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The Life of Rodin: Monumental Projects and Growing Notoriety 1880-1900

Despite criticism and controversy during his early career, in 1880 Rodin was commissioned by the French Ministry of Fine Arts to create his first large public project. He was to design an entrance door for a museum of decorative arts to be built in Paris. The imagery he chose was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and by Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. The format was inspired by those of traditional cathedral doors. Rodin’s resulting sculpture was called The Gates of Hell.

Les Fleurs de Mal, written in 1857, is a book of poetry that examines complex and often morbid emotional states.  Divine Comedy, written in three parts about 1307, tells of Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise.  The Inferno, one of the three parts, was a common reference in French art and literature during Rodin’s time. An avid reader of Dante, Rodin borrowed imagery directly from The Inferno. He wanted to express Dante’s journey through the underworld in a three-dimensional piece that would incorporate many of its characters and scenes.

By the end of the 1880s, it was clear the museum of decorative arts would never be built.  Still Rodin worked on the project periodically for the rest of his life.  From the beginning, he exhibited many figures from The Gates as independent, freestanding sculptures. Several of Rodin’s most famous pieces – among them The Thinker, The Kiss and The Three Shades – are derived from smaller reliefs contained within The Gates of Hell.

During the 1880s, while working on The Gates, Rodin gained the recognition he sought. His work was in demand, especially by fashionable society people. He modeled portrait busts, often not as paid commissions but as gestures of thanks or friendship. As his reputation grew, so did the activity in his studio. Rodin had many people assisting him, each doing a particular job necessary to transform the clay piece he modeled into a marble or a cast bronze. Among these trained artisans were assistants who created plaster casts of the original clay models, “pointers” who would ready marble blocks to be carved or would enlarge or reduce the size of the piece (as the market demanded), bronze casters who worked with outside foundries, and patinaters who ‘finished’ the outer surface of the completed bronze sculpture.

It was also during this period that Rodin – while filling in for a friend who taught a sculpture class to young women – met 19-year-old Camille Claudel.  Rodin was captivated by Claudel, who had noticeable talent and an intense desire to succeed as a sculptor. While Rodin always honored his history with Rose Beuret, he and Claudel shared interests and passions. Before long she became his student, model, collaborator, and mistress. Their admiration for each other was evident in their sculpture. Rodin made many portraits of her, and during this period he also created numerous sculptures of loving couples in passionate embraces, such as one of his most famous works, The Kiss. Still, Rodin refused to leave Rose, and he and Claudel severed their ties by 1898.

In 1884, Rodin took on another monumental project, this time for the French city of Calais. Its mayor had convened a commission to select a sculptor for a monument to be erected in honor of Eustache de Saint-Pierre.  In 1377, during the Hundred Years War, Eustache was the first citizen of Calais to volunteer to be hostage to the English King, Edward III, in exchange for England lifting its 11-month siege of their city. The King ordered Eustache and the five other leading citizens who volunteered with him, to relinquish the keys to the city and to prepare themselves for execution. The brave citizens walked towards the King’s camp, thinking they were taking their last steps, but in the end their lives were spared.

Rodin was greatly moved by the power of the story and offered to depict all six men – not just Eustache de Saint Pierre – for a modest sum. He studied the history surrounding the event as well as other artistic depictions and decided to show all six men taking their first steps toward the camp of Edward III. Rodin’s originality won him the commission.  Rodin finished The Burghers of Calais in 1888 and first exhibited it to the public in 1889 at a joint exhibition in Paris with Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The Monument was erected in Calais in 1895.

Rodin continued to receive commissions for public monuments, including one to painter Claude Lorrain and another to French novelist Victor Hugo. In 1891, he was commissioned by the Société des Gens de Lettres (the Society of Men of Letters) to design a monument to their founder, French writer Honoré de Balzac. Since Balzac had been dead for forty years, Rodin faced the challenge of having to render his likeness from photographs and through other means. He researched the writer extensively, going so far as to order a suit from Balzac’s tailor to visualize his legendary girth.

Rodin worked on the Monument to Balzac for seven years. He completed at least fifty studies, some based on Balzac’s actual appearance and others more subjective and abstract. Most of the studies were of Balzac’s head, because Rodin believed it was important to emphasize the heads of people of high intellect. He finished the model for the Monument in 1898 and presented the final nine-foot plaster  to the public. Highly abstract in conception, it was met with outrage, disbelief, and ridicule.  As a result the Literary Society refused to accept it. Deeply hurt by the criticism, Rodin moved the sculpture to his studio outside of Paris and refused during his lifetime to allow it to be cast.