rodin exhibited thirty-six pieces along with Claude Monet at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Almost all of the works were part of or influenced by "Gates of Hell." Another of Rodin's most famous pieces, "The Kiss" (1884), might have been designed as part of the portal and then rejected.

Commissioned Monuments and Memorials

In 1884, Auguste Rodin received another major commission from the town of Calais, France. He completed "The Burghers of Calais," a two-ton bronze sculpture, in 1889 to widespread acclaim. Despite controversy caused by disagreements with the political leaders of Calais over how to best display the work, Rodin's reputation grew.

the burghers of calais rodin
"The Burghers of Calais" (1889). Michael Nicholson / Getty Images

Rodin was commissioned to create a memorial to author Victor Hugo in 1889, but he didn't deliver the plaster model until 1897. His unique style did not fit traditional understanding of public monuments, and as a result, the piece was not cast in bronze until 1964.

A Parisian organization of writers commissioned a monument to French novelist Honoré de Balzac in 1891. The finished piece featured an intense, dramatic face and body wrapped in a cloak, and it caused a furor when first exhibited in 1898. Despite defense from such prominent figures in the arts as Claude Monet and Claude Debussy, Rodin repaid the money he earned and moved the sculpture to his own private garden. He never completed another public commission. Many critics now consider the Balzac monument one of the greatest sculptures of all time.

Technique

Instead of working with posed models in the classical tradition, Auguste Rodin encouraged models to move around his studio so that he could observe the way their bodies worked. He created his first drafts in clay, then gradually refined them until he was ready to either cast them (in plaster or bronze) or create a replica by carving marble.

Rodin employed a team of skilled assistants to create larger versions of his original clay sculptures. This technique enabled Rodin to transform the original 27-inch "Thinker" into a monumental sculpture.

As his career progressed, Rodin often created new sculptures from pieces of past works. One of the most dramatic examples of this style is "The Walking Man" (1900). He combined a broken and slightly damaged torso found in his studio with the lower body of a new, smaller version of "St. John the Baptist Preaching" (1878). The fusion of pieces created in two different styles broke away from traditional sculptural technique and helped lay the groundwork for the modern sculpture of the 20th century.

Later Years and Death

In January 1917, Rodin married his companion of fifty-three years, Rose Beuret. Two weeks later, Beuret died. Later that year, in November 1917, Auguste Rodin died of complications of influenza.

Auguste Rodin left his studio and the right to cast new pieces from his plasters to the French government. After his death, some of Rodin's contemporaries compared him to Michelangelo. A museum honoring Rodin opened in 1919, two years after his death.

Legacy

Rodin broke away from traditional sculpture by exploring emotion and character in his work. His sculptures depicted not only his models' physical bodies, but also their personalities and demeanors. Additionally, Rodin's presentation of "incomplete" works, as well as his habit of fusing parts of different sculptures together, inspired future generations of artists to experiment with both form and process.

Source

  • Rilke, Rainer Maria. Auguste Rodin. Dover Publications, 2006.