“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” - Henry Ford
François-Auguste-René Rodin (12 November 1840, Paris, France to 17 November 1917, Meudon, France) was a prominent French sculptor best known for his iconic sculpture “The Thinker”. His father, Jean-Baptiste Rodin, was a detective in the Paris police department. His mother, Marie Cheffer, was a former seamstress. Rodin was somewhat shy and nearsighted from an early age. Young Rodin started serious drawing lessons at the age of 10. From the age of 14 he studied art at the École Impériale de Dessin, a government school for craft and design in Paris. There he discovered sculpture and acquired a thorough grounding in the tradition of French 18th-century art. Rodin also studied anatomy under the tutelage of sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye.
In 1858 he left the École Impériale de Dessin and sought admission to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Although he applied three times he was rejected each time. So, instead of a formal education, Rodin served a long and difficult apprenticeship under Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a highly successful sculptor, for whom Rodin started as a modeller, then became an assistant. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 he followed his teacher to Belgium. There he became a partner of Antoine Van Raspbourgh and worked on monumental allegorical sculptures for the Brussels Bourse. Rodin considered “Man with the Broken Nose” to be his earliest major work. Much to his disappointment, the Salon rejected the work twice, in 1864 and 1865.
While in Brussels Rodin sculpted a number of decorative female figures in terra cotta, beginning to sign his name. In 1875 he went to Italy where he studied the works of Michelangelo. In 1876 the artist created “The Bronze Age”, which was exhibited in Brussels and at the Salon des artistes Français in Paris. He was falsely accused by critics of having cast the entire statue from a live model. The French government bought “The Bronze Age” and a bronze model of St. John the Baptist.
From 1879-1882 Rodin worked at the Manufacture de Sevres. In 1884 the city council of Calais commissioned a sculpture that became the monumental sculpture group “The Burghers of Calais” (illustrated above). In 1888 the French government commissioned “The Kiss” in marble for the Universal exhibition of 1889. Rodin became the founding member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. At that time he exhibited with Claude Monet. In the 1890s he created monuments to Claude Le Lorrain, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac, and also worked on other commissions.
In 1892 Rodin was promoted to Officer of the Légion d’ Honneur. In 1899 the large-scale “Eve” was shown at the Salon. In 1903 Rodin was appointed Commander of the Légion d’ Honneur. In 1864 Rodin met a seamstress, Rose Beuret. They had a son, named Auguste-Eugene Beuret, who was born in 1866. Rose became the model for many of his works. She and Rodin remained lifetime companions and formally married in 1917, the year they both died.
Rodin had another relationship with a student named Camille Claudel, who was 25 years younger than him. She became his mistress at the age of 18, and inspired Rodin as a model for several sculptures of passionate love couples. Camille was also a talented pupil; she worked for Rodin and assisted him during his four-year work on the bronze group “Les Bourgeois de Calais” (1884-1888). Unfortunately, her mental problems brought tragic complexity in Rodin’s life (she was eventually committed to a mental asylum). He remained attached to Rose, who patiently endured his other affairs.
In 1903 he met an English painter, Gwendolen Mary John, and she became his mistress and was his model for “The Whistler Muse”. In 1904 Rodin met the American-born Duchess Claire de Choiseul, who dominated his life until 1912. His complex relationships found reflection in his works: “Eternal Spring”, “The Poet and Love”, “The Genius and Pity”, “The Sculptor and his Muse”. Rodin preferred to sketch the natural spontaneity of amateur models, street acrobats, athletes and dancers. From these quick sketches he modelled works in clay, which he later reworked and fine-tuned, then cast in plaster and forged into bronze. A large staff of pupils, craftsmen and stonecutters were working for him, including Bourdelle.
Rodin’s method of evolutionary development of his initial idea into a masterpiece was demonstrated by creation of “The Kiss” and “The Thinker”, which were derived from smaller reliefs within “The Gates of Hell”, a work he was commissioned to create in 1880 for a museum in Paris. For that project he made a palm-size sketch of “The Kiss” and a first small plaster version of “The Thinker” as a figure of the poet Dante Alighieri. “The Kiss” was completed in marble in 1889. By that time he had exhibited a mid-size version of “The Thinker”, which was cast in bronze in the 1890s. Meanwhile, Rodin made countless variations of “The Thinker” by subtle alterations to its pose and expression until he achieved the desired result with one of the bigger versions.
Rodin’s works are distinguished by their energy and realism that create an illusion of a living, breathing form. His art embraced all aspects of humanity, ranging from distress and moral weakness to the heights of passion and beauty. “The Thinker” was an achievement of a special harmony in showing a trio of human qualities that appealed to the art lover: The heroic, poetic and intellectual. It was recast in over 20 copies for major museums, and was also reproduced in millions of smaller versions and became one of the most recognizable icons of art.
From 1908-1917 Rodin lived at the Hotel Biron in Paris. There his neighbours included artist Henri Matisse, writer Jean Cocteau and dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1912 the French government scheduled the Hotel Biron for demolition and ordered the tenants to vacate. Rodin persuaded the government to allow him to stay. As an exchange, in 1916 Rodin gave his entire collection of art to France on the condition that the state maintain the Musée Rodin. The collection contains Rodin’s most significant works, including “The Thinker”, “The Kiss”, “The Gates of Hell” and “The Burghers of Calais” in the front garden. Rodin's living rooms are decorated with paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir that he had acquired. Rodin's own works and other art objects are still placed as Rodin set them.
Auguste Rodin enjoyed friendships with some of the most important writers and artists of the day, such as Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Émile Zola, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Bernard Shaw. Rodin died on November 17, 1917, in Mendon, France, and was laid to rest beside Rose Beuret in the Cemetery of Mendon, Ile-de-France. A bronze cast of “The Thinker” was placed at the base of his tomb.
This short video takes us on a tour of the Musée Rodin.
This short video takes us on a tour of the Musée Rodin.