Auguste Rodin was born in Paris in 1840. Known as "the father of modern sculpture", his work has inspired artists for generations. Prior to Rodin's genius, sculpture, as an art form, was very formulaic and left very little scope for creativity.
Auguste's realism and his penchant for ordinary subject matter meant that he opened the door for artists to explore new techniques, themes and materials that had hitherto been considered inappropriate. Rodin lived well into his seventies, but he did not really begin his artistic career until he was in his thirties; all the more remarkable then that he left a body of work which numbers in the thousands. After his death he was hailed as the new Michelangelo; an impressive epitaph for a man who was considered, in his day, a scandalous rebel. Today his work is admired and sought after with many pieces considered priceless.
Early Training and Influences
Rodin was not an academic child, but he showed early signs of artistic flair, subsequently he left his traditional schooling at the age of thirteen and enrolled in a drawing school where he was trained in the basics of sketching, modelling, painting and drawing. Encouraged by his small successes and certain that he wanted to pursue a career as an artist, Auguste then applied to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was not accepted. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts had very traditional and classical standards which meant that any young hopeful with different ideas or manner of expression would find themselves rejected and "unacceptable". Auguste took it very badly.
Rodin found himself with no choice but to use the skills he had been taught and turned to decorative work to make his living. True artistic inspiration did not come until almost twenty years later when he left France and travelled to Italy. It is there that he discovered the creative mastery of Michelangelo and Donatello. It was a revelation. The realism and emotion he saw so clearly expressed in Michelangelo's work was a complete departure from the stilted, classical works expected in sculptures of the time. In Donatello's sculptures he witnessed irreverence and individuality that had long been stifled in his own work. Auguste, at last, had found his "voice" and he realised that the reason he was not accepted to the Ecole all those years before was that he could not conform to classicism. Suddenly he knew what he wanted to create, and he wasted no time. His own genius had finally been ignited.
Rodin the Realist
Universal acclaim did not come easily to Rodin. Critics found his work to be too realistic and too far removed from the classical subjects and poses of the traditional sculptors. However, after his epiphany in Italy it would have been impossible for him to create anything that did not express the honesty that he had encountered. From the very moment Auguste began to craft his original works he somehow managed to depict, almost brutally at times, raw, human feelings from joy to grief and everything in between. In 1876, at the age of thirty-six, he created the first example of his "truth", The Age of Bronze – a truly seminal work. It depicts a naked man who appears to be in an attitude of anguish.
The life-sized figure is roughly hewn and is so real one can almost feel the angst. The critics were horrified; traditionally sculptures were of classical characters depicting some Greek or Roman story and only Gods and Goddesses were ever portrayed in the nude. Suddenly, here was Rodin, offering a naked man expressing human emotion. It was a scandal. The figure was so incredibly realistic that some critics accused Auguste of actually taking a cast of the model's body. Auguste was naturally highly offended by the suggestion, but it was in fact a great compliment to his craft. Regardless of the short-sightedness of the art world, Rodin had found his style and would continue to produce realistic, emotional sculptures for the rest of his working life. Indeed, it is Auguste's skilful expression of all of life's experiences through his work that places him at the pinnacle of his craft even today.
Most Famous Works
There really are so many of Rodin's works that are instantly recognisable it is hard to decide which are "the most famous". If longevity of work is a mark of a master piece, then perhaps his greatest labour must have been, The Gates of Hell, 1899. This enormous task took Rodin almost twenty years to complete and even then, he is said to have been dissatisfied with the result. Originally commissioned as the decorative doors for the Decorative Arts Museum, Rodin based his design on Dante's "Inferno". He took further inspiration from Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise which were such seminal work that they are thought to have inspired the renaissance. The doors contain one hundred and eighty separate figures, many of which inspired other individual works by Auguste.
Sadly, the doors were never hung as the Museum was never established. However, after Rodin's death, many casts were created and they are displayed all over the world today, from Tokyo to Paris. Another very famous and prolific bronze work by Rodin is The Burghers of Calais, 1889 (cast in bronze 1893). Commissioned by the town of Calais to depict the honour of its people during the hundred years war, "the Burghers of Calais" was controversial almost from its inception. The original notion was to express the heroic actions of six towns people who sacrificed themselves for the greater good during the siege of 1347. However, Rodin's vision was much more human. The sculpture shows the men almost broken yet sure and determined, all lost in their own thoughts as they face the prospect of death.
The mayor was disappointed with the results, but when he finally agreed to display it, it met with great critical acclaim. Today, over twenty castings of the statues, singly and together exist, displayed around the world. It is considered a universal symbol of human sacrifice. Finally, it would be impossible to compile a list of famous works that did not include, The Thinker, 1880 (Bronze cast in 1902). This is undoubtably the most recognisable and most copied of Rodin's sculptures. Like many of Auguste's works, The Thinker was inspired by a figure on the Doors of Hell. It depicts a man sitting in a moment of deep thought; however, the posture and realism of the figure makes us believe that he would rise and walk away at any moment. A true masterpiece, The Thinker encapsulates the genius of Rodin; he is made of bronze, and yet he is a living, feeling being.
The Legacy of Auguste Rodin
During his lifetime Rodin taught countless students to embrace their inner genius through sculpture. It was his great love to share his understanding of artistic expression and to continue to break down barriers for new and exciting artists. Many great sculptors and artists have claimed Rodin as a great influence for their work including Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. Before his death Rodin had reached great heights of fame and honour. Considered the Michelangelo of his time, he had been commissioned to create works all over the world. However, the legacy of Rodin's work was made real when he left all his works to the French State and therein the rights to make casts of everything he had created. As a result, there are copies of Auguste's work in most major museums around the world and there are whole facilities dedicated to him in Paris, Philadelphia and Tokyo. Ultimately, Rodin's legacy is his strength of will to push sculpture as an art form through the limitations of the day and move it into a new era where true and honest expression can be achieved and appreciated for the genius that it is.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.