WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — While there has been much consideration of Auguste Rodin’s reputation in France and throughout Europe, less attention has been paid to his legacy in the United States. Organized by the Clark Art Institute, Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern presents one of the largest Rodin exhibitions in the United States in the last 40 years. Featuring some 50 sculptures and 25 drawings, including both familiar masterpieces and lesser-known works of the highest quality, the exhibition tells the story of the collectors, agents, art historians and critics who endeavored to make Rodin known in America and considers the artist’s influence and reputation in the U.S. from 1893 to the present. Rodin in the United States is on view at the Clark Art Institute through September 18.
“This summer’s exhibition is an exciting opportunity for us to present a significant collection of many of Rodin’s most important sculptures and drawings and to share the story of the early years when his art was first being added to American museum collections,” said Hardymon Director of the Clark Olivier Meslay, adding. “We will explore the ebb and flow of Rodin’s reputation over the last 125 years as the tastes of the time and curatorial interests evolved, and we will look at the influence of a fascinating group of Rodin’s supporters and critics. ”
The exhibition explores changing perceptions of the sculptor’s work, beginning with the first acquisition made by an American institution — the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1893 — and Rodin’s controversial debut at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in the same year. The exhibition examines the collecting frenzy of the early 20th century, promoted by noted philanthropist Katherine Seney Simpson, avant-garde performer Loie Fuller and collector Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many museums made important acquisitions of Rodin’s work, further fueling avid interest in the artist. By the 1940s and 1950s, the early enthusiasm had waned, and, in the words of art historian Leo Steinberg, Rodin’s reputation was “in full decline.” The exhibition further explores another shift in Rodin’s reputation in the 1980s that renewed the celebration of the artist that continues to the present day.
“The love story between Rodin and the United States, which first blossomed through the friendship between the artist and Katherine Seney Simpson, has never ended,” said Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, Rodin scholar and guest curator of the exhibition. “The United States is thus, after France, the country where Rodin is best represented in sculpture — terra cotta, plaster, marble or bronze — as well as in drawing. The history of these collections, whether public or private, constitutes a history of taste whose vagaries form part of the history of modernity, represented in painting by the Impressionists, who we must not forget were Rodin’s contemporaries and some of whom, like Claude Monet, were his friends.” Le Normand-Romain is the former Director General of the National Institute of the History of Art in Paris and former curator at the Musee d’Orsay and Musee Rodin. She was the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor at the Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in 2016-17.
Auguste Rodin followed an unusual path to becoming one of the most innovative, influential, celebrated and controversial sculptors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rejected at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he studied instead at the Petite Ecole, where copying traditional styles was promoted. For 20 years, he worked for jewelers, decorative artists and masons. He honed his skill as a modeler of clay in other sculptors’ studios, taking evening art classes and eventually setting up his own studio where he worked from live models.
Beyond literary, historical and religious subjects, Rodin was interested in expressing human emotion. He often broke from convention by representing people around him, instead of models celebrated for their classical beauty. Some of Rodin’s sculptures looked unfinished to his contemporaries or bore the traces of his process. Rodin also went against academic standards that favored representations of the whole body posed in a traditional manner, choosing instead to focus on the fragment or partial figure in unexpected poses. Further, some pieces had no narrative framework, while others expressed sexuality with an unapologetic frankness that was considered scandalous at the time.
Rodin first achieved a successful reception in the United States in the last decade of the 19th century and enjoyed a celebrated following for the next 40 to 50 years. By the time of the Second World War, however, sentiment regarding Rodin’s art had shifted and his reputation suffered. His sculptures were either relegated to less prominent places in many museum collections or removed from the public eye. Tastes shifted again in the early 1980s following an important exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art, bringing about a resurgence of appreciation for Rodin in the United States that continues today.
Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern explores how American collectors have embraced Rodin’s sculptures and drawings during the course of several decades, assembling collections and often giving them to public institutions to ensure more people could encounter Rodin’s revolutionary art. The highly-researched show includes loans of key works by more than 30 museum and private collections from across the country.
Rodin’s reputation is firmly established in the United States today, but the path to his acceptance was a complicated, winding one, and the stories of the collectors and institutions who embraced his work reveal a desire to look beyond the conventional to confront — and embrace — the modern.
Visit the website of the Clark Art Institute and see its dedicated page for Rodin in the United States: Confronting the Modern.