In Rodin’s Studio

Sculpture was hot in Rodin’s day, an era of insatiable markets and numerous government commissions.  And during the period from 1885-1917 Rodin was the most modern and most admired living sculptor. His work was in great demand. For instance, between 1898 and 1918, the Barbedienne Foundry cast 231 bronzes of Eternal Spring and 319 of The Kiss. These were among Rodin’s most popular pieces (the smallest version of The Kiss was a popular wedding present) and each subject was available in four sizes. To keep up with such demand Rodin had a large workshop of artisans skilled in the many tasks necessary to support his career.

As a matter of fact, if you walked into Rodin’s showroom at the Hôtel Biron in Paris or into his studio at his suburban Parisian home in Meudon, you most likely would not have known if the date was 1897 or 1597. For although he was untraditional in many ways, Rodin produced his sculpture following very traditional studio practices, practices virtually unchanged from those of the great sculptors of the Renaissance and later.

Like all sculptors of his day, Rodin was trained as a modeler. He created his pieces first in clay, wax, or plaster. When he was satisfied with what he created, his studio assistants created replicas of his work, first in clay and then in plaster.  From these, pieces could be carved in marble or be made ready for bronze casting.  Although Rodin would supervise, he rarely participated in the creation of these marbles or bronzes. Instead, he relied on his trusted craftspeople (who he had trained) and on carefully-selected foundries to guarantee that the resultant carving or casting would be to his satisfaction.

Because the modeled original was intended to be replicated in another material, the replica could be made larger or smaller, depending on the commission. There were machines and procedures devised to accomplish this transformation, and Rodin took full advantage of them. For instance, in 1880 the first Thinker was 28 inches (71 centimeters) high. In 1898 it was reduced to 14 ¾ inches (38 centimeters), and in 1903-4 it was enlarged to a monumental 79 inches (201 centimeters).

The pieces that were cast in bronze were made off site.  Rodin and his assistants chose from among Paris’ scores of foundries to cast his work. Some foundries were selected because they made deals with Rodin that were especially lucrative for him.  Others were selected because they specialized in signature patinas (the surface color of a bronze) that he wanted for particular pieces.  And sometimes foundries were selected because they made sure he knew they did not cast work by his rival sculptors.

After 1900 Rodin might have had as many as fifty assistants at work in his studio. Many of these went on to achieve their own fame as artists: Antoine Bourdelle, Camille Claudel, Charles Despiau, Malvina Hoffmann.