In the later part of the nineteenth century, sculpture was a large-scale enterprise. Growing cities, an expanding and wealthy middle class, and the industrial revolution created an unprecedented demand for this art form. And in this time of insatiable markets and government commissions there was no sculptor more modern, more admired, or more controversial than Auguste Rodin (he was also brilliant at self-promoting). The avant-garde and bourgeoisie alike celebrated this powerful, prolific artist and created a huge audience for his art. To satisfy this demand, he took advantage of the Collas machine, which enabled his assistants to make multiple replicas — all originals — in whatever size the collector requested.
Invented in 1836 by French engineer Achille Collas, this machine uses a pantograph system to make proportionately larger or smaller duplications of a sculpture. The concept can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman artists, who wanted to reproduce the perfect proportions of the human figure in their sculpture. Their method was called pointing. It involved taking measurements of the object that was to be enlarged or reduced in size. Then via mechanical means, the measurements would be proportionally increased or decreased when applied to the new material (marble, plaster, clay).
Collas machines often look like lathes. On one turntable sits the first piece, the one to be re-created in a new size. On a second turntable, connected to the first, sits a clay or plaster “blank” that has been roughly shaped to resemble the model but on a larger or smaller scale. The machine keeps the model and the blank in the same orientation while the technician uses a tracing needle linked to a sharp cutting instrument (or stylus) to transfer a succession of profiles from the model onto the blank. Gradually the blank is worked so that it becomes a larger or smaller duplicate of the model.
Rodin and his skilled associate Henri Lebossé collaborated closely on reductions and enlargements. If the results were not perfectly executed, Rodin rejected them. Some sculptures that Rodin enlarged are The Walking Man, The Three Shades, and The Monument to Balzac. Reductions include The Age of Bronze, Pierre de Wiessant (from The Burghers of Calais group) and The Kiss. Rodin’s best known sculpture, The Thinker, was first conceived as twenty-eight inches high. The sculptor then had Lebossé reduce it to just 14 3/4 inches, then enlarge it to 79 inches.
By using this machine, Rodin could have his work available for commissions from a variety of collectors and at a variety of prices. This is one of the ways he responded to the popularity of sculpture in his time; it also responded to his desire to be avidly admired, collected, and influential.