Born into a modest family, Rodin rose to become one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. He produced many artworks, including portraits and drawings. Although the contemporary art community highly criticized his works during his lifetime, Rodin revolutionized sculpting and became known as the father of modern sculpture.
A Brief Biography of Rodin
The First Years
Auguste Rodin was born in Paris in 1840 into a working-class family and had no formal education in art. However, he began drawing at the age of 10, and at 14, he was accepted to the La Petite École, a school for drawing and maths. Rodin specialized in sculpting, and in 1857, he submitted a clay model to École des Beaux-Arts, attempting to enroll the school. However, the judges' preference for neoclassical themes didn't match Rodin's style, and he was rejected. After his further attempts also failed, Rodin decided to leave the school and make a living as a craftsman. He became an ornamentor and spent 20 years creating decorative objects and ornaments.
Rodin worked for a mass producer of art objects, Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, and traveled to Belgium with him, where he would spend the following six years. Then in 1875, the artist visited Italy for two months and saw the sculptures by Donatello and Michelangelo. This travel was a life-changing experience for Rodin; he rediscovered his passion for sculpting and developed a new approach to the art form, which would become modern sculpting.
Birth of His Avant-Garde Style
After returning to Belgium, Rodin started to work on a new sculpture. As he worked and created more pieces, he found his style, which was against the contemporary standards of academic sculpting. His works captured the simplicity of humans and highlighted the modern individual. Artworks of Rodin often included rough surfaces; they looked unfinished and raw. While the era's standards were dull perfectionism and aesthetic appearance, Rodin highlighted the sense and emotions an artwork conveys.
The contemporary art community responded to Rodin's works with mixed reactions. While the advocates of academic standards didn't like his technique, revolutionaries like him welcomed him. As a prolific artist, Rodin produced many artworks in different media. Today, Rodin is known as the father of modern sculpture, and most of his works are exhibited in the Rodin Museum in France.
The Most Famous Sculptures by Rodin
- Monument to Balzac
- The Burghers of Calais
- The Gates of Hell
- The Thinker
- The Kiss
Monument to Balzac: The First Modern Sculpture
Monument to Balzac, celebrating the French novelist Honoré Balzac, captures the writer's persona rather than his appearance. The piece looks rough, even unfinished. However, the face of Balzac, which evolved from a portrait, and the long robe he wears express the genius of the famous novelist without much effort. The unfinishedness of the sculpture leaves the aesthetic perfection out and focuses on just the personal embodiment of Balzac.
Although the sculpture is the first example of modern sculpting, it wasn't welcomed by the 19th-century art community and was cast in bronze 22 years after the artist's death. Today, the sculpture resides in the Rodin Museum in Paris.
The Burghers of Calais: A Masterful Representation of Heroism
Heroism, sacrifice, and defeat; the Burghers of Calais is a sculpture that reflects all these feelings. It depicts a historical event that occurred during the Hundred Years' War. On 4 September 1346, Calais, a strategic French port, was sieged by king Edward III of England. The Calais’ people surrendered, and the siege lasted for months, which resulted in starvation and diseases striking the city. Edward proposed to spare Calais’ people if six leaders from Calais would surrender themselves to him. Yet, in the end, the king spared their lives too.
The sculpture focuses on the anguish and pain the burghers suffered while masterfully capturing the heroism; the six figures walk to meet their fate in solidarity, sacrificing themselves for their people. Although it's among the most famous sculptures of Rodin, it was controversial at first. Today, there are twelve original castings of the piece in various museums throughout Europe and the USA.
The Gates of Hell: Rodin's Masterpiece
The Gates of Hell was Rodin's masterpiece. Depicting a scene from Dante Alighieri's Inferno, the sculpture is composed of 180 different figures from the narrative. It was one of the most significant works for Rodin as it influenced his subsequent works. During the creation of the sculpture, the artist studied Inferno; he even stated that, for a year, "he lived with Dante."
Rodin started working on the project in 1880, aiming to finish it in 1885. However, the project was never completed, and Rodin worked on the sculpture for 37 years, dying before finalizing it. Although Rodin could never see the completion of his masterpiece, several bronze and plaster casts of The Gates of Hell exist in museums worldwide.
The Thinker: The Most Famous Work by Rodin
The Thinker is possibly Rodin's most well-known work and one of the most famous sculptures of all time. Today, the sculpture is mostly associated with philosophy. However, the piece was initially named the Poet and was the crowning element of the sculptural complex Gates of Hell, seated on the tympanum. Later, Rodin made an individual version of the sculpture.
It is believed that the Thinker was a depiction of Dante. The figure's nudity resembles the heroic figures from Renaissance art, while his pose embodies his intelligence and poetry. The sculpture is where heroism and philosophy meet. It is an ode to the modern human, with the strength of the past and the brilliance of today.
The Kiss: Depiction of Sin and Sensuality
Representing sensuality, sin, and crime, the Kiss depicts an embracing nude couple. Like the Thinker, the Kiss was also initially a part of the Gates of Hell complex. The sculpture depicts the story of Francesca de Rimini, an Italian noblewoman who fell in love with her husband's brother and was killed by her husband after her first kiss with her lover.
The eroticism of the sculpture made it a controversial piece at first. However, Rodin's talented depiction of sensuality, sin, and carnal happiness made it one of his most famous sculptures.