NEW YORK – Although Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) is considered the father of modern sculpture, he was rejected by L’École des Beaux Arts, a prestigious school promoting traditional fine arts. So he spent years crafting architectural embellishments and objets d’art at commercial studios instead. There, in addition to developing masterful modeling skills and efficient production methods, he was freed from prevailing French art rigidity.
Nature, in all her moods and manifestations, became his guide. “There is nothing ugly in Nature, “he explained years hence in a New York Times interview. “All is harmonious if our eyes were only practiced enough to see it.”
The Man with the Broken Nose (1863-75), one of Rodin’s first sculptures, unabashedly epitomizes this. Unlike a stylized bust depicting head, neck and shoulders, it features a backless head of an elder, broken at the neck, with a crushed, crooked nose. Its “incompleteness,” combined with realism astonishing at the time, characterizes many of his later works as well.
Rodin found works of Renaissance sculptors, especially Michelangelo, greatly inspiring. Yet his depiction of a male figure, The Age of Bronze (1877), for example, not only resembles the dynamic, twisted torso of Michelangelo’s marble Dying Slave (1513). Its muscular, life-size body is also imbued with intense human emotion. This work is so realistic that, at the time, it provoked accusations of sculptural cheating – casting directly from living models rather than sculpting them. Thereafter, Rodin usually modeled pieces smaller or larger than life.
In 1880, Rodin was commissioned to create a pair of monumental bronze doors for a future museum of decorative arts. Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (and evoking Lorenzo Ghiberti’s The Gates of Paradise), this never-finished, work-in-progress became known as The Gates of Hell. Through the years, Rodin cast several of its tormented figures, notably The Thinker and The Kiss, as enlarged, independent works. He also replicated hundreds, in various versions, within his lifetime. All are very collectible.
The superbly detailed Le Désespoir [Despair], a Gates of Hell figure featuring head bent low, body coiled over, arms futilely straining against one foot – and doomed to a foursquare block, are rare. A bronze-and-marble life-time copy, confirmed authentic by the authoritative Comité Rodin Paris, realized $306,800 at auction in 2014.
The Burghers of Calais (final version 1889) depicts 14th century city leaders about to sacrifice their lives, to spare that of their fellow citizens. As they approach their doom, each, through touching, subtle gestures and expressions, reveals his final thoughts and emotions – all wrought in bronze.
Rodin, like most artists of the day, considered sculpting a collaborative, yet supervised, effort. After sketching a model’s profile and replicating it in clay, his highly skilled assistants carved it or created hollow forms to be cast in bronze, usually at the Rudier foundry.
Since light affects perception of surface forms, Rodin was particular about the patinas he chose for his pieces. These could be complex. Technical analysis of one version of The Age of Bronze, for example, reveals that an undercoat of green was followed by a coat of darker green. Then selected areas were painted turquoise.
Rodin, believing that bodily fragments can express emotions of complete human figures, was particularly drawn to hands. Some, whether bronze or marble, are simple. Others are spiritual. The Hand of God (1896?), for example, features a hand emerged from a rough block of marble, cradling Adam and Eve as they emerge from a clod of clay.
In word and deed, Rodin likened the art of sculpture to Divine Creation. He was not the first. In the eighth century B.C., the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “O Lord, we are the clay and Thou art our maker.” (64:8).