Commissioned to honor one of France's greatest novelists, Rodin spent seven years preparing for Monument to Balzac, studying the writer's life and work, posing models who resembled him, and ordering clothes to his measurements. Ultimately, though, Rodin's aim was less Honoré de Balzac's physical likeness than an idea or spirit of the man, and a sense of his creative vitality: "I think of his intense labor, of the difficulty of his life, of his incessant battles and of his great courage. I would express all that."
Several studies for the work are nudes, but Rodin finally clothed the figure in a robe inspired by the dressing gown that Balzac often wore when writing. (He liked to work at night.) The effect is to make the figure a monolith, a single, phallic, upward-thrusting form crowned by the craggy ridges and cavities that define the head and face. Monument to Balzac is a visual metaphor for the author's energy and genius, yet when the plaster original was exhibited in Paris in 1898, it was widely attacked. Critics likened it to a sack of coal, a snowman, a seal, and the literary society that had commissioned the work dismissed it as a "crude sketch." Rodin retired the plaster model to his home in the Paris suburbs. It was not cast in bronze until years after his death.