Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was the preeminent French sculptor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Considered to be the progenitor of modern sculpture, Rodin was deeply inspired by artistic tradition yet rebelled against its idealised forms, introducing innovative practices that paved the way for modern sculpture.
The hallmarks of Rodin's style, his affinity for the partial figure, his focus on formal qualities and relationships rather than on narrative structure, and his desire to retain the marks of the sculptural process on his finished works, were revolutionary in his time. Rodin’s technique clashed with the predominant figurative sculptural tradition, in which works were decorative, formulaic, or highly thematic. Rodin's most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, with the human body modelled with realism, celebrating the individual character and physicality of his subjects.
Born in the working class district of Mouffetard in Paris, Rodin’s father was an inspector in the police and his mother a seamstress. Rodin attended the Petit École (the École Impériale Spéciale de Dessin et de Mathématiques) where he trained in the decorative arts and was taught a grounding in the traditions of French eighteenth-century art. There he also attended anatomical lectures held by the French Romantic sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, which would have a lasting impression on the artists perception of the figure. Following his initial studies, Rodin was rejected by the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in 1857, and following two further rejections and increasing financial difficulties, the artist began to work as a decorator.
In 1864 Rodin began an apprenticeship as a modeler in the Paris studio of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a successful mass producer of objects d’art. Rodin worked as Carrier-Belleuse’s chief assistant designing roof decorations and stairway embellishments. At the start of Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Rodin was called to serve in the French National Guard. Following a brief period of service, as Rodin suffered from near-sightedness, Carrier-Belleuse asked Rodin to join him in Belgium where they worked on ornamentation for the Brussels Stock Exchange.
Rodin remained in Belgium for the next six years. His relationship with Carrier-Belleuse had deteriorated and Rodin sought other work whilst also exhibiting some of his pieces, although he was unable to afford castings of his sculptures. In 1875 Rodin visited Italy where he was naturally drawn to the work of Donatello and Michelangelo, and whose sculptures had a profound effect on Rodin’s artistic direction. Returning to Belgium, Rodin began to work on The Age of Bronze, a life size male figure, the first of which Rodin exhibited under his own name in 1877 at the Cercle Artistique in Brussels and later that same year at the Paris Salon of the Sociéte des Artistes Français. The realism and scale of the sculpture was so lifelike, that Rodin received much attention, with critics alleging that the artist had cast the work from a living model. Rodin’s future work was either much larger or smaller than life, in demonstration of the folly of such accusations. In the Paris Salon of 1880, the bronze cast was exhibited without further controversy and the bronze was purchased by the French Ministry of Fine Arts for the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. From that point onwards Rodin’s success was firmly established, with the French government commissioning The Gates of Hell in 1880, a monumental portal covered with sculptural relief. Despite never being cast during the artist’s lifetime, the individual figures and sections of relief sculpture were removed from the framework of the portal and preserved in plaster so that they could be modified and finished in the round as individual sculptures. Therefore, The Gates of Hell became a major source of the wealth of individual sculptures that Rodin created during the last twenty years of the nineteenth-century.
Robin’s abandonment of the traditional vocabulary of allegorical symbols in favour of individual poses and gestures that reveal character were innovations that brought his work into conflict with accepted formulas for public monuments. Nevertheless, the artist had strong support from influential critics and government officials and many public commissions followed. By the 1890s, Rodin’s public and private commissions enabled him to employ many studio assistants, many of whom would become successful sculptors in their own right.
Rodin's success resulted in numerous exhibitions of his work in Europe and America. In 1912 a gallery devoted entirely to is work opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1916, shortly before his death, Rodin bequeathed his entire collection, including sculptures, working models with casting rights, drawings and paintings, to the French state so that the government establish a museum dedicated to his art. The Musée Rodin is now housed in the eighteenth-century Hôtel Brion in Paris, which had been the sculptor’s studio in the later years of his life.
Rodin’s genius was to express inner truths of the human psyche, and his gaze penetrated beneath the external appearance of the world. Exploring this realm beneath the surface, Rodin developed an agile technique for rendering the extreme physical states that correspond to expressions of inner turmoil or overwhelming joy. He sculpted subjects of great passion and tragedy, a world of imagination that exceeded the mundane reality of everyday existence and it is this reason that he became the forefather of modern sculpture.