At the height of his career Auguste Rodin was regarded as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. This was the ultimate compliment to Rodin who, like many of his contemporaries, revered the work of the great Italian master.
In the winter of 1876, not long after the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Michelangelo’s birth, Rodin traveled to Italy to study his work. While an art student, Rodin was one of the few sculptors of his day who was not under the influence of a living “master.” Instead, Rodin chose Michelangelo as his “master.” Among Rodin’s drawings from the period of his trip are studies of Michelangelo’s sculptures. He confided to his longtime companion, Rose Beuret, that “the great magician is going to give me some of his secrets.” One of the secrets he longed to know was how Michelangelo “breathed life” into his human figures. Rodin wanted to discard the more Classical and formulaic traditions of his contemporaries and instead create sculpture that, like Michelangelo’s, teemed with life.
In the years immediately following Rodin’s journey to Italy, the influence of Michelangelo was particularly fresh. One of the lessons he took from the Italian artist was to give careful attention to the contours of his models and his sculptures. This is evident in works such as The Age of Bronze (1876) and Saint John the Baptist Preaching (around 1880). Later examples, such as his figures of Adam and Eve display the exaggerated musculature and angular poses for which Michelangelo was known.
Throughout his life, Rodin remembered his trip to Italy as a pivotal time. He never forgot his debt to the master. Around 1905 he wrote to the sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle that “Michelangelo called me to Italy and there I received precious insights which I took into my spirit and into my work before I even understood what it was about.” To Bourdelle he also said, “It was Michelangelo who liberated me from academicism.”