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Overview

The splendid image of Rodin's Age of Bronze (the artist's earliest surviving life-size figure) marks a revolutionary milestone in modern sculpture, in that it abandoned traditional iconographic references in favor of an untitled concentration on purely aesthetic form. After its first exhibition in Brussels in January 1877, contemporary critics suggested various negative identifications for the figure (as a potential suicide or as a vanquished warrior), which convinced Rodin to designate the positive connotation of an awakening consciousness as a more appropriate "label" with which to send the sculpture to the Paris Salon of the same year. Rodin's poetically allusive title The Age of Bronze thus hinted that the figure might suggest the dawn of human metallurgic skill, marking mankind's emergence from a long prehistory of tools made only from stone. But thirty years after its completion, Rodin still spoke of his originally more generalized conception of the sculpture, as a "[slow] awakening...from a deep dream."1 His close friend Truman Bartlett even thought of the figure as an allegorical self-portrait, perhaps symbolizing Rodin as a watchman shaking off slumber.

Such a contemporaneous interpretation of this great work, as the idealized self-image of a warrior of a new age, endows with a particular weight its insistently realistic style, especially given Rodin's choice of model. Concerned as he was to achieve a wholly new and intensely expressive figural form, Rodin was anxious to avoid using professional models, whose stock poses he felt would be inimical to his aspirations. He sought out a soldier as an exemplar of well-conditioned male anatomy.2 Through contacts with a Belgian wireless communications unit he located a Flemish youth named Auguste Neyt, "a fine noble-hearted boy, full of fire and valor,"3 who began posing for the artist in October 1875. Rodin continued working and reworking the clay sculpture through the end of 1876, with a month off to study the works of Michelangelo in Italy. In 1877, to prove that he had not molded life-cast elements directly from Neyt's body, Rodin arranged for the photographer Marconi to record both the living model and the sculpture in comparative images.4 These demonstrate that Rodin's obsessive search for a series of dynamic silhouettes completely in the round (the figure's "profiles," as he called them)5 had endowed the sculpture with its buoyant energy while emphasizing the dense, muscular potency of his soldier-model.

This hauntingly veristic sculpture's intense naturalism, coupled with its original lack of an allegorical or historicizing title, served principally to baffle and offend its first observers. The Salon reviewer Charles Tardieu (rather astonishingly) called it a "slavish likeness of a model with neither character nor beauty, an...exact copy of a most commonplace individual."6 Such a curiously negative judgment was of course as demeaning to Neyt as it was to Rodin, and (together with repeated allegations of life casting) helped to precipitate their second collaboration: Marconi's invaluable series of comparative photographs. It was not until an official inquiry in 1879 upheld the conceptual originality of Rodin's creation that the French state acquired his original plaster and paid to have it cast.7

Three or four early plaster casts of The Age of Bronze differ from many later ones by an original omission of the shell of the right ear (as here) and by the absence of later fig leaves, as well as other details. Similar fine, early plasters are in Paris (Musée Rodin, from the artist's studio) and Saint Petersburg (presented by the artist to the Academy of the Fine Arts; transferred to the Hermitage in 1911). The Washington version was Rodin's first full-size figure to enter a public collection in the United States: it had been ordered from the artist in 1898 by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the urging of Truman Bartlett's son Paul, a friend of Rodin's. The sculpture, acquired as an up-to-date specimen of a masculine figure, was still in active use (located high on a copy stand in the casts gallery) in the academy's drawing classes a century later.

This entry is based on initial acquisition research by Alison Luchs and the writer, as well as (by kind permission) on Ruth Butler's essay for the National Gallery's systematic catalogue European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century.

(Text by Douglas Lewis, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)

Notes 1. Letter from Rodin to the director of the Bremen Kunsthalle, dated 29 January 1906; quoted in Emil Waldmann, Auguste Rodin (Vienna, 1945), 73.

2. Rodin thus eschewed a choice from among professional athletes (who in any event were then far less numerous or prominent than they are today).

3. Truman H. Bartlett, "Auguste Rodin, Sculptor," American Architect and Building News (26 January 1889), 45.

4. Reproduced in Albert E. Elsen, In Rodin's Studio (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), pls. 2–5.

5. Neyt freely cooperated through endless posing sessions in order to develop the stance and attitudes that would display his figure in its most unexaggerated, most naturalistic aspects.

6. L'Art 3 (1877), 108; reprinted in Ruth Butler, Rodin in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1980), 34.

7. The resulting bronze was exhibited in the Salon of 1880 and in the Luxembourg gardens from 1884.

Inscription

on top of base near left foot: Rodin

Provenance

Purchased 1898 from the artist by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; purchased 26 December 1991 by NGA.

Exhibition History
1899
68th Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1899, no. 820.
2000
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Bibliography
1877
"Chronique de la Ville." L'Etoile belge (29 January and 3 February 1877).
1877
Rousseau, Jean. "Revue des Arts." Echo du Parlement (11 April 1877).
1877
Tardieu, Charles. "Le Salon de Paris--1877--La Sculpture." L'Art 3 (1877): 108.
1877
Timbal, Charles. "La Sculpture au Salon." Gazette des Beaux-Arts (16 July 1877): 42-43.
1889
Bartlett, Truman H. "Auguste Rodin, Sculptor." American Architect and Building News (19 January-15 June 1889): 65, 99-100, 283-284.
1922
Neyt, Auguste. Grand Artistique (April 1922).
1936
Cladel, Judith. Rodin: sa vie glorieuse, sa vie inconnue. Paris, 1936: 108, 114-121.
1944
Grappe, Georges. Catalogue du Musée Rodin. Paris, 1927; 2nd ed. 1929; 3rd ed. 1931; 4th ed. 1938; 5th ed. 1944.
1945
Waldemann, Emil. Auguste Rodin. Vienna, 1945: 22, 73.
1959
Alley, Ronald. Tate Gallery Catalogues. The Foreign Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture. London, 1959: 210-211.
1963
Elsen, Albert E. Rodin. New York, 1963: 20-26.
1967
Descharnes, Robert, and Jean-François Chabrun. Auguste Rodin. Lausanne, 1967: 52-54.
1967
Spear, Athena Tacha. Rodin Sculpture in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, 1967: 39-40, 94-95.
1976
Tancock, John. The Sculpture of Auguste Rodin. Philadelphia, 1976: 342-356.
1977
de Caso, Jacques, and Patricia B. Sanders. Rodin's Sculpture: A Critical Study of the Spreckels Collection. San Francisco, 1977: 38-47.
1979
Butler, Ruth. "Nationalism, a New Seriousness, and Rodin: Thoughts about French Sculpture in the 1870s." In H.W. Janson, ed. La Sculptura nel XIX Secolo. Bologna, 1979: 161-167.
1979
Keisch, Claude (ed.). Auguste Rodin: Plastik, Zeichnungen, Graphik. Berlin, 1979: 88-96.
1980
Butler, Ruth. Rodin in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980: 32-35.
1980
Elsen, Albert E. In Rodin's Studio. Ithaca, New York, 1980: 157-158, pls. 2-5.
1981
Butler, Ruth. "Rodin and the Paris Salon." In Rodin Rediscovered. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981: 33-34.
1981
Vincent, Clare. "Rodin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A History of the Collection." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Spring 1981): 24.
1983
Schmoll, J.A. Rodin--Studien: Persönlichkeit--Werke--Wirkung--Bibliographie. Munich, 1983: 53-56.
1986
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Auguste Rodin. Translated in G. Craig Houston, Rodin and Other Prose Pieces. London, 1986: 15-16.
1987
Ambrosini, Lynne, and Michelle Facos. Rodin: The Cantor Gift to the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn, 1987: 56-58.
1987
Grunfeld, Frederic V. Rodin: A Biography. New York, 1987: 98-106, 113-114, 125-129.
1988
Fonsmark, Anne-Birgitte. Rodin: La collection du Brasseur Carl Jacobsen à la Glyptothèque. Copenhagen, 1988: 67-69.
1989
Goldscheider, Cécile. Auguste Rodin: catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre sculpté. Lausanne, 1989: 114-116.
1992
Gibson, Eric. "Sculptures Climax the National Gallery's 50th." Washington Times (February 2, 1992).
1992
"Recent Additions to the Colelctions." Circle Bulletin 9 (Spring 1992).
1993
Butler, Ruth. Rodin. The Shape of Genius. New Haven and London, 1993: 99-112.
1996
Kausch, Michael. Auguste Rodin: Eros und Leidenschaft. Exh. cat. Harrach Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1996: 252-254.
1997
Le Normand-Romain, Antoinette. Vers l'Age d'airain: Rodin en Belgique. Paris, 1997: 246-319.
1998
Porter, John R., and Yves Lacasse. Rodin à Québec. Quebec, 1998: 58-59.
2000
Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 310-315, color repro.
2000
National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000: repro. 62.
2012
Tóth, Ferenc, ed. Rodin es a Svépmüvészeti Múzeum/ and the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest . Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and Villa Vaszary, Balatonfüred, 2012-2013: 44, 54.