August Rodin

WC Art Encyclopedia August Rodin

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a French sculptor. He is generally considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, though he never saw himself or his work as a rebel or rebellious.

Rodin was born in a working-class family. He was largely self-educated and only joined Petite Ecole at age 14. Petite Ecole was a school specializing in arts and mathematics, leading eventually to the Grande Ecole; the entrance test to which was considered a small hurdle to take. Rodin failed to pass it. After being denied access to the Grand Ecole three times, he left the Petite Ecole considerably discouraged at age 17 and lived as a craftsman and ornamenter.

Deeply shaken by the death of his older sister Maria he gave up art at 22 and joined a Catholic order. Yet the founder and head of the congregation sensed his lack of suitability for the order and his talent for sculpting. He encouraged Rodin to continue with his art.

So, Rodin went back into employment in mass production of decorative objects only interrupted by a short stint in the National Guard upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussia War. He was too near-sighted to stay in service for long. Yet, as the war made his work in France obsolete for the time being and poverty was still a real problem for him at that time, he moved to Belgium. In Brussels he found work and first recognition in art salons that also carried his name back to Paris.

His work made it possible for him to save some money. He spent it on a trip to Italy. There he saw the work of Donatello and Michelangelo. Later Rodin said about this trip: “It was Michelangelo who has freed me from academic sculpture.”

In 1877 Rodin moved back to Paris. He was offered work as a designer in a porcelain factory. He collaborated with more established sculptors on public commissions, and he was increasingly invited to Paris art salons. In 1880 his growing popularity brought him a commission to create a portal for a planned museum for decorative arts. He worked on The Gates of Hell for the next 40 years and e.g. The Thinker and The Kiss were born from this project. In the end neither museum not portal ever saw the light of day, yet the commission came with the free use of a studio, which allowed Rodin to live solely from private commissions for the first time in his life.

Rodin won other commissions while working on the portal including a monument to honor the French author Honore de Balzac and for the sculpture The Burghers of Calais. While his executions often clashed with traditional taste and left the organizations that sponsored the commissions disapproving to different degrees, he was gaining support from diverse sources that helped him on his road to fame.

The Paris Salon invited him in 1889 to be a judge on their art jury. In 1900 he was so famous that he had his own pavilion on the Paris World Fair. His work was requested all over the world and his assistants worked on copies to sell. He conquered the US market and gathered a loyal followership in the UK.

Rodin died 1917, age 77. He willed his studio and the right to make casts from his plasters to the state of France.


Rodin admired the work of the yet to be recognized van Gogh and the at his time forgotten El Greco along with that of Michelangelo and Donatello. In his own work you might want to consider him a naturalist. He liked his models to walk around his studio in the nude naturally, while creating studies in clay. His was the ability to model a complex, turbulent, deeply pocketed surface in clay, while he had his assistants to re-model his clay sculptures in a larger size, cast them into plaster or bronze, or cut them into marble.

His work departed from the traditional themes of mythology and allegory, the idealism of the Greek and from the decorative beauty of Baroque and neo-Baroque movements. Thus he was highly criticized during his lifetime. He was sensitive to this criticism yet stuck to his style. For him importance lay not on likeliness, but he modeled the human body as it was. He celebrated individuality, physicality and emotions. His creations paly with light and shadows. In his work fragments stood for their own as he considered them the essence of artistic expression. He loved to recombine them to create new compositions giving them different names. With his creativity he took sculpture to a new level and into a realm, where form existed for its own sake.

Rodin saw suffering and conflict as hallmarks of modern art. “Nothing, really, is more moving than the maddened beast, dying from unfulfilled desire and asking in vain for grace to quell its passion.”

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