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." 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. 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," 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. 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 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." 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.
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 which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/european-sculpture-19th-century.pdf
(Text by Douglas Lewis, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
Notes Letter from Rodin to the director of the Bremen Kunsthalle, dated 29 January 1906; quoted in Emil Waldmann, Auguste Rodin (Vienna, 1945), 73.
 Rodin thus eschewed a choice from among professional athletes (who in any event were then far less numerous or prominent than they are today).
 Truman H. Bartlett, "Auguste Rodin, Sculptor," American Architect and Building News (26 January 1889), 45.
 Reproduced in Albert E. Elsen, In Rodin's Studio (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), pls. 2–5.
 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.
 L'Art 3 (1877), 108; reprinted in Ruth Butler, Rodin in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1980), 34.
 The resulting bronze was exhibited in the Salon of 1880 and in the Luxembourg gardens from 1884.
on top of base near left foot: Rodin
Purchased 1898 from the artist by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; purchased 26 December 1991 by NGA.
Associated NamesPennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
- 68th Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1899, no. 820.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
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