François Auguste René Rodin (1840-1917) is famous for portraying complex human emotions in his sculptures while using his own series of innovative techniques. However, he did not immediately succeed as an artist. Today, he is admired as the foremost modern sculpture of his time.
Early Life and Roadblocks
As a child, Rodin struggled in school, but he loved drawing from an early age. When he turned 17, he applied at the École des Beaux-Arts, the most prestigious art institution in France. Unfortunately, the school rejected him three times.
Man with the Broken Nose by Rodin, 1863-64, an early example of his developing style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Fortunately, Rodin began working when Paris was renewing many parts of its city. This meant a much higher demand for decorative arts which Rodin could meet. Despite his rejections, he began working at a sculptor’s studio. This gave him a chance to practice his skills, but he struggled to develop his own artistic voice and style.
It was during a trip to Italy that he realized what inspired him. When he saw Michelangelo’s statues, he admired the raw human emotions and drama that defined them. So, he began to make art that mirrored their complex compositions and created some of the most pivotal sculptures of the 19th century.
Rodin’s Working Methods
Although Rodin took inspiration from Michelangelo, he did not copy the Renaissance artist’s working techniques.
Unlike sculptors of the past, Rodin didn’t only use tools to carve his work. He was very hands on both literally and figuratively. If you look at one of his statues, you can see fingerprints embedded on their surfaces. This rough style allows viewers to imagine the artist’s process alongside the final piece.
In addition, people knew Rodin for his assemblages, or 3D collages. He combined his original plasters with parts of classical sculptures, turning them into new pieces. Pictured below is an example of one of his work, Despairing Youth and Torso of a Child of Ugolino. Here, Rodin attached an ancient vase with molds of two male figures for handles.
This work method was unconventional, departing from the strict art styles that academics encouraged. Despite some criticism, Rodin didn’t limit himself to working with one method. Instead, he advanced modern sculpture by emphasizing the idea behind the work instead of its technique.
The Thinker (1880)
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The Thinker, is a heroic 6-foot tall seated nude male figure. The original cast, housed in the Musée Rodin in Paris, was followed by about 10 recasts made during Rodin’s life. After his death in 1917, the French government obtained the rights to recast further copies. Today, there are 28 full-sized copies worldwide.
The bronze figure depicts a philosopher seated on a rock, leaning forward, with his elbow on his knee and hand supporting his chin. His eyes are pointed downward as though absorbed in thought, an indication of the mind at work. By choosing to depict The Thinker as a strong, athletic figure, Rodin conveyed that the act of thinking is a powerful exercise.
Rodin stated, “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”
Rodin identified himself with The Thinker, and a version of the sculpture still overlooks his tomb today.
The Kiss (1882)
Like The Thinker, The Kiss was about Dante’s Inferno before it became an anonymous slate that the public could see themselves in. There are three models of it worldwide, the original of which is in the Musée Rodin. Coincidentally, it is also 6-feet tall.
The couple was initially meant to represent Paolo and Francesca. In the poem, Francesca was a married woman. When her husband discovered her with Paolo, he killed her beau. Francesca’s death followed, and so Dante found them both in the second circle of hell. There, they are continuously pushed and battered by an eternal wind that symbolizes their lust.
Here, Rodin captured their lust instead of their anguish. But when he finished it, he realized that The Kiss looked too happy to fit his Gates of Hell series. So he made it a solo exhibition, where it gained popularity. He didn’t tell the public that it was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, so people saw it as a very relatable, tender sculpture. They also admired it’s dynamic composition, which allows viewers to admire it from every angle.
The Gates of Hell (1880-1917)
Most of Rodin’s work all ties back to The Gates of Hell, Rodin received a commission to create a pair of bronze doors for a new decorative arts museum in Paris. Although the museum never opened its doors, The Gates of Hell became the most iconic work of his career and a key to understanding his artistic aims.
During the thirty-seven-year period, 1880-1917, Rodin worked on the project continually added, removed, or altered the more than two hundred human figures that appear on the doors.
Because Dante’s Hell had no gravity, Rodin adapted the figures to look as if they’re going in all directions. At the center, you can see a small version of The Thinker, immersed in thought among the surrounding chaos. A closer look at the door shows characters in forbidden love, shared agony, or falling down and climbing up the dystopia. By its completion, Rodin decided this piece was from the narrative of Dante’s Inferno. But the theme still gave him the freedom to experiment with complex human feelings and movements in unorthodox ways.
Today, scholars regard The Gates of Hell as nothing short of a masterpiece.