Auguste Rodin is considered the founder of modern sculpture. He was a skilled artist capable of sculpting figures with tremendous precision, but he also innovated by combining portions of different cast pieces in his studio creating sculptural mashups. For me, one of his greatest achievements was his ability to make his sculptures of monumental figures seem human and relatable.
Born November 12, 1840, he was the second child in a working class family. At that time, education was a bit different and he was largely self-taught.
He began drawing around age 10 and from age 14-17, he attended Petite Ecole, a school that specialized in art and math. Rodin studied painting and drawing there.
Rodin’s teacher Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran would encourage his students to visit the Louvre and study the works then draw them from memory. The idea behind this practice was to develop their eye and their own unique visual language because working from memory would reveal what parts they focused on, what was important to them and help them develop their own style.
While Rodin recalled that teacher fondly and was appreciative of the chance to develop his own style, it was not immediately helpful in his artistic career.
Rodin applied to Ecole de Beaux-Arts with some of his sculptures but was rejected twice. The people in charge at that time were largely focused on neoclassical works and Rodin simply didn’t fit that style.
He left school in 1857 and worked as a craftsman making decorative architectural embellishments and other objects for about two decades. During this time he did briefly consider another career path but was again met with rejection. He wanted to join a Catholic order, but Saint Peter Julian Eymard, told him to focus on sculpture.
He continued work as a craftsman producing decorative art and studied a bit more under an animal sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye. This was tremendously influential on Rodin as he learned to capture the muscular structure of the animals and active poses capturing movement.
In this episode, we discussed his piece, The Burghers of Calais, which is considered among his greatest works today, but it was a bit controversial when first unveiled. Part of the controversy of this piece, but also the brilliance of it is that it does not show that first brave volunteer as a singular, heroic giant of history. Rather than romanticizing the past, Rodin shows all of the figures and the range of emotions experienced by those men in the moments as they walked out to sacrifice themselves.