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Spotlight

Monumental Head of Balzac

This is one of Rodin’s many heads of Balzac, the acclaimed French writer of the early Nineteenth Century. It was modeled in preparation for The Monument to Honoré de Balzac, a commission Rodin received in 1891 and completed in 1898. Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) was a critically acclaimed and very popular French novelist and playwright. Best known for his stories and novels titled La Comédie humaine, his work presented a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. In working on his Balzac, Rodin sought to know and understand not only the writer’s creative genius, but also how he looked. Balzac had died forty years before and although a few very early photographs of him existed along with some written descriptions, and some portrait drawings and paintings, Rodin wanted a better understanding of Balzac's physical appearance. So he went to Balzac’s hometown and found someone there...

Large Clenched Left Hand

Rodin was fascinated by the expressive capabilities of hands. He modeled hundreds of them, using them both as independent sculptures and as parts of more complex pieces. By carefully modeling their musculature, proportion, texture, and balance, he demonstrated that hands could convey profound emotion, from anger and despair to compassion and tenderness. When Rodin composed a new figure, he often experimented by attaching to it hands made for earlier pieces in order to explore the possibilities the new combinations might reveal. This working method also encouraged Rodin’s interest in the fragment and also inspired his exploration of the notion that figurative sculpture need not depend on a whole figure to communicate meaning. Large Clenched Left Hand has fascinated hand surgeons for decades. A few years ago, The Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University collaborated with a hand surgeon at Stanford’s Medical School to examine what could be diagnosed...

The Fallen Caryatids

In the early 1880s Rodin created two female figures, each in a spiral pose, each either falling in within herself due to the heavy load she bears (one totes an huge stone on her shoulder, the other has an equally-sizable urn) or each springing into action despite her burden.  These figures are descendants of Greek caryatids, architectural columns in the guise of female figures who bear the weight of a building's architrave on their heads. We thank North Carolina Museum of Art Curator David Steel for reminding us in his beautiful volume about Cantor gifts to his Museum that these two works speak not only to Rodin's times but also to ours.  Steel quotes this passage in Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land: There Jubal Harshaw, the “neo-pessimist philosopher,” waxes eloquently about Rodin's sculpture: “This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She's a good girl -- look at...

The Benedictions

In 1894 Rodin was invited to design a monument to labor for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. It was to be as enduring a symbol of the coming 1900 Exposition as the Tour Eiffel had been for the Exposition in 1889. Rodin proposed a 100-foot-tall tower – reminiscent of Leonardo’s staircase at the Château de Blois – on a 24-foot-wide base. A center column was to be covered in bas-reliefs depicting “respectable” laborers. At the base would be two figures: Night and Day.  Atop the tower would be The Benedictions, described by Rodin as “two winged geniuses who descend from heaven, like a beneficent rain, to bless the work of men.” Rodin’s depiction of these two creatures emphasizes their lavish wings, as if their size was necessary to slow down the descent from heaven. The wings provide this piece with a generous art nouveau sensibility, very au current during the last decade...

St. John the Baptist Preaching

In 1913 Rodin spoke of what happened when an Italian peasant from the Abruzzi region came to his studio to offer himself as a model: As soon as I saw him, I was filled with admiration; this rough, hairy man expressed his violence in his bearing, his features and his physical strength, yet also the mystical character of his race. I immediately thought of a Saint John the Baptist, in other words, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor who came to announce one greater than himself. The peasant undressed, climbed onto the revolving stand as if he had never posed before; he planted himself firmly on his feet, head up, torso straight, at the same time putting his weight on both legs, open like a compass. The movement was so right, so straightforward and so true that I cried: ‘But it’s a man walking!” I immediately resolved...

Bust of Jean Baptiste Rodin

Rodin’s father (1803-1883) was a conservative family man who worked hard his entire life, first as a clerk in a police station and then as a police inspector. Left a widower by his first wife, he married again and with his second wife had three children. It was a close and supportive family. Jean Baptiste Rodin seems to have been a quiet, unremarkable person. For his time and background, however, he was remarkable in one respect: He supported his son’s aspirations to be an artist. Indeed, he recognized his young son’s talent when no one else did. In an undated letter in the archives of the Musée Rodin, Jean wrote to his Auguste, giving him fatherly advice: You must not construct your future on sand so that the smallest storm will bring it down. Build on a solid, durable foundation [so that] the day will come when one can say of...

Torsos and More Torsos

There are two pieces in the photograph that accompanies our recent NEWS post, to the left.  They have similar titles: Study for the Torso of the Walking Man and Large Torso of the Walking Man. The former has a truncated right leg (the leg ends before the top of the knee). The other has two hips, minimally indicated, with nothing below. This is one of the complications of studying Rodin. Often the same or nearly the same titles are given to different pieces. Or a piece would bear its original title but have newly included arms or legs. Or an unchanged piece would be given a different title each time it was included in a new exhibition. Titles aside, these Torsos attest to Rodin’s interest in ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, pieces of which were often excavated as fragments and/or with mineral accretions. The Torsos confirm the artist’s conviction that...

Edward Steichen’s “Portrait of Rodin”

In the late Nineteenth Century there was a schism in photography: There were those who used it as a documentary tool and there were those who used it to make “art.” Rodin worked for many years with photographers and used their documentary photographs as a means to literally and figuratively “stand back” from his work in order to consider it from a physical and psychological distance. The archives of the Musée Rodin are filled with such photographs, often emended by Rodin with penciled indications of changes to make in the sculpture. Edward Steichen, a young American photographer, greatly admired Rodin. In the years 1900-1902 he visited the French sculptor and made a number of manipulated photographs that are memorable for their atmospheric effects and relation to Symbolist painting. This portrait of Rodin is as much a picture of how the sculptor looked as it is of the sculptor’s mind deeply in...

Maquette for the Monument to General Lynch

Rodin received a number of commissions for portraits to commemorate the public lives of admired and important men.  From Balzac and Hugo, Claude and Bastien-Lepage, to monuments to Whistler and Lynch, the sculptor saw these major commissions as opportunities to innovate. General Patricio Lynch Solo de Zaldivar (1824-1886) was a Chilean hero of the War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru (1879-1883).  The monument was commissioned by his son-in-law, a Chilean diplomat. Rodin’s maquette (sculpted sketch) reveals his intention to create an equestrian monument to rival those already revered by history:  Donatello’s Gattamelata and Verrochio’s Colleoni, as well as the Marcus Aurelius in Rome and Bernini’s Louis XIV in Versailles.  It is the horse that gives Rodin’s piece its life.  The spirited pose, intended for atop a rectangular pedestal, conveys the dynamic military leader Lynch in a way the maquette of the figure alone itself does not. In the end, the Monument to...

Jean d’Aire, Second Maquette

Jean d'Aire is one of the Burghers of Calais.  In 1347, during the Hundred Years' War, King Edward III of England laid siege to the French port of Calais.  No food entered the city for 100 days.  The King, camped outside the city with much of his Court, offered to end the siege if citizens of Calais would surrender the keys to the city gates – and would sacrifice their lives.  Six citizens, or “burghers,” volunteered. In 1884 the city of Calais decided to commemorate this remarkable act of patriotism by commissioning a monument to the event.  Immediately intrigued by its possibilities, Rodin submitted a proposal and it was chosen by the committee in charge.  In Rodin's winning entry, the burghers – a bit larger than life size – mill about in a small group as if in the Calais town square.   They prepare to begin their march to the...