Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 5, 2012
Jane Mayo Roos Auguste Rodin New York: Phaidon, 2011. 208 pp.; 150 color ills.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (9780714841489)

Jane Mayo Roos’s beautifully illustrated new book, Auguste Rodin, surveys the key events of the sculptor’s career, focusing on his development as a professional sculptor, a journey that continued throughout his adult life. The thoughtful and well-conceived presentation delves into Rodin’s complicated family life and his cobbled-together education in the arts, and debunks some previously held myths about the sculptor. While it remains a challenge for any art historian to offer an original analysis of Rodin’s life and work, about which so much has been written, Roos covers familiar terrain with a fresh eye, and highlights aspects of his youth, training, and partnerships that are frequently ignored by scholars of Rodin. Written with a clarity suited to the general reader who has a casual interest in Rodin, the book introduces a wealth of information from primary sources. Unfortunately, like many Phaidon publications, the book has no citations, a dilemma for professors who have to implore students to use proper citations in the digital age. To rectify this issue somewhat for students and scholars, secondary sources are listed in the section called "Further Reading,” grouped by chapter.

Roos has devoted many years to the study of Rodin, beginning with her dissertation Rodin, Hugo, and the Panthéon: Art and Politics in the Third Republic (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1981). She has published an article in The Art Bulletin, “Rodin’s Monument to Victor Hugo: Art and Politics in the Third Republic” (68, no. 4 [December 1986]: 632–56), as well as the essay “Steichen’s Choice” in Rodin’s Monument to Victor Hugo (Los Angeles: Merrell, 1998). While her book Early Impressionism and the French State (1866–1874) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) does not deal directly with Rodin or sculpture, it considers the French art world within which Rodin came of age. In Auguste Rodin, Roos’s larger historical understanding of the period is evident in her placement of Rodin in relation to other important sculptors. In fact, she compares him with those who were more popular at the time, which results in a fuller picture of his career and the sculpture of his era.

Auguste Rodin is divided into seven chapters, and includes an introduction, a brief glossary of technical sculpture terms, a chronology, a short bibliography, and an index. Each of the short, manageable chapters covers a different chronological period in Rodin’s life, beginning with his early years, when his life was pervaded by hardship and poverty (chapter 1), and his education in sculpture, which consisted of studies at the Petite École, the Gobelins, and the Jardin des Plantes (chapter 2). This section is followed by a discussion of sculptural techniques in Rodin’s era (chapter 3). The book is then structured around Rodin’s most notable commissions such as the Gates of Hell (chapter 4); the Burghers of Calais (chapter 5); and the commissions for monuments to Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac (chapter 6). The book concludes with an overview of Rodin’s career from 1900 until his death in 1919, when he was immensely famous and his legacy assured through the establishment of the Musée Rodin in Paris (chapter 7).

In her introduction, Roos explains that while there are many publications on Rodin, the present text covers material that other studies of the artist lack, such as the negative criticisms of his work and newly discovered archival material that has not been translated for an English-reading audience. Roos does accomplish this, making extensive use of the rich primary resources in the archives of the Musée Rodin. One particularly interesting revelation in the book is that Rodin came to both admire and question the strengths and weaknesses of Michelangelo’s sculpture. After his trip to Italy, Rodin noted that he found the Italian master’s works “weak” in comparison with antique sculpture, that Michelangelo “worked little from nature,” and that “he had one figure, or type, that he reproduced everywhere and constantly” (37). This is in contrast to previous studies that have emphasized Rodin’s assumed obsession with Michelangelo (Flavio Fergonzi, Rodin and Michelangelo: A Study in Artistic Inspiration, exh. cat., Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1997). However, some of the material seems familiar even if the particular sources are not. Rodin’s chronic failure to acknowledge deadlines, the negative response to his works, and his well-documented difficulties with the societies and governments that had commissioned him are known points about his life. Thus the recently discovered correspondence between Omer Dewavrin, the mayor of Calais, and Rodin concerning the delay of the Burghers of Calais (144), for example, comes as no surprise.

Perhaps the most significant contribution Roos makes to current scholarship, not only to that about Rodin but also to the study of nineteenth-century sculpture in general, is the material presented in chapter 3, entitled “The Divine Role of Sculpture: Of Monuments and Materials.” Few students of sculpture, or even art historians, understand how works were produced in the nineteenth century. The diverse use of materials, the number of assistants that sculptors employed, and the various tools and machines (such as the pointing machine) are all essential to an understanding of the final product (64). Museums have tried to explain carving and casting processes at sculpture exhibitions in recent years, but the multitude of steps in these reproductive methods is confusing, particularly when they are shown out of context and isolated in vitrine displays. Furthermore, the fact that most sculptures were created through a modeling process that required the contribution of many workers in many stages complicates the idea of the original work of art. In navigating the difficult terrain of the sculptor’s role as an individual creator, Roos explains in chapter 2 why Rodin was accused of “life-moulding” in his sculpture Age of Bronze (1875–76). Roos also tackles the thorny issue of Rodin’s efforts for other sculptors, such as when he worked for Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824–1887), and in his own firm Van Rasbourgh-Rodin, which assisted with public projects in Brussels (32–34).

A number of important themes run throughout the book. Roos discusses the impact that the many tumultuous political events of the time had on Rodin’s life. Although he was not profoundly political himself, these events affected the safety of his youth (the civil war of 1848; 13); his role as a corporal in the National Guard (Franco-Prussian War, 1870–71; 30–1); the acceptance of his art, as with his portrait of Balzac (the Dreyfus Affair, 1894–1906; 149–50); and even his own funeral (World War I, 1914–18; 179–80). Every chapter touches upon the impact of these events on Rodin, enriching the historical and social context of the book.

Another theme that is discussed throughout the book is the importance of movement in Rodin’s sculpture. Rodin produced his over life-sized Saint John the Baptist Preaching (1878) at the same time that Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey were conducting their photographic experiments on motion, and Roos suggests, convincingly, that the photographers influenced the sculptor (42–43). The Burghers of Calais is the epitome of movement in modern sculpture; in comparing the Burghers to the visual principle of the Lumière brothers’ earliest moving pictures, Roos notes that “walking around Rodin’s Burghers creates on the viewer’s retina a similar sense of simultaneous continuity and change—and hence, the figures seem to move” (145). Rodin’s many works on the theme of dance are also discussed, and dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller, Ohta Hisa (Hanako), and Vaslav Nijinsky are presented as being among his most important models and/or inspirations (177).

Rodin’s complex relationship with Camille Claudel is another thread that is woven throughout the later chapters of the text. Their ten-year relationship was unquestionably critical to both of their artistic productions of the mid-1880s and early 1890s, and Rodin’s relationship with Claudel certainly inspired his most sensual works. The eccentricities of their relationship, complete with obsessive letters, rude behavior at dinner parties, and a strange love-contract written in Rodin’s hand (113), are most fully recounted in chapter 5, entitled “Beyond the Gates: Obsession, Celebrity and the Burghers of Calais.” Some scholars will take issue with the pardon Roos offers to both Rodin and Claudel’s brother Paul, whom many believe drove Camille to a psychiatric hospital and kept her there. These charges, according to Roos, “ignore the severity of her illness and the painfully real conditions of her deteriorated state” (151). With regard to their artworks, however, it seems hard to ignore the similarities between Claudel’s Sakountala (1888) and Rodin’s The Eternal Idol (ca. 1889), although Roos does not discuss them. She dispels the myths of Rodin as an insatiable lover and a Symbolist prophet, and instead presents him as he was, complete with his many personal and professional faults. In doing so, she humanizes him.

Readers will enjoy the handsome design of the book: a large, catalogue-style format (11 7/8 × 9 7/8 inches), combining reproductions in the text with larger-format, sumptuous photographs after each chapter. The most impressive of these are the two-page photographic layouts depicting white plaster sculptures against black backgrounds. Most of the images of Rodin’s sculptures and drawings are reproduced in color, a rare decision for these media. The book also contains some of the best-known period photographs by the major photographers who took images of Rodin’s work, including Jacques-Ernest Bulloz, Eugène Druet, Stephen Haweis and Henry Coles, and Eduard (later Edward) Steichen. Overall, Auguste Rodin presents a succinct, careful, and measured consideration of the artist. It is excellent as both a starting point for the general reader and as a resource for the sculpture specialist.

Caterina Y. Pierre
Professor, Department of Art, City University of New York, Kingsborough Community College