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Rodin in Context

As one might expect, there are stylistic and philosophical relationships between Rodin’s sculpture and the principal styles of painting practiced at the time his was working, especially Realism (as in the work of Manet and Courbet) and Impressionism (as in the work of Monet and Renoir).

Realism

In reaction to the excesses and artifices of Rococo and Romanticism, the mid-nineteenth century French painters Manet and Courbet made paintings grounded in the lives of their contemporaries. They refused to idealize their figures and said they would not paint subjects they could not see (for instance, scenes from history or mythology). The Realists also believed the source of beauty was to be found in truth to nature, not in making nature more ‘perfect’ than it was.

In addition neither Manet nor Courbet painted to create the illusion of reality. They disregarded the tradition wherein the picture frame was used as a window seemingly looking onto the real world. Instead they emphasized the physicality of paint on the surface of canvas, thus drawing attention to the reality of the work of art as separate from that which it depicted.

Impressionism

The general tenets of Impressionism as:

  1. An acknowledgement that light makes all things visible. Impressionists painted the reality of the light that was reflected from objects, not the objects themselves.
  2. The use of local color (the color an object ‘appears’ to be, as opposed to the color it ‘is’) and divided brushstroke to convey the light reflected from objects. This divided brushstroke was often laden with paint, conveying its reality by actual texture.
  3. An interest in capturing a single moment of time; therefore an acknowledgement that time and its cohorts – movement and change – are conditions of seeing.
  4. An affirmation that everyday life and the environs of the growing French middle class (including mundane urban environments and as well as country idylls) were appropriate subject matter for artists.
  5. A delight in the exotic and unfamiliar, especially those demonstrated by the newly-imported Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

What does this have to do with Rodin?

Rodin developed his style at the same time the Realists and Impressionists developed theirs. Although there is no evidence of any significant aesthetic discussions between the sculptor and the painters*, we can point to aspects of Rodin’s work and note it has parallels (not sources) in Realism and Impressionism:

  1. Rodin believed that truth to nature was the source of beauty.
  2. Rodin exploited the capacity of textured bronze surfaces to reflect light. He knew that light bouncing off irregular surfaces could give the artwork the illusion of movement. The creation of the illusion of movement was one of Rodin’s goals.
  3. Rodin often used working class people as his models and depicted their individual characters. After the beginning of his career, he rarely idealized anyone.

*They were however friends and supporters of each others’ careers. Rodin and Monet even showed together in 1889.

What name do we give Rodin’s style?

Art historians rarely put Rodin’s work in a specific stylistic category. Although it includes many aspects of Realism and Impressionism, it is neither. It is best to think of Rodin as a crucial transition between the perception-based traditions of eighteenth and nineteenth century European academic art and the conception-based modern movements of the early twentieth century. Rodin’s works combine what is visible about events and/or people with their inner, invisible, emotional, intellectual, and passionate responses to the situations in which they find themselves.