“Man’s naked form belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages.” ~ Auguste Rodin
When we paid admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we also got free admission to the Rodin Museum, a short walk down Benjamin Franklin Parkway, itself intended to evoke the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The more famous Musée Rodin in Paris opened in 1919. Its collection includes 6,600 sculptures, 8,000 drawings, 8,000 old photographs and 7,000 objets d’art. The more intimately scaled Rodin Museum in Philadelphia has over 140 bronzes, marbles, and plasters, as well as eight works in the garden outside.
Though I’m not particularly enamored of sculpture as an art form, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to learn something about this greatly admired artist. Rodin possessed a unique ability to model a turbulent and deeply complex surface in clay. Many of his most notable sculptures were criticized during his lifetime; his work clashed with thematic and classical sculptural traditions, as well as mythology and allegory. He modeled the human body with realism, and celebrated individual character and physicality. Although Rodin was sensitive to the controversy surrounding his work, he refused to change his style. Before finally earning fame, he spent several decades as a decorative artist, as he was denied entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts three times (Wikipedia: Auguste Rodin).
Approaching the museum, we meet Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker.
Rodin originally conceived The Thinker for The Gates of Hell in 1880-81, but in 1889 he exhibited it as an independent sculpture, titled The Thinker; The Poet, Fragment of a Door.
On August 16, 1880, Rodin received a commission to create a pair of bronze doors for a new decorative arts museum in Paris which never materialized. Nevertheless, the sculptor worked on The Gates of Hell for 37 years, during which time he continually added, removed, or altered the more than two hundred human figures that appear on the doors. Some of his most famous works, like The Thinker, The Three Shades, and The Kiss, were originally conceived as part of The Gates and were only later removed, enlarged, and cast as independent pieces.
Rodin’s initial inspiration came from Inferno, the first part of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. Rodin imagined the scenes described by Dante as a world with infinite space and freedom from gravity. This allowed for radical experimentation by the artist, with figures that obey no rules in their poses, emotive gestures, or sexuality. According to the Rodin Museum‘s website, for Rodin, the chaotic figures on The Gates of Hell enjoyed only one final freedom—the ability to express their agony with complete abandon.
Inside the museum, we find a despairing marble figure modeled on Greek mythology, Danaid (The Source), condemned to eternally carry water from a leaking jug. The figure was originally modeled for The Gates of Hell, but Rodin didn’t include it in the final version.
The Martyr, modeled in 1885, depicts a naked dead or sleeping female figure in blackened bronze.
The founder of the Rodin Museum wanted a large marble as the centerpiece of the collection and asked the Musée Rodin in Paris for permission to have a copy made of the artist’s famous embracing couple. Carved after Rodin’s death, this replica of The Kiss is marked as such on the back.
The Thinker was subsequently cast in bronze in three different sizes, including this one inside the museum, of the original, or medium, size. Despite the fame of this piece, the individual who modeled for it is unknown making him an “everyman.”
Samuel Stockton White III (American, 1876-1952) was the only Philadelphian to model for Rodin. The award-winning bodybuilder was introduced to the artist in 1901 as a possible subject. White assumed this position, which recalls The Thinker.
Adele Abbnruzzesi, a young Italian woman who was one of Rodin’s favorite models, assumed this provocative pose in The Crouching Woman while resting between modeling sessions. Rodin nicknamed this figure “the frog” and used it on The Gates of Hell and in I Am Beautiful.
The Crouching Woman holds a special place in my heart. Some years ago, while I was taking poetry classes at Northern Virginia Community College, I went to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington for a poetry-writing session led by one of the curators at the museum. She encouraged us to use art as inspiration for poetry. I loved the session as I was learning that you could write poetry about anything in life, no matter how mundane or how grand. As we wandered around the museum, I was captured by a Rodin sculpture, She Who Was The Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife (Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière), 1885-1887. At that time, I was depressed by the toll aging was taking on me, so I focused on this sculpture. I studied the sculpture with great interest, taking notes for a poem I’d try to write at home. The Crouching Woman was also at the Hirshhorn, in the same room, and I included her in the poem. You can find the poem at the end of this post. I’m not into rhyming poetry, so you’ll be disappointed if you enjoy rhymes.
I love the idea of creating something from my travels, or even my day trips — a short story, a poem, a novel, a blog post, a photograph or series of photos based around a theme. I love immersing myself in a place and discovering something that moves me and inspires me to be creative. The experience becomes an interactive one: a place or experience gives something to me, which I take and shape into something meaningful for myself and for the world.
“Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded” ~ Virginia Woolf
We can walk all the way around Saint John the Baptist Preaching. Says Rodin about the peasant who offered his services as a model and inspired this sculpture: “I immediately thought of a Saint John the Baptist, in other words, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor who came to announce one greater than himself. The peasant undressed, climbed onto the revolving stand as if he had never posed before; he planted himself firmly on his feet, head up, torso straight, at the same time putting his weight on both legs, open like a compass. The movement was so right, so straightforward and so true that I cried: ‘But it’s a man walking!’ I immediately resolved to model what I had seen” (Musee Rodin).
Rodin made a sculpture to honor Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright. According to Rodin, the sculpture aims to portray the writer’s character rather than a physical likeness. I’m unable to get a decent photo of the sculpture, which is here in the museum. However, in the same room, I find a bust of the novelist Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly (French, 1808-1889), one of Balzac’s most fervent supporters and an early sponsor of the Balzac monument. In 1909 Rodin was approached to design a memorial to d’Aurevilly; a version of this bust, showing the author’s fashionable features and dress, sits on a high pedestal in the Norman City of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, his birthplace.
Eternal Springtime was modeled in clay in 1884; cast in plaster and painted white in 1885. Rodin originally conceived of Eternal Springtime as part of The Gates of Hell, but he didn’t include it because the happiness expressed by the lovers did not seem appropriate to the theme of The Gates.
The Cathedral is a combination of two right hands, belonging to two different figures. Parallels may be drawn between the mysterious inner space that seems to emanate from the composition and Gothic architecture (Musée Rodin: Cathedral).
We find another sculpture, Two Hands, modeled before 1909 and cast in 1925.
Outside, in the garden, we find The Three Shades. These identical male figures — known as shades, or ghosts from the underworld — are closely related to Rodin’s figure of Adam. However, rather than awakening to life as Adam does, the shades embody death, sleep and loss of consciousness. Rodin placed The Three Shades atop The Gates of Hell to draw attention to the scenes of damnation unfolding below, and years later, enlarged and exhibited them as an independent figure group.
Here’s my poem from the my little poetry session at the Hirshhorn. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo of the sculpture, but you can find it in the link above, from the Boston Museum.
She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife
Her skin flows – lava, rippling down her frail neck, rib cage, legs – then solidifies, bronzed. Gravity – hypnotic – tugs at her deflated breasts. Punctuated by sunken nipples, invisible aureoles, they lounge against her ribs, her tired mound of belly. Her hair hangs in a horseshoe on her back. Her kneecaps jut in knotted knobs, dark and pockmarked as peppercorns. The pitted surfaces of her skin refract the museum light, deflect her despair to her companions – Crouching Woman, Head of Sorrow, Kneeling Woman Combing Her Hair. The Hirshhorn docent points at her, while students scribble in notebooks, raincoats tossed over their arms. Rodin insists she was once beautiful, and maybe she was, but today and until bronze disintegrates, her essence hides within a craggy oyster shell, pearly, air-thin bones under loose-fitting skin. Inside her hollows, she just remembers wandering to her husband’s shop on woolen summer evenings, moonlight glancing off canary grass, a whippoorwill’s lament in liquid air. Goosebumps blossomed on her skin as she watched his shoulders strain in the light from the fire. She silently slid her fingers over the cool ridge of a helmet, her own reflection – beguiling – in the metal-mirror curve. She loved to seduce him on those ancient evenings, the helmets – like a crowd of floating, gleaming heads – peering silently, as she and her husband made tangled love on the dusty floor.