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YOUTH AND EARLY WORK OF RODIN—HIS FIRST ATTEMPTS; HIS TIME AT CARRIER’S—HIS STAY IN BRUSSELS AND WORK THERE—”THE AGE OF BRASS” AT THE SALON OF 1877; THE INCIDENT ARISING IN REGARD TO IT—THE “ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST”; BEGINNING OF RODIN’S REPUTATION
Auguste Rodin was born in Paris, in the Val de Grâce quarter, on the 14th of November, 1840, of a family of humble employés. The child at first attended a day-school in the Rue Saint Jacques, then went to a boarding-school at Beauvais, kept by his uncle. At fourteen he returned to Paris and entered the school of art in the Rue de l’École de Médecine. A period of desperate industry at once set in for him.
In addition to the lessons of this little school, where from eight to twelve young Rodin learned the elements of drawing, and later on of modelling, copied drawings in crayons and reliefs in the Louis XVI. style, he went twice a week to[Pg 2] Barye’s classes at the Jardin des Plantes; “Barye,” he says, “did not teach us much; he was always worried and tired when he came, and always told us that it was very good.” But Rodin, together with Barye’s son and some other lads, had arranged a sort of studio for themselves in a cellar of the museum, making seats of tree-trunks, and already attempting sculpture. At six in the morning he used to go to draw animals, then he copied the anatomical objects in the Museum. He remembers that, being too poor to buy an anatomy of the horse, he copied it piece by piece. After Barye’s class, or the classes of the Rue de l’École de Médecine, he would lunch on a bit of bread and some chocolate and hasten to the Louvre, and in the evenings he would go to draw and study at the Gobelins. Then he worked for a maker of ornaments, since it was necessary to earn a living. From fourteen to seventeen years old Rodin led this fevered existence. “In those three years,” he has often repeated to me, “I came to understand the meaning of a drawing from the life, the synthesis of my art, and the rhythm of animals. I remember that a companion of those days, of whom I have since lost sight, made me see,[Pg 3] in a couple of hours, on a very true and simple principle, an observation of the necessary equilibria of movement not taught in the schools, the secret of the plans of a figure. That lesson has influenced my whole life. As for the ornament-maker, in whose workshop I earned a scanty wage, I long deplored being constrained to do so, but I have since thought with affection of it, understanding that there are as many sources of beauty in ornament as in the face.”
His work at the ornament-maker’s allowed Rodin to earn his living as an art-worker and as a strenuous and silent student; and he vegetated in this manner until he attained his twenty-fourth year, never ceasing, in spite of his poverty and of his daily labour, to work at sculpture. Then he offered himself as an assistant and pupil at the studio of Carrier-Belleuse. Carrier-Belleuse was then at the full height of his reputation as an elegant sculptor, whose real gifts of spontaneous invention were being rendered insipid by his desire to please. Rodin remained six years at Carrier-Belleuse’s, and worked there without gaining much instruction. But he meditated and taught himself. From his twenty-fourth year dates the head known as The Man with the Broken Nose, which is a[Pg 4] masterly work, strongly inspired by the antique, and already foreshadowing all his future. This clay head, which the young man sent to the Salon of 1864, was refused. From time to time Rodin tried to compete for admission to the École des Beaux Arts; he was thrice refused. This disgusted him with the usual career upon which his lack of any income invited him to enter. His ideas, his independent temper, his presentiments, and his love of an art personal to himself, showed him that he would never gain anything, and never have the academic discipline necessary to succeed. He took advantage of an opportunity. Carrier-Belleuse had a commission at Brussels and did not care to execute it; Rodin got permission from his master, who esteemed him, to undertake it in his name, and, after having spent six years in the fashionable sculptor’s studio, he went to Brussels, where Rude had already spent a considerable time. He was destined to remain there until 1877, working with the Belgian sculptor, Van Rasbourg, at the pediment of the Bourse, where his sign manual may still be seen, as it may upon some caryatids of a house on the Boulevard d’Anspach and upon some other works.
Of this exile at Brussels we know that the artist retains[Pg 5] only kindly memories, but he is too sparing of personal details to enable us to analyse with any certainty this part of the life of a tenacious, concentrated man who, entirely occupied with his dreams, with indefatigable study, the anxieties of poverty, and his lonely pride, had no desire to be known.
“I worked very hard over there,” he says, to sum up the matter. It is certain that Rodin was at this time already in possession of that formidable will which led to his success, and also of that disdainful obstinacy which prefers obscurity and lack of success to any compromise. He speaks little or not at all of the drama that was being worked out in him at this time, or of the way in which he refined and cultivated his perceptions, nor of the painting lessons that he took of Lecoq de Boisbaudron, in company of Alphonse Legros, who became his intimate friend; but this influence of Lecoq de Boisbaudron must not pass unnoted. It does great honour to that master teacher who has formed so many eminent modern artists. His seven years’ stay at Brussels allowed Rodin to live modestly but decently, amid quiet surroundings, to reflect, and to shape himself intellectually; it was a sort of spiritual retreat that did him good, apart from the fact that he gained[Pg 6] a thorough knowledge of the Flemish Primitives and of the Gothic masters who were so strongly to influence him. No biography, however, could render comprehensible the way in which, for example, the brain of a low-born and poor child was able, amid poverty and incessant manual labour, to grow into the wide and deep brain of a thinker familiar with the synthesis of art; these things are the secrets of personality.
Rodin was destined to emerge suddenly from obscurity at the age of thirty-seven, that is to say, at a time of life when many men think themselves hopelessly sacrificed, and when he had already produced much and suffered much; for it may be said that the whole of his work from 1855-75 is unknown and lost, and yet what labour it represents! Except The Man with the Broken Nose, none of it is ever mentioned; the pediment of the Bourse at Brussels is crumbling away, time is devouring Rodin’s work upon it no less than Van Rasbourg’s; he will not speak of the many figures that he made to the order of Carrier-Belleuse and interpreted according to his own free inspiration; and he only occasionally alludes to a large figure that was broken in a household removal, and was, in his opinion, one of the best he ever made in his life. In 1876[Pg 7] The Man with the Broken Nose, in marble, was admitted to the Salon. This determined Rodin in 1877 to send in his statue, The Age of Brass, and this gave rise to an incident, the very injustice of which was to bring him into notice.
The jury, astonished by this work, admitted it, but accused the artist of having taken a cast from life, so perfect was the modelling. The practice of taking a cast from the life is unhappily frequent, and we know he praised academicians who employ this artistic fraud without any scruple. Rodin protested. He had had a Belgian soldier for his model in Brussels: he had photographs taken of him and sent them to the jury, who did not even open the packet, and persisted in the allegations. Three sculptors, however, Desbois, Fagel, and Lefèvre, who thenceforward became Rodin’s friends, protested in his favour, some critics spoke of the affair, and Rodin’s work made so much impression that the secretary of the Fine Arts, Turquet, bought The Age of Brass (which stood for a long time in the Luxembourg Gardens and is now in the museum).
Rodin waited until 1880 to exhibit St. John the Baptist.[Pg 8] Meanwhile Turquet had conceived a friendship for him and wished to wipe out the unjust accusation brought against The Age of Brass. The inspectors of the Fine Arts department disowned the purchase of that work and declared it cast from life. Rodin, discouraged, remained silent; a chance saved him. As he was continuing to look for work in order to support his young wife and himself, and to defray the expenses of his art, he chanced to be executing a group of children in a composition for the sculptor Boucher. His facility was prodigious; Boucher saw him improvise the group in a few hours and went, thunderstruck, to tell some of his friends. He had the honesty to declare that such a man, having done thus before his own eyes, was capable of making The Age of Brass. Chapu, Thomas, Falguière, Delaplanche, Chaplin, Carrier-Belleuse, and Paul Dubois insisted loyally, and Rodin’s cause was won. Turquet, delighted, and free to act, bought the St. John the Baptist and gave Rodin a commission. Then the artist answered: “I am ready to fulfil it. But to prove surely that I do not take casts from the life I will make little bas-reliefs—an immense work with small figures, and I think of taking the subject from Dante.” This was the[Pg 9] origin of that celebrated Gate of Hell, which is not yet completed, and which, continually handled afresh, has finally become the central motive of all Rodin’s dreams, the storehouse of his ideas and researches.
From that time forward (1880) Rodin was what he is to-day; he had emerged, once for all, from obscurity, and went on to display without interruption and without hesitation the succession of works that have rendered him celebrated. He knew his path, his method, his field of thought. From the age of sixteen to that of forty he had, by unknown persistent labour, been ripening his individuality. And his work, from The Age of Brass to the Balzac, is but a visible development of that hidden period. The period from the Balzac to our own day testifies to a new theory that he has framed. But one may say that the Rodin of the years from 1877 to 1897 was entirely contained in the unknown man of the preceding period. It was, indeed, that slow preparation that gave to the revelation of the works that appearance of certainty, of sudden mastery, which so struck people’s minds. We are accustomed to see artists make youthful successes with works of brilliant promise, then we follow their course and see them growing[Pg 10] greater. Rodin came to light in twenty-four hours. He was thought to be a young beginner; his past struggle was unknown; people were aware of him only when he had done with scruples and had, as he says, “made peace with himself.” From this fact came his prestige. From it came also his well-defined attitude in regard to academic art.-
We need to recall the graceful, effeminate, and conventional statuary of the generation from 1865 to 1875 in order to comprehend fully what The Age of Brass and St. John the Baptist brought into the exhibitions when they made their appearance there. Rough truth, a sense of movement, an intense realism, an absolute scorn of the pleasing, a lofty style, a deep feeling of organic life, power due to the eager love of form, of muscular formation and physical activity; all these things inevitably shocked the gentle sculptors who were enamoured of the academic style and of mythology. Moreover, Rodin was unknown; he had no claim, knew nobody, had never asked for anything, and was a son of the people. That Carrier-Belleuse’s former workman should take upon himself to make statues all by himself aroused scorn. His technical skill was so great that there could be no possibility[Pg 11] of denying it. Therefore, in spite, the accusation of casting from the life was invented. The accusers did not reflect upon the splendid testimonial that would be given to the artist if he should succeed in proving that his skill alone had created this perfection. The amusing thing is that the same people who declared this skill too great to be anything but a reproduction, accused Rodin, twenty years later, over his Balzac, of not knowing his craft! Apart from this question of fact, and these professional jealousies, the style of these works could not fail to displease. In them there was already a sort of symbolic and savage beauty, which has become a characteristic of Rodin’s art. The pained, awakening movement of the man in The Age of Brass, the gesture of St. John the Baptist, and still more his wild face with its open mouth, were so much outside the usual conventions as to make everybody feel that here was an artist resolved to take no account of the “École” and its principles. These two splendid studies of the nude already contained a very special thought. Rodin, therefore, was hated in the first place as a man who would be revolutionary. He was hated because he was powerful, because he emerged suddenly from obscurity, and because he was felt[Pg 12] to possess an obstinate individuality. It was also for these very reasons that warm sympathies went out to Rodin from among artists opposed to the spirit of the “École,” and from independent writers who divined in him a man capable of expressing in his art thoughts and emotions that had ceased to be found in art.
Categories: English Literature