François Auguste René Rodin (1840-1917), known as Auguste Rodin, was born in Paris, France to a working-class family. Rodin is seen as the sculptor counterpart of Impressionism and remains as one of the best known sculptors to have ever lived and his popularity throughout his own lifetime is unusual in the art world.
At the age of 14, he became a student at the Petite École (now École Impériale Spéciale de Dessin et de Mathématiques), where he made drawings of artworks by French artists of the 18th century. However, on three occasions, Rodin failed the entrance examination for the École des Beaux-Arts, which marked the beginning of his aversion against the sterility and artificiality of conventional academic art. His earliest sculptures were modeled after significant figures around his life in a neo-classical manner, such as his father, Catholic priest Julienne Eymard, his then lifelong companion, Rose. Although enrolled in the pioneer unit of the national guards during the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Rodin was declared as unfit for military duty and therefore he travelled to Brussels with Rose to perform decorative work at the Palais de la Bourse. While he continued to work on developing his sculptures, Rodin worked part-time as a modeler in the Manufacture de Sèvres, where Carrier-Belleuse had been the director since 1876. Rodin decorated a number of vases and developed a new technique of drawing directly in the soft paste. The new director, Charles Lauth, rejected Rodin’s work and ordered to throw one of his first two vases away. The other surviving vase, entitled ‘L’Élements’, attracted positive attention for his unprecedented artistic independence, which forced Lauth to give it a special exhibition place at the Sèvres Museum.
In 1882, Rodin accumulated recognition for this sculptures by receiving commissions for a statue of Alembert for the Hotel de Ville as well as for designing a decorative portal of the proposed Musée des Arts Décoratifs based on the theme of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Gates of Hell, a monumental sculptural group work that represents the damned souls trying to save themselves from the eternal flames. Two years later, after sending first maquette, he received another state commission for a monument of The Burghers of Calais. While working on The Burghers of Calais, Rodin refused to use a conventional construction that centered on a single hero; instead he putted the six men on the same level, each of them expressing his own deeply human reaction to the cruel fate that binds them together. The over-lifesize bronze cast, weighing more than 2.2 tons, was completed and installed ten years later. In 1889, Rodin had a groundbreaking show with his friend Claude Monet at the Gallery Georges Petit, where the two artists clashed about the set-up of the exhibition. Monet complained that his paintings were completely obscured by Rodin’s sculptures. At the end of the exhibition, Rodin’s works received more positive reviews than that of Monet, ultimately propelled Rodin’s career to the forefront of the art scene.
Inspired by naturalism rather than the idealism of Greek mythologies and the Baroque art styles, Rodin’s sculptures became increasingly more associated with the vividness and the tension of the flesh to capture a sense of movement in inanimate materials. Rodin’s statue of Balzac provoked the public’s displeasure because of the association with an erected phallus; other cynical reactions interpret the Balzac as Narcissus, who masturbates under his protecting coat. As a matter of fact, Rodin had created a nude study of Balzac with a stiff penis in his left hand, before he had started covering him with cloth. During the Exposition Universelle, Rodin erected his own pavilion at the Place de l’Alma in Paris. In a 400 square meter space, Rodin showed 150 works, with his prestigious retrospective Rodin reached a new public and earned international appreciation. In the following years, as his works were increasingly shown in several European and American cities, the commission prices for busts and casts by wealthy collectors increased as well. By the 20th century, Rodin run a large “factory”, where numerous mould makers, reducers, pointers, roughers and stone carvers helped him to reproduce his clay models in plaster and bronze or translate them into marble, to satisfy this increasing public demand for his works. Many young and talented sculptors, like Jean Escoula, Ernest Nivet, Jules Desbois, Jean Baffier, Victor Peter, François Pompon, Jacov Nicoladze, Charles Despiau and Antoine Bourdelle have worked at Rodin’s ateliers as assistants. For the younger generation of his apprentices, like Constantin Brancusi, Jacques Lipchitz and Aristide Maillol, Rodin appeared like an over mighty father-figure, from whom they have to win a distance in order to develop their own style. Two years after his passing, Musée Rodin was established at his workshop, Hôtel Biron in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, France. The museum currently stores the sculptures that Rodin had donated to the French state on the condition that the site is transformed into a public museum.
Throughout his career, Rodin had received several honorable degrees and titles bestowed by national institutions. In 1889, Rodin was selected to become a member of the Jury for the Exposition Universelle and is also elected for the Committée du Salon des artistes français. In 1892, Rodin was appointed Officer of the Legion of Honour. Rodin received the honorary doctor degrees of the University of Jena, University of Glasgow and University of Oxford in 1905, 1906 and 1907 respectively. Whilst being acceptable and still pushing the boundaries of modern art, Rodin became known to many as the ‘father of modern sculpture.’ Today, Rodin is still held in high regard and his sculptures are among the most renowned in the world.
Auguste Rodin’s exhibition history spans across three centuries. Since 2010 alone, a selection of Rodin’s exhibitions are: Rodin and Vienna, Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria (2011); Rodin, Museum of the History of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Russia (2012); Rodin’s The Kiss, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, United Kingdom (2013); Mapplethorpe-Rodin, Musée Rodin, Paris, France (2014); Rodin and the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary (2013); Breaking New Ground for the Future: Rodin and His Circle, Chimei Museum, Tainan, Taiwan (2015); Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MBAM), Montreal, Canada (2015); Rodin: The Human Experience, Honolulu Museum, Honolulu; San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio; James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestwon; Portland Art Museum, Portland, USA (2015-2017); Rodin/Dunikowski: Visions of Women, Krolikarnia, Warsaw, Poland (2016); Rodin: Evolution of a Genius, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), Richmond, USA (2016); Rodin: Transforming Sculpture, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, USA (2016); Rodin and Dance: The Essence Movement, London, United Kingdom (2016). From March 22 to July 31, Musée Rodin will host a major retrospective show on Auguste Rodin, Rodin, L’Exposition du centenaire at the Grand Palais and the Galeries Nationales in Paris, France.