Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a French sculptor who has long been hailed as a modern-day Michelangelo. His body of work includes some of the most renowned sculptures in Western art, such as The Thinker, The Kiss and The Age of Bronze.
By the beginning of the 20th century Auguste Rodin had achieved fame throughout the world, and a museum dedicated to his artwork was even agreed upon by Rodin and the French state before his death. The Musée Rodin was opened in 1919 in Paris, and was followed by another museum dedicated to his artwork in Philadelphia.
Here’s our pick of ten of the most acclaimed sculptures by Auguste Rodin.
The Gates of Hell
In 1880, Auguste Rodin was commissioned to create a set of monumental bronze doors for a new museum of decorative arts in Paris. Rodin based this sculptural group work on Inferno, the first section of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, the narrative of which traces Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. In Inferno, Dante is guided through Hell by the ancient Roman poet Virgil.
This sculpture shows more than 200 figures suffering and writhing, among which are identifiable characters from Inferno. These include Count Ugolino and his sons, the Three Shades, and Paolo and Francesca.
For The Gates of Hell, Rodin was inspired by Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, the famous pair of gilded bronze doors that he had made for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence.
Despite the plans for the new museum being abandoned three years after Rodin’s commission, he continued to work on The Gates of Hell for the rest of his life, and many figures from The Gates were adapted into acclaimed individual works. These include The Thinker, The Kiss, The Three Shades and Eternal Springtime. However, the doors themselves were only cast in bronze after Rodin’s death.
Originally called The Poet, The Thinker was first conceived as a figure in The Gates of Hell, who is sat on the lintel above the doors, observing and pondering the damned individuals below him. Some have suggested that in The Gates of Hell, this pensive man represents Dante himself both regarding those in Hell (as he does in the poem) and thinking about his literacy work.
However, others believe that this was not Rodin’s intention, as by the 19th century, Dante was thought of as having a thin, not muscular, physique. It has also been suggested that the man represents Auguste Rodin himself; or potentially the Biblical Adam, contemplating the sins of those that came after him.
The Thinker was first exhibited individually in 1888, and in 1904, it was enlarged to monumental size. This larger version was displayed at the 1904 Salon, after which its popularity grew immensely. It is now one of the most recognisable sculptures and exists today in many casts and sizes all over the world. There’s even an installation shaped like The Thinker at a toilet theme park in South Korea.
The Kiss was first designed as part of The Gates in Hell, but Rodin decided in 1886 that the image of the embracing couple the work didn’t fit in thematically with the larger work. Instead, he adapted the group into an independent work that was first exhibited in 1887.
Following this, Roudin received a commission from the French state for an enlarged version in marble, which Roudin completed almost a decade later. He was critical of the piece, calling it ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula’, and only agreed to having it exhibited in 1898, when it was shown alongside his notorious work Monument to Balzac.
The Kiss originally represented Francesco and Paolo, characters from The Divine Comedy. They arrived in Hell after being killed by Paolo’s brother, who was married to Francesco, when he found them embracing.
Monument to Balzac
In 1891, Rodin was commissioned to create a sculpture of the French playwright and novelist Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). In 1898, after years of research and experimentation, Rodin completed the plaster original from which the bronze statue was later cast. The sculptor depicted Balzac leaning backwards, appearing unkempt, and wearing an oversized cloak that was inspired by the robe Balzac often wore when writing at night.
When the plaster was first exhibited in 1898, it received derision from critics, who attacked its indiscernible form and compared it to a snowman, a toad in a sack and a seal. Rodin’s commission was subsequently cancelled and it was not until 1939 that a bronze cast was put up in Paris. Now, the statue is now understood as symbolic of Balzac’s spirit and creativity – Augste Rodin himself stated “I think of his intense labour, of the difficulty of his life, of his incessant battles and of his great courage. I would express all that.”
The Burghers of Calais
In 1885, Auguste Rodin received a commission from the city of Calais to commemorate the heroism of its citizens during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), fought between England and France. This sculpture depicts an episode from the conflict described by French chronicler Jean Froissart (1333 or 1337–after 1400), who wrote on the war.
According to Froissart, after Calais was besieged by English forces, King Edward III (of England) ordered that the keys of the city to be handed over, and that six principal citizens of Calais volunteer their lives.
This statue depicts these six men leaving the city to face their execution, unaware that in fact, the English king was to spare their lives. These citizens included Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who was the first to volunteer his life and is the bearded figure in the middle, and Jean d’Aire, who is shown carrying a giant key.
The Age of Bronze
This sculpture was Auguste Rodin’s breakthrough piece, and earned him his 1880 commission for The Gates of Hell. After working on it for eighteen months, the plaster model was first exhibited in Brussels in 1877 at the Artistic and Literary Circle of Brussel, where it was titled Le Vaincu (“The Conquered Man”). Later that year, it was also shown at the Paris Salon.
Originally, Rodin had placed a spear in the hand of the figure, but removed it and left the subject matter open to interpretation. This ambiguous pose of the man, whose eyes are also closed, initially perplexed critics, who were used to sculptures depicting identifiable figures from mythology and history.
However, the piece was soon embraced by the artistic establishment and the bronze cast exhibited at the 1880 Paris Salon was awarded a third class medal. Because of its naturalism, Rodin was falsely accused at one point of having taken plaster casts directly from his live model.
Saint John the Baptist Preaching
Rodin did not set out to create a sculpture depicting Saint John, but was inspired to do so upon meeting an Italian peasant named Pignatelli who volunteered himself as a model for Rodin. The sculptor later wrote “When I saw him, I was immediately struck; this rough, dishevelled man expressed through his gait, his features, and his physical force, all the violence, but also all the mystical character, of his race. Right away, I thought of a Saint John the Baptist…”.
Auguste Roudin deliberately made this sculpture slightly larger than life-size following accusations that The Age of Bronze was casted directly from the live model. The sculpture was exhibited in plaster at the 1880 Paris Salon, and again the following year later in bronze
The Walking Man
This sculpture was made from a plaster study of a pair of legs for Rodin’s earlier piece, Saint John the Baptist Preaching, and a study of a torso that was most likely also for Saint John. In 1900, Rodin exhibited the resulting half life-size plaster version of the sculpture, and later enlarged it between 1905 and 1907. He also renamed this larger version The Walking Man (it had previously been titled A Study for Saint John the Baptist.)
Much like The Age of Bronze, this piece was unlike most sculptures that had been created by French artists in the 19th century, which were generally rooted in a historical or mythological context. Rather, The Walking Man exists only by itself, as a sculpture without context. It also subverted contemporary academic tradition with its armless, headless form.
Auguste Rodin once stated that he had “an intense passion for the expression of the human hands”, and depicted them without an attached figure in various other sculptures, such as The Hand from the Tomb and The Hand of God.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was once Rodin’s friend, assistant, and mentee, wrote that “In Rodin’s work, there are hands, independent little hands, which are alive without belonging to any single body.”
This particular sculpture, which was originally titled The Ark of the Covenant, shows two right hands whose fingers are about to touch. It was first created in stone in 1908.
Mask of the Man with the Broken Nose
This sculpture was modelled on a local handyman named ‘Bibi’, who Rodin chose to depict because of his defined facial features and broken nose. Rodin first submitted this sculpture to the Salon Jury in 1864 as a fragment – the back of the bust had broken off, and only the face was left (hence the title “mask” rather than “bust”).
Rodin later claimed that when he was making the bust, he could not afford to heat his studio overnight, and during one night in winter, the back of the bust froze and broke off. He stated he welcomed such accidental damages, hence he still submitted the mask to the Salon; however, it is certainly possible that he cropped the busk deliberately to fashion it into a mask instead.
The Salon Jury rejected the mask in 1864, and again the following year after Rodin had re-worked it. It did accept the third version though in 1875 – a complete marble bust with the backside re-worked. Rodin later stated that the mask “determined all my future work”.