Rodin was fascinated by the expressive capabilities of hands. He modeled hundreds of them, using them both as independent sculptures and as parts of more complex pieces. By carefully modeling their musculature, proportion, texture, and balance, he demonstrated that hands could convey profound emotion, from anger and despair to compassion and tenderness. When Rodin composed a new figure, he often experimented by attaching to it hands made for earlier pieces in order to explore the possibilities the new combinations might reveal. This working method also encouraged Rodin’s interest in the fragment and also inspired his exploration of the notion that figurative sculpture need not depend on a whole figure to communicate meaning.
Large Clenched Left Hand has fascinated hand surgeons for decades. A few years ago, The Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University collaborated with a hand surgeon at Stanford’s Medical School to examine what could be diagnosed from Rodin’s hands.
This bronze was modeled about 1885 and is a bit more than 18 inches tall. This cast is currently on view at the Harnett Museum of Art at the University of Richmond.
In the early 1880s Rodin created two female figures, each in a spiral pose, each either falling in within herself due to the heavy load she bears (one totes an huge stone on her shoulder, the other has an equally-sizable urn) or each springing into action despite her burden. These figures are descendants of Greek caryatids, architectural columns in the guise of female figures who bear the weight of a building’s architrave on their heads.
We thank North Carolina Museum of Art Curator David Steel for reminding us in his beautiful volume about Cantor gifts to his Museum that these two works speak not only to Rodin’s times but also to ours. Steel quotes this passage in Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land:
There Jubal Harshaw, the “neo-pessimist philosopher,” waxes eloquently about Rodin’s sculpture: “This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl — look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods…and still trying to shoulder her load… She’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women – this symbol means every man and every woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage…and victory… She’s a father working while cancer eats away at his insides, to bring home one more paycheck. She’s a twelve-year-old trying to mother her brothers and sisters because mama had to go to Heaven…She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit.
In 1897 Rodin himself wrote of this piece:
On each part of this body, the entire rock rests like a will that was greater, more ancient and more powerful, and yet its destiny, which was to carry, has not stopped. It carries, as one carries the impossible in a dream, and cannot find a way out. And despite its collapse, its weakness, the act of carrying continues, and when exhaustion strikes again, forcing this body to recline, even when reclining, it will still carry, will go on carrying forever.
In 1894 Rodin was invited to design a monument to labor for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. It was to be as enduring a symbol of the coming 1900 Exposition as the Tour Eiffel had been for the Exposition in 1889. Rodin proposed a 100-foot-tall tower – reminiscent of Leonardo’s staircase at the Château de Blois – on a 24-foot-wide base. A center column was to be covered in bas-reliefs depicting “respectable” laborers. At the base would be two figures: Night and Day. Atop the tower would be The Benedictions, described by Rodin as “two winged geniuses who descend from heaven, like a beneficent rain, to bless the work of men.”
Rodin’s depiction of these two creatures emphasizes their lavish wings, as if their size was necessary to slow down the descent from heaven. The wings provide this piece with a generous art nouveau sensibility, very au current during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. Although Rodin said he was not a fan of the highly decorative style known as art nouveau, it is clear that he could not escape its influences on his work. The Tower to Labor was never built.
In 1913 Rodin spoke of what happened when an Italian peasant from the Abruzzi region came to his studio to offer himself as a model:
As soon as I saw him, I was filled with admiration; this rough, hairy man expressed his violence in his bearing, his features and his physical strength, yet also the mystical character of his race. 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…. That’s how I came to make The Walking Man and Saint John the Baptist, one after the other. All I did was copy the model that chance had sent me.
Saint John the Baptist was a popular subject at Rodin’s time. But other artists’ Saint Johns followed Biblical descriptions more closely than did Rodin’s; they were shown as children or roughly clothed adults, they carried the saint’s traditional attributes, and they gestured so as to bless or baptize Christ. Rodin’s Saint John was nude, carried no attributes, and his gesture was ambiguous. Still – or because of this – the piece was one of Rodin’s most popular. There was an active exhibition and sales market for casts in the original size (80 inches tall) and in three different reductions (31-32 inches, 19-20 inches and 8 inches). Critics wrote in admiration of the musculature of the figure’s back (and were not bothered that it did not complement the emaciated front of the ascetic’s body).
In 1901 the critic Mauclair wrote:
Everyone today feels that the hand that modeled Saint John the Baptist and erected The Gates of Hell is the only one powerful enough, in Europe and in this century, to seize hold of sculpture in its entirety and pull it out of the rut into which it could easily have got bogged down.
Rodin’s father (1803-1883) was a conservative family man who worked hard his entire life, first as a clerk in a police station and then as a police inspector. Left a widower by his first wife, he married again and with his second wife had three children. It was a close and supportive family.
Jean Baptiste Rodin seems to have been a quiet, unremarkable person. For his time and background, however, he was remarkable in one respect: He supported his son’s aspirations to be an artist. Indeed, he recognized his young son’s talent when no one else did. In an undated letter in the archives of the Musée Rodin, Jean wrote to his Auguste, giving him fatherly advice: You must not construct your future on sand so that the smallest storm will bring it down. Build on a solid, durable foundation [so that] the day will come when one can say of you as of truly great men – the artist Auguste Rodin is dead but he lives for posterity, for the future.
In 1860 Auguste made two portraits of his father, one a painting, the other, this bust. The painting shows the Frenchman in profile and as he looked: with a bushy beard and moustache, and balding, with black hair on the back of his head. In comparison, the sculpture conveys little of the father’s real appearance except perhaps for his long nose and receding chin. What it presents instead is Rodin’s response to his father’s support. Here Jean Baptiste has the features and resolve of a Roman emperor.
This 1860 bust is one of Auguste Rodin’s earliest pieces; he made it when he was twenty years old. That it is based on ancient Roman sculpture he would have seen at the Louvre speaks to his interest at this stage of his career in following tradition, in building the “solid, durable foundation” of which his father wrote. And that it conveys with such conviction his father’s personality more than his appearance foretells the artist’s future achievements.