One of the pleasant duties of the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor is to organize a colloquy, for which I proposed the materiality of sculpture as the subject. The wonderful collection of nineteenth-century French sculpture at the National Gallery of Art, including all the states of sculptures, from sketches to completed marbles or bronzes, makes the Gallery a perfect site for such an inquiry.
In 1942 the National Gallery of Art received a very important gift from Katherine Seney Simpson: twenty-eight sculptures, eight drawings, and three drypoints by Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917). She had acquired them directly from the artist, with whom she had formed a friendship, and this collection, said to be first rate when it entered the institution, is indeed the best, alongside that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the United States.
Among the sculptures are two terra-cotta sketches, Eve Eating the Apple and Statuette of a Woman, both of which served as starting points for a long, laborious creative process that extended throughout Rodin’s career. It resulted in some of his most important late works, whose innovative character helped usher in twentieth-century sculpture. In addition, the sketches help illuminate Rodin’s approach, from studies from living models to forms that encapsulate the essence of sculpture. In one of these series of variations the small Eve morphs into a torso (the Victoria and Albert Museum Torso of a Woman), a derivation so simplified that it has almost become an abstract form. Eve and its transformations were included in Rodin: The Centennial Exhibition (Grand Palais, Paris, 2017), but the series generated by Statuette of a Woman had never been properly identified or explained.
With the opportunity to study the collection closely in preparation for the Safra Colloquy, I noticed that the statuette’s arched silhouette (height, 35 centimeters) was the seed that engendered, almost thirty years later, the life-size Torso of a Young Woman with Arched Back, exhibited at the Salon of 1910. This torso has been related to a small terra-cotta figure known as Thunderstruck Damned Woman (Musée Rodin, Paris). Now conceived lying down on its back, and with a different, more severe head and with legs truncated below the knees, this sketch appears to be a variation on Statuette of a Woman in Washington. Indeed, it is a fragment to which Rodin added, first, a new head, indicated by a visible join at the neck, and, second, a base that resembles rocks or clouds. Conversely, the Washington sketch is a complete and standing figure, obviously modeled from scratch from one of the young women who sat for Rodin at the beginning of the 1880s when he was working on The Gates of Hell. Like Damned Woman but at a smaller scale, it is a vigorous sketch, quickly done, especially in the head, where only the essential volumes are indicated, whereas the torso is more refined. The surface is imprinted with the marks of a special tool, a kind of rasp with thin teeth, and it is still fixed on its original wooden base, characteristic of Rodin’s studio.
But the story did not end there. At one point, Rodin eliminated the head, arms, and upper legs to obtain a torso. He then enlarged it, as was his custom with his main sculptures in the beginning of the twentieth century. The link between all these forms is evidenced by the finlike protrusions visible on the torso’s hips, vestiges of the artist’s removal of the arms and hands from the terra-cotta versions.
Rodin also simplified the surface, making it closer to the work of Aristide Maillol (1861 – 1944), to which his own was often compared. Even if some critics protested against his apparent new habit of systematically exhibiting only studies of details, most viewers recognized the beauty of the enlarged arched torso, and the Ministry of Fine Arts commissioned the first bronze cast for the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Embellished with a pale green patina reminiscent of archaeological finds, the bronze Torso of a Young Woman with Arched Back is indeed one of the works, including The Walking Man, in which Rodin comes closest to the antiquity he admired so much. Like the non finito in marble, Statuette of a Woman, seen from the perspective of the arched torso, reveals what is most profound in Rodin: his love for nature and his quest for a form taken to the extremes of expression, yet still open to whatever influences the environment of the studio — such as light falling on the volume and revealing the strength of the torso, or perhaps a comment of the assistant in charge of the enlargement — may have on it.