2017 is the 100th anniversary of Auguste Rodin’s death. The artist’s work and legacy will be celebrated this year, with special exhibitions and programs being offered worldwide. A search for “Rodin” on ArtGeek.art turns up the complete list of exhibitions of his work scheduled in museums across the USA.
“It was not until his ‘Balzac’ was produced that he finally modeled himself out of artisanship into an intense, philosophising, creative force. … the most creative force in modern art.” Gutzon Borglum, 1918
Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is regarded as the father of modern sculpture. He is credited with revitalizing the very language of sculpture with his passion and creative intensity. He rejected the prevailing decorative, formulaic, or highly thematic traditions of figurative sculpture, and his work moved away from the idealized representation of the human body.
At his most original, he turned away from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, he modeled the human body with realism, and he celebrated individual character and physicality. While deeply aware of the controversy surrounding his work, he refused to change his style.
In 1889, Rodin shocked Paris with plaster figures of female lovers like the one shown here. His models were dancers from the Paris Opera who had been recommended to him by his friend, Edgar Degas.
“It may happen that I will no longer be understood at all, and yet, I will be making progress.” August Rodin
Musée Rodin, Hôtel Biron, Paris
One of my favorite places to visit in Paris is the Musée Rodin — in large part because of the elegant building that holds the collection and the gorgeous garden that whispers “leisurely stroll” and invites at least a few moments of rest on a shaded bench.
The property was originally built for a wealthy wig-maker in 1731, only a year before his death. Subsequently it changed illustrious hands two or three times before the neighborhood became demodé, as fashionable Parisians moved into new neighborhoods, on the Right Bank.
The heir to the fortune of the duc de Biron, the last of the aristocratic owners, was separated from his inheritance by the guillotine, in 1793. Commandeered by the State, the grand Hôtel de Biron became an embassy — first for the Papal legate, then for Russia — before being converted, in 1820, into a boarding school for the daughters of the aristocracy. The house was stripped of all luxurious decor and, with monies from the sale of the decorative woodwork, a chapel was built in 1876.
When the school closed in 1905, the maison was divided into boarders’ lodgings, and plans were initiated to raze the mansion entirely, to be replaced with an apartment block. This is where Auguste Rodin enters the picture.
Rodin first rented several rooms on the ground floor to store his sculptures, and soon he began using the space as his studio, working there and entertaining friends in the overgrown gardens. His fame grew, and by 1909 he was lobbying for the Hôtel Biron to become a museum of his work. This effectively put an end to the plan for a block of flats, and after the French government accepted Rodin’s bequest of all his works, archives and studio contents, the museum opened in 1919.
But the magnificent Hôtel Biron was looking a little tattered around the edges when I was last there, in the early 2000s. (Oh, no — has it been that long?!)
Although the Musée Rodin was able to locate and buy back many of the boiseries and decorative paintings that were original to the house, the 18th-century palace had not undergone full renovation since Rodin’s death. It was definitely in need of extensive updating and interior redesign to meet the standards of a modern museum.
Happily, in November, 2015, after a 3-year restoration project, the Musée Rodin in the Hôtel Biron reopened. The museum’s excellent website is loaded with information about the “new” museum and the renovation process.
Unfortunately, I don’t know when I’ll get back to the City of Light to see the “new” Musée Rodin. However — fortunately for all of us who don’t have a Paris trip pending — we can still have an elegant Rodin experience stateside. Hmmm … maybe it’s time to plan a trip to Philadelphia.
“Paris on the Parkway”
A short walk up the Franklin Parkway from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is our very own American Rodin Museum. Dating to 1929, it is a unique arrangement of an intimately-scaled Beaux-Arts building embraced by a formal French garden. The Museum was designed by French architect Paul Cret (1876–1945) and French landscape designer Jacques Gréber (1882–1962), opening in November 1929 to house more than 120 of the French sculptor’s works, including some of his most famous.
The collection was assembled by Jules E. Mastbaum, who made his fortune from movie theaters in Philadelphia. In just four years — the last four of his life — Mastbaum purchased bronzes, plaster studies, drawings, prints, letters and books, and by the time of his death in 1927 he had assembled the greatest collection of Rodin’s works outside of Paris.
The collection of more than 140 bronzes, marbles, and plasters, includes The Burghers of Calais (commissioned by the city council of Calais in 1885), and The Gates of Hell (commissioned by the French State in 1880 to be the doors for the Museum of Decorative Arts, which never materialized). The Gates of Hell was the defining project of Rodin’s career and — although it consumed him for almost four decades — he never finished the massive 18 x 12 ft. doors, which are covered with relief sculpture conjuring images of Dante’s inferno. Left in plaster at his death, the first bronze casts of The Gates of Hell were made for Jules Mastbaum. One appears at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, and the second was given to the Musée Rodin in Paris.
The collection also includes Rodin’s portraits of Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, and the women in Rodin’s life including Camille Claudel. (Claudel, herself, has recently been raised from near-obscurity by the opening a few weeks ago of Musée Camille Claudel. The new museum, located in Nogent-sur-Seine — a 1-hr train ride from the Gare de l’Est in Paris — holds the largest collection of her work in the world.)
To mark the occasion of the centenary of the artist’s death, the Rodin Museum in Phildelphia has installed an new exhibition that explores the artist’s intimate and powerful depictions of romantic love. Including marbles, bronzes, plasters, and terracottas produced over a thirty-year period, the installation reveals the variety of approaches, meanings, and allusions that Rodin brought to his intimate figure groupings to evoke emotional intensity. The show is named after Philadelphia’s copy of The Kiss, a marble commissioned by Jules Mastbaum in 1926 especially for his museum.
There are many great art-viewing opportunities in Philadelphia, but the Rodin Museum is special among them for its serene “Parisian-ness,” and the very pleasant garden, which recently underwent a three-year rejuvenation, following the spirit of the original plans by Cret and Gréber.
And while you’re in Philly, find more art in the city and surrounding area at ArGeek.art.