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Auguste Rodin was born in 1840, the second child and only son of Jean-Baptiste Rodin and Marie Cheffer, first-generation Parisians of modest means. Nothing in his family background or situation suggested that he might become an artist. At age thirteen, however, Rodin decided to enroll in the Ecole Spèciale de Dessin et de Mathématique, a school with the mission to educate the designers and the artisans of the French nation. In the course of his studies, young Rodin articulated larger goals for himself, specifically to become a sculptor. He entered the competition for admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts three times, but each time met with failure.
Having failed to enter the elite track, a solitary Rodin plied two paths, one to pay his bills, the other to bring him to the attention of the great world of art in Paris. Neither worked well. Although he was engaged in the studio of Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), one of the most visible and productive sculptors in Paris during the Second Empire, Rodin remained quite poor; and though he produced a work in 1863-1864, The Man with the Broken Nose, that he considered an excellent work of sculpture, surely worthy of entry to the Salon, twice it was refused. During this period of ill-starred beginnings, when Rodin was in his twenties, he also assumed family responsibilities. In 1864 he began living with Rose Beuret, who became his lifelong companion. In the same year she gave birth to their only son, Auguste Beuret. It was a period marked by struggle, discontent, and poverty, only brought to an end by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
The war created a situation in which sculptors could hardly hope to find work in Paris. Fortunately for Rodin, Carrier-Belleuse had a major commission in Brussels, where the city was building a new Bourse. Rodin's Brussels residency began in March 1871. Although his employ with Carrier-Belleuse soon ended, he found a Belgian partner, Joseph Van Rasbourgh (1831-1902), with whom he was able to continue working at the Bourse. The work with Van Rasbourgh developed into a real partnership, with Rodin as the primary administrator responsible for the day-to-day operations of a studio from which some fine public commissions were brought to completion between 1872 and 1874.
Rodin's most notable single figure of his Brussels period, however, was the one he undertook on his own in 1875. His desire to understand the beautiful male body combined with his ambition to create an outstanding work that would establish his reputation led Rodin to embark on a month-long trip to Italy between February and March 1876. There he would study the figures of antiquity, of Donatello, and especially those of Michelangelo. The following winter Rodin exhibited this figure in plaster in the rooms of the Cercle Artistique et Littéraire in Brussels, calling it Le Vainçu (The Vanquished One). It became his ticket back to Paris, where it was accepted for the Salon of 1877 under the title The Age of Bronze. It is Rodin's first recognized masterpiece.
The Age of Bronze was a controversial figure, mostly because it looked so close to life that critics raised the question if it might not be a cast from life. One man who admired it unreservedly, however, was Edmund Turquet, a liberal politician serving in the Chambre des Députés, who, in 1879 became Undersecretary of State for fine arts. Turquet was ambitious and hoped to be the commissioner for many public works of art. One of his most unusual ideas was to commission a bronze door for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs--unusual because no such museum existed, although there was much talk about creating one. Turquet offered his strange commission to Rodin. The museum was never built and the door was never cast in Rodin's lifetime, but The Gates of Hell--as we now call it--was Rodin most important work. It was the canvas across which would pass the totality of his imagination; it was the surface from which he would draw the creations of an entire career.
The decade of the 1880s, when Rodin was in his forties, was the most intense and productive of his entire life. It was the time when he modeled the majority of the figures for his "doors," as he called them. The title, "The Gates of Hell," was one that began to appear in the writing of several critics around 1886-1889.The figures for the doors were far from being the extent of Rodin's activity in the eighties. He created a series of brilliant realistic portraits which he showed in the Salons of the 1880s. It was in connection with these portraits that critics began to describe him as a great artist, perhaps even the best young sculptor in modern France. The eighties was also the decade of The Burghers of Calais, probably Rodin's most satisfactory and successful public monument. And it was the period in which Rodin met Camille Claudel (1864-1943), the woman who became the focus of the most terrible and overwhelming passion of Rodin's life. He suffered tremendously from this experience, but it was the fertile ground that nourished the large number of erotic groups that began appearing in the 1880s.
By the end of the decade, when the sculptor joined Claude Monet (1840-1926) in a large exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, Rodin was clearly a major presence in the world of modern art, a man from whom much could be expected. In the coming decade he would spend much of his time on two of the most coveted commissions a French sculptor could hope to achieve: the Monument to Victor Hugo for the Panthéon and the Monument to Balzac for the Société des Gens de Lettres. They went badly, however. Both clients--the state and the Société--were difficult, there was an extravagant amount of unhealthy publicity surrounding the two commissions, and Rodin spent much of the 1890s in a severe depression, so severe he was frequently unable to work. Neither work was accepted as originally commissioned, and when the Balzac was turned down after it was shown in the Salon of 1898, something broke in Rodin. He stopped being a nineteenth-century French sculptor who wanted nothing more than to obtain and carry to completion important public monuments.
Rodin entered the new century with a large retrospective that was to include the plaster of his finished Gates of Hell. Though held at the time of the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, the State played no role in his exhibition. Rodin had negotiated with three bankers to underwrite the show in a pavilion he had built in the place de l'Alma on the right bank of the Seine. He was clearly aiming at the international audience expected to teem through the exhibitions and overflow into the streets of Paris during the summer of 1900.
The new entrepreneurial direction of Rodin's career worked. From this time on he was able to count on having orders for casts, marbles, portraits, and requests for his participation in exhibitions all over Europe, and even in America. In the last seventeen years of his life Rodin's creative energies were fully alive, something that is particularly evident in the thousands of drawings he made, in the marvelous portraits he made of men and women who were sure that honor would accrue to their name and memory if they were only portrayed by Rodin; and in the occasional large, new work such as the Whistler Muse. In these years Rodin also devoted himself to considering his vast oeuvre--especially the figures from The Gates--in a way that allowed it all to be seen again from a fresh point of view: figures newly fragmented or isolated from a previous context; figures combined with others not seen together before; figures translated into marble; figures enlarged; and figures reduced. Rodin proved that sculpture was anything but the intractable art some had made it out to be, but that it was fluid, open to spontaneous change.
Rodin had other preoccupations in the twentieth century as well, especially collecting and writing. He acquired an impressive collection of ancient sculpture, also purchasing medieval, Indian, and Far Eastern work in a way that was adventurous. He enjoyed making his views on these works known both through his own writing and through interviews. Rodin came to be seen as the culmination of all that was great in Western sculpture, or as Camille Mauclair put it: "his reference points are Puget, Goujon, the sculptors of the Middle Ages, of Greece, and the rules for decoration established on the Lion Gate of Mycenae as well as the Serapeum of Memphis." His reputation and influence extended beyond Europe--to the Far East and to North and South America, and it is safe to say no artist was more famous than Rodin at the beginning of the twentieth century. Rodin sought to give permanence to his reputation by offering France his entire oeuvre if the State would agree to establish a Musée Rodin. Rodin's bequest was executed and accepted by the French legislature in 1916.
By the time Rodin's will was executed, the movements of Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, as well as the new "truth to materials" movement in sculpture, had been established. The attention of the art world moved on and Rodin's work went into eclipse until after the end of World War II. Then, slowly, in the 1950s and 1960s, with artists and their audience giving a fresh look at fragmentation, assemblage, the figure, and the expressive gesture, Rodin's sculpture came back into fashion. By the end of the twentieth century, with new Rodin museums in Japan, Korea, and Mexico City, and Rodin shows opening in great profusion, he became once again, perhaps, the most exhibited and collected sculptor in world. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
1. After Louis de Fourcaud saw the Jean-Paul Laurens in the Salon of 1882, he said: "Among all the young sculptors, he is the one I would place in the highest rank" ("Salon de Paris," Le Gaulois [1 July 1882]).
2. Camille Mauclair, "Auguste Rodin, Son oeuvre, son milieu, son influence." Revue Universelle (17 August 1901): 769-775.