The foremost sculptor of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and possibly the greatest portraitist in the history of sculpture, Rodin pioneered complex surface modelling which produced expressive, realistic and individual human images. Conceptually, he moved sculpture on from a mid-nineteenth-century selective imitation of nature using smoothly crafted surfaces to a modern art that accentuates and exaggerates, its rough finish interacting with whatever light might fall on it.
Rodin's innovations included using non-professional models in spontaneous motion and ‘continuous drawing’ without taking his eyes off the subject; he questioned the very notion of completing a work of art, as ‘nothing is arrested or finished in nature’.
François-Auguste-René Rodin was born on 12 November 1840 in Paris. His father was a clerk in the police force, yet from the age of 10 Rodin knew he wanted to be an artist, and on leaving school in his early teens he attended the free Petite École in Paris to learn drawing and modelling in clay. At 17 he sat competitive examinations three times, hoping to train at the École des Beaux-Arts. Failing to get in, he began to earn his living as a statuary mason, producing decorative architectural stonework.
In 1862 Rodin’s sister, Marie-Louise, died and he entered a religious order, only to leave the following year. In 1864 he studied with the sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, whose bronzes of wild animals with their prey, produced with exact anatomical detail and great dynamic tension, exhibit qualities that would later emerge in Rodin’s work. In that year he made his first notable sculpture, The Man with the Broken Nose, which was rejected by the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and he met Rose Beuret, a seamstress, who would become his life partner. From 1864 to 1870 he worked for Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, from whom he learned the value of creating series, editions and variations of a work as well as unique creative pieces.
Rodin served briefly in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, being invalided out because of short-sightedness. In 1871 he went to Brussels with Carrier-Belleuse to work on architectural sculpture for the Brussels Stock Exchange but was sacked by him and instead collaborated with the Belgian sculptor Antoine-Joseph van Rasbourg. During this period he studied Gothic sculpture and architecture and in 1875 and 1876 he travelled widely in Italy, especially seeking out the works of Michelangelo and Donatello.
Profoundly influenced by Italy – ‘it is Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture’ – Rodin returned to Brussels and in 1877 sculpted a plaster version of The Age of Bronze. This life-size male nude provoked fierce reactions in the artistic circles of Brussels and Paris, principally due to its naturalism, but also because of its lack of an obvious mythological or historical theme. So realistic was the sculpture that Rodin was accused of surmoulage – having cast the mould directly from a person. Eventually he was cleared of the charge, and later a bronze cast was bought by the state.
Returning to Paris, Rodin earned his living by working for other sculptors and from 1880 designing vases and table ornaments at Carrier-Belleuse’s Sèvres porcelain factory. In his own time he continued to seek commissions and sculpt, producing St John the Baptist Preaching in 1878. By making this piece 2 metres tall, he made charges of surmoulage impossible; he also stood the statue in a contradictory pose, appearing to walk but with both feet on the ground, to ‘display simultaneously … views of an object which in fact can be seen only successively’, as he put it.
By 1880 Rodin’s name was well known in Paris’s artistic community, and the state commissioned him to design a pair of bronze doors for the proposed Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. With the commission came a workshop and advance payments, which made him financially secure for the first time. Although the doors were meant to be completed by 1884, Rodin would work on them for the rest of his life; the museum was never built.
In 1883 Rodin taught a course in sculpture, where he met the 18-year-old Camille Claudel, with whom he had a passionate affair. While she was his pupil, model, studio assistant and lover, however, he continued to keep contact with Rose Beuret. This double life took its toll, and in 1898 the relationship with Claudel ended. Some years later Claudel had a nervous breakdown, and she spent the rest of her life in an institution. During the years of this liaison, Rodin produced many erotic sculptures of couples embracing.
In 1884 Rodin received a commission for a monument to Eustache de Saint Pierre, one of the six foremost citizens of Calais who offered themselves to Edward III of England in 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War, so the siege on the town would be lifted. The final Burghers of Calais, erected in 1895, is a massive work showing all six citizens as they leave for the king’s camp, carrying the keys of the town.
By now successful, if not uncontroversial, Rodin received many commissions, including ones for monuments to the French writers Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. At the 1900 Exhibition in Paris, a pavilion displaying 150 of his sculptures and many drawings was erected close to the entrance and, as his obituary in the Times testifies, ‘he was almost universally recognised as the greatest of modern sculptors’.
When the Exhibition finished, Rodin had his works taken to Meudon, south west of Paris, where he had bought a property in 1896 to serve as both home and workshop. But, mindful of the future of his oeuvre, in 1908 he rented rooms in the beautiful eighteenth-century Hôtel Biron in Paris; later he took over the whole building, negotiating with the government that they would purchase it and set up a Rodin Museum there if he would donate his works to the state. This took effect in 1916. He had a stroke that year and died in Meudon on 17 November 1917.