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Rodin’s Obsession: The Gates of Hell, Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation / Foundation / Rodin’s Obsession: The Gates of Hell, Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

The Gates of Hell (1880-about 1900) was Rodin’s most ambitious commission. Originally conceived to be the entrance portal for a never-to-be-built museum of decorative arts in Paris, The Gates of Hell features hundreds of figures modeled in high relief and in-the-round. The imagery in The Gates of Hell was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and by Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.  (Divine Comedy was written about 1307 and is the tale of a journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. Les Fleurs du Mal, written in 1857, is a book of poetry that examines complex and often morbid emotional states.) The visual model for Rodin’s Gates of Hell was the long-standing tradition of compartmentalized scenes on church portals, specifically the doors to the Baptistery in Florence (1425-52) by the Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti.  Rodin, however, abandoned the formal structure of these traditional doors, creating instead an environment of tormented souls in which figures float in a surging sea of fire, representing the suffering of mankind.

When The Gates of Hell was almost complete and ready to be cast, the French Government canceled the commission. It decided it a new train station instead of a museum was needed on the site. Accordingly, the Gare d’Orsay (ironically now Paris’ museum of nineteenth-century art and design) was built and Rodin was left with a massive, nearly-complete art work, with no one to pay for its casting and no place to put it. (Today one of the original plasters for The Gates is in the Musée d’Orsay.)

Because of the cancellation, beginning in the 1880s the sculptor removed many of the nearly three-dimensional figures from The Gates of Hell and made them available instead as independent, freestanding sculptures. Among the most well known are The Thinker, The Kiss and The Three Shades.  The complete Gates of Hell was never cast during Rodin’s lifetime.

The Foundation’s traveling exhibition featured scores of independent sculptures derived from The Gates of Hell.  Visiting eleven venues, this show was viewed by more than 85,000 people, making it one of the Foundation’s most popular.

Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art 
Pepperdine University
Malibu, California
January 20, 2001 – March 25, 2001
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art  
Kansas State University,
Manhattan, Kansas
June 15, 2002 – August 25, 2002
Newcomb Art Gallery  
Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
April 12, 2001 – June 15, 2001
Ball State University Museum of Art 
Muncie, Indiana
September 15, 2002 – December 11, 2002
Las Vegas Art Museum 
Las Vegas, Nevada
July 12, 2001 – September 16,  2001
Palmer Museum of Art 
Pennsylvania State University,
University Park, Pennsylvania
January 14, 2003 – June 1, 2003
Emily Lowe Gallery  
Hofstra University,
Hampstead, New York
October 2, 2001 – December 14, 2001
Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery 
College of the Holy Cross,
Worcester, Massachusetts
June 20, 2003 – August 29, 2003
Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Grand Rapids, Michigan
January 11, 2002 – March 3, 2002
Saginaw Art Museum
Saginaw, Michigan
September 20, 2003 – November 30, 2003
Yellowstone Art Museum 
Billings, Montana
March 23, 2002 – June 2, 2002

“Please let me congratulate you on your endeavor to publicize and preserve the life and work of Rodin. I was fortunate enough recently to have seen an exhibit of your collection…. It was my first museum experience and I cannot imagine a better artist to begin with.”