Monumental Head of Balzac

1301 Monu Head BalzacThis is one of Rodin’s many heads of Balzac, the acclaimed French writer of the early Nineteenth Century. It was modeled in preparation for The Monument to Honoré de Balzac, a commission Rodin received in 1891 and completed in 1898. Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) was a critically acclaimed and very popular French novelist and playwright. Best known for his stories and novels titled La Comédie humaine, his work presented a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In working on his Balzac, Rodin sought to know and understand not only the writer’s creative genius, but also how he looked. Balzac had died forty years before and although a few very early photographs of him existed along with some written descriptions, and some portrait drawings and paintings, Rodin wanted a better understanding of Balzac’s physical appearance. So he went to Balzac’s hometown and found someone there who matched the Balzac of the existing evidence, and used this man to model for the portrait heads.

When Rodin received a major commission like The Monument to Balzac, his working method was to explore its many possibilities by doing many studies, or preparatory pieces.  These studies were typically of parts of the body like the hands or the heads, or of the entire figure, unclothed or clothed. If they led to a final monument that was popular with critics and the public, the studies were cast in bronze and were for sale, usually in various sizes (thanks to the Collas machine and skilled studio assistants).



Large Clenched Left Hand

Large Clenched Left Hand colorRodin 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.

The Fallen Caryatids

1221 Fallen Caryatid UrnIn 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 1207 Fallen Caryatid Stone colorhome 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.


The Benedictions

1386 Benedictions
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.

St. John the Baptist Preaching

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 closely1726 St John Preaching color copy 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.

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