“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. Be a man before being an artist!”
For Auguste Rodin, the sculpture St. John the Baptist Preaching began with a knock on his studio door. “An Italian entered,” the artist recalled, a rural laborer named Pignatelli who had recently arrived in Paris. “The peasant undressed, climbed onto the table as if he had never posed before; he stood firmly, head raised, torso straight, carrying himself at the same time on both legs, open like a compass. The movement was so right, so clear, and so true that I cried out: ‘But it’s a man walking!’” Rodin resolved to convey in sculpture the balanced yet dynamic stride of his new model, a man whose lean body reminded him of the itinerant preacher John the Baptist. The completed sculpture, however, would diverge from traditional representations of this historical figure regarded as a prophet by Christians. Stripped of the objects that typically accompany the preacher in Christian art, Rodin’s John the Baptist appears as an ordinary man rather than a saint. “I only copied the model,” the artist later explained. By training his eyes on Pignatelli’s hardened features and impromptu gesture, Rodin reimagined a long-established subject for the modern era. And in doing so, he reimagined modern sculpture.
Rodin began St. John the Baptist Preaching in 1878 and exhibited a plaster cast of the work at the Paris Salon of 1880. During this period, the artist’s studies of the head, chest, and legs of his model began to interest him in their own right. Soon, he abandoned the idea that sculptures should depict only intact bodies, stating that a carefully crafted hand or a torso could be as expressive as a face or even an entire figure. This innovative approach to the human form—the repeated examination of its component parts, both in isolation and in concert with one another—eventually resulted in The Walking Man, a headless and armless figure adapted from preparatory works for St. John the Baptist Preaching. Rodin displayed this unconventional work at his first solo show, held in Paris in 1900, then proceeded to include small and large versions in exhibitions throughout Europe. While many critics deemed The Walking Man incomplete and therefore imperfect, the artist himself considered it one of his best works precisely because, in his words, “all is not there.”
The same year that Rodin exhibited St. John the Baptist Preaching, he received a commission from the French government for a monumental doorway to a future museum of decorative arts. Sketching ideas on paper and in clay, the artist developed a complex program for the portal based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 14th-century epic poem that follows the lengthy journey of its narrator through Christian hell, purgatory, and paradise. It was the poem’s account of the underworld that most captivated Rodin, setting him and his assistants on their own multiyear journey to produce The Gates of Hell. This project, like the artist’s previous sculptures, modernizes its canonical source. Rodin included specific characters from the Divine Comedy, such as The Three Shades, an enigmatic trio that stands above the doorframe and—in a way that anticipates the importance of seriality to 20th-century sculpture—comprises three casts of the same figure. Yet Rodin interspersed the Shades and other characters with his own highly personal visions of suffering inspired by art, literature, religion, and mythology. The result is a churning composition of over 100 figures and figural groups shaped by years of studio experimentation. Ultimately, the museum for which the doors were intended never materialized, though Rodin and his collaborators managed to construct a full-sized plaster cast by 1900. In fact, the artist would derive independent sculptures from The Gates of Hell for the rest of his life, routinely selecting figures from the work, like The Thinker, to be enlarged or reduced, carved in marble or cast in bronze. Repetition, during these years, became a key formal strategy.
In addition, Rodin continued to secure new commissions that brought widespread recognition—and often, controversy. One such commission came from a literary society that wished to erect a statue of the novelist Honoré de Balzac. As with The Gates of Hell, Rodin scrutinized his subject for years. While a more traditional artist might have turned to ancient Greek or Roman sculptures as models, Rodin instead gathered visual and verbal portraits of Balzac, who had died in 1850, and hired models resembling the writer; he even obtained made-to-order clothing with Balzac’s measurements. Next, Rodin generated numerous drawn and sculpted studies, variously presenting Balzac as young and middle-aged, as striding and reclining, as naked and dressed. After seven years of intensive work, a plaster cast of the Monument to Balzac was at last unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1898. Its abstracted form, pronounced slant, and coarse surface divided the art world, prompting the critic Jules Claretie to state that “one had to be for or against Rodin.” The society that had commissioned the sculpture was “against,” refusing to accept it, while numerous writers, artists, and politicians defended Rodin. The artist himself was devastated but defiant, convinced that his Balzac had made sculpture modern.
Annemarie Iker, independent scholar, 2021
Note: opening quote is from Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 14.